All the Islanders I know who own guns are highly responsible with and knowledgeable about their firearms. That said, editorial cartoonist Drew Sheneman of the New Jersey Star-Ledger recently reminded his readers of the Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, with an accompanying illustration. The amendment reads: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.”
His drawing portrayed the weapons a person carried in 18th century America: a frontloading flintlock musket, a flintlock pistol, and saber.
That was it.
For most historians, the phrase “to bear arms” referred to service in a military unit, not individual ownership. For the true originalist interpreter of the Constitution, that is, those who find that the legitimate meaning of each of its provisions must derive from the time they were added to the document, it would appear that military service was all that was meant 231 years ago. And the weapons protected would be relegated to those depicted by Sheneman.
In 2008, however, originalist Justice Antonin Scalia, with a bare majority of the Supreme Court, ruled otherwise. He wrote that the phrase “has nothing to do with soldiering,” and then went on to conclude that the amendment covers modern-day weapons with large-capacity magazines and military-style weapons like the AR-15.
That front-loaded flintlock musket weighed around 14 pounds, the AR-15 six and a half. A good shooter could lock and load a musket to fire maybe two or three rounds a minute. The AR-15 empties its 30-round magazine in five seconds. A fully automatic AR-15 can fire 700 to 1,000 rounds a minute.
The outcome is obvious to anyone who has followed recent bleak and shocking news concerning mass murders: Buffalo, Uvalde, Tulsa, and on and on and on. While our population stands at around 327 million people, the number of guns in America stands at over 400 million. No one has all the answers to solve the problem of so many guns in the hands of so many troubled and socially irascible people.
Liberals want to ban military-style guns, as Congress did from 1994 to 2004. They want to reduce the number of rounds in magazines, have detailed background checks before purchases, eliminate so-called “ghost” guns that have no registration numbers, and more.
Conservatives favor treatment for those with mental health problems because, they contend, mass shootings result from those who are deeply troubled. They also support greater school security, like training teachers to be armed or increasing the number of school police and security guards. Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) recently suggested that schools should have only one entry door, though the fire hazard that could result is obvious. Many officials, including Republicans, condemned the idea.
The most extreme right-wing gun enthusiasts argue that any limitation on gun ownership violates the Second Amendment. Besides, once one gun safety or gun control proposal is enacted, the door will be open to seize their guns. And, they add, gun control methods will not do any good anyway: The bad guys will always find a way to obtain a weapon.
So the reality is that over the past several years, Congress has been unable and unwilling to pass any legislation that will ensure the safety of the American people, and especially our children. As of the end of May, the number of mass shootings (those leaving four or more dead or injured) so far in 2022 stood at 213. More recently, there were 20 deaths in nine days.
This is unsustainable. Democrats and Republicans can find a middle way forward by taking a first step they can agree upon. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative, has observed that he believes “the people drawn to this kind of terrorism are overwhelmingly of a type — young, troubled, socially awkward men.”
So let’s begin there, with a few modest proposals. Perhaps age requirements can be imposed on anyone seeking to purchase guns with large-capacity magazines, and military-style weapons. Add to that more and enforceable so-called “red-flag” laws that allow interventions to stop troubled and potentially dangerous people from obtaining these weapons. And substantial background checks that include, as Douthat suggests, “not just a criminal background check, in other words, but some kind of basic social or psychological screening, combining a mental health check, a social media audit, and testimonials from two competent adults.”
These are modest first steps. But if we cannot even agree on these reasonable moves, then we will be doomed to the depiction by another editorial cartoonist, Bill Bramhall of the New York Daily News: His drawing shows a long line of mourners carrying small children’s coffins with the caption, “Open carry.”
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for many years.