Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Right to Bear Arms?

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution
    The U.S. Congress is currently debating proposed gun control legislation, and it appears at this point that there will not be a ban on military-style assault weapons. The President had appointed a commission headed by Vice-President Joe Biden, which conducted hearings and issued recommendations. Among other proposals under consideration are universal background checks, a national gun registry, and a ban on high-capacity magazine clips. As expected, all of this has met with stern resistance from the National Rifle Association, which has traditionally opposed all restrictions on gun ownership. At this point there appears to be too much political opposition to a ban on assault weapons.
    The right to bear arms is enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. But what exactly does it mean? The amendment ties gun ownership to "a well regulated militia" being "necessary to the security of a free state." The amendment is modeled on similar provisions in the Virginia and Pennsylvania constitutions, which explain that "a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained in arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of a free state." The underlying idea is that the people possess a natural right to self-defense, that governments possess only the powers granted to them by the people, that the right to bear arms is a bulwark of individual liberty, and that the safest way for a democratic society to provide for its national defense is through an organized militia composed of the entire body of the citizens themselves.
    In actual practice, however, the militia concept did not work very well. During the War of 1812 the militia proved unreliable in the field, and it wasn't even clear under whose control they were, the state or the federal governments. Thus it became painfully obvious that the federal government would have to rely more heavily on a regular army.
    Originally members of the militia were each expected to provide himself with a "good musket." In the early 20th Century, however, the militia were organized into the "National Guard," and provision was made for the federal government to issue the militia the same military equipment used by the Regular Army. This, of course, would include all of the weapons of modern warfare: tanks, aircraft, missiles and artillery. These, in turn, are kept under lock and key in designated arsenals. Thus there is no longer a need for the "militia" to have their own firearms.
    What, then, does the "right to bear arms" mean today? First of all, it has to be acknowledged that what the Founding Fathers specifically had in mind were military weapons. They were not enshrining in the Constitution the sacred right to go deer hunting. Rather, the Second Amendment serves a more serious purpose: the right of self-defense, and, by extension, the right of armed resistance to the government.
    But can the Christian countenance such an idea? Our Lord specifically enjoined non-resistance. "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also . . . But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matt. 5:39, 44; NKJV). Given our Lord's plain instructions, can we really justify shooting someone?
    Any attempt to ban military assault rifles would be frankly unconstitutional. Yet it must be borne in mind that a firearm is a lethal weapon: it has the potential to kill human beings. There is an obvious need to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and madmen. Certainly a prudent regard for public safety would require the registration of firearms and universal background checks. If a license is required to operate a motor vehicle, if proof of age is required to purchase alcohol and tobacco products, then why not to own a weapon? If the "militia" consists of the whole body of the citizenry, shouldn't it be "well regulated"?
    But beyond that can a Christian really justify owning a semiautomatic assault rifle, specifically designed to kill as many people as possible quickly and efficiently? We hesitate to judge here. I once lived in a crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood (in Philadelphia) and know the dangers fist hand. But I have never owned a gun, and have lived to tell the story. Let each examine his own conscience and act accordingly.

Other blog posts of interest (click on link):
You Shall not Murder 
An Eye for an Eye 
Peace on Earth 

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