Let's start with a small exercise. Go to the web and look for images of Middle Eastern militants carrying machine guns and training in the desert, and then look up images for homegrown American militias training for battle in some wooded compound in the heartland.
Here is what you will notice -- the nationalities, uniforms, and setting may be different but the weapons and the paranoid, jingoistic, violent temperament are exactly the same.
Now, let's talk about the Second Amendment.
During a recent discussion about gun control on HuffPost Live, I realized something very obvious that I had missed for years. In all the rhetoric that flies around, few people seem to consider the Amendment in full. Here is the actual text:
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.
In a way -- and the way that conservatives interpret it, the Amendment is clear. Americans have the right to bear arms, and the right to form a militia. But three things that are not clear are:
1. What comprises "arms"; 2. Whether the "free State" in the Amendment has to be protected from its own government or from a foreign aggressor (such as the British at that time), and; 3. Whether the term "well regulated" means well disciplined or with a clear framework of laws.
These three things are critical to our understanding of the Second Amendment, and for figuring out how best to apply it today.
In its 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, the Supreme Court said that the Second Amendment protects a person's right to possess a firearm and to use it for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. This "individual" right is different from the "collective" right of citizens to form a militia, but serves the same purpose, since armed individuals make up a militia. But the ruling still does not clear up the questions posed above or clarify the wider intent of the Second Amendment.
On the issue of the definition of "arms," I accept that private citizens should be able to buy firearms to protect their home, but protection of the home does not require or justify the stockpiling of dozens of weapons (you only have two hands, how many guns can you fire at a time?) or the ability to purchase high-capacity assault weapons such as the semi-automatic assault rifle used by the gunman in Aurora, Colorado, which had a 100-round drum magazine capable of firing 50 to 60 rounds per minute. Those are not firearms used for self-defense, but military weapons used for shooting at armies, and in civilian hands, instruments of mass murder. The application of the Second Amendment to protect high impact weapons like these is unconscionable, beneficial only to homicidal maniacs and gun manufacturers, and ultimately, dangerous.
In fact, even the most conservative Supreme Court Justice, Justice Antonin Scalia, admitted recently that when the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment, people were already prohibited from carrying weapons that were deemed "affrighting," which is pretty true of modern assault weapons.
As for the security of a "free State," the Founding Fathers likely meant the most imminent threat against the newly formed United States at that time, namely a foreign power, and not our own government. That is not to say that they did not want safeguards against our democracy turning into a dictatorship, but not necessarily through the vehicle of the Second Amendment. For that they created checks and balances for our political system, including limits on the power of the Executive Branch of the government. I know that some constitutional scholars would disagree with this but then they disagree with each other too, and even if I am not a scholar, I am an educated citizen of the United States and have the right to determine whether the way in which our Constitution is interpreted makes sense.
The question is not just one of the Founding Fathers' intent, but their purpose. Whatever the literal meaning of their words, they were visionary leaders of a nation conceived in independent thought, and would never have wanted Americans more than two centuries later to be restrained from applying their own independent thought and intelligence to the running of the country.
Finally, in examining the phrase "well regulated" militia, let's get one thing straight: the Founding Fathers were freedom fighters, not gun-happy militants. If the rhetoric of the extreme right were to be believed, there is little difference between George Washington and Osama Bin Laden, since they both took up arms for a cause they believed in deeply. The difference is that George Washington's cause was a noble one, whereas Bin Laden's cause was a murderous one, which makes the former a hero and the latter a psychopath.
Given all this, it should be obvious that "well regulated" needs to be exactly that, even if the original meaning is ambiguous. While it is fine for private citizens to own guns, and even permissible for them to form groups to protect their community, it is also the right of the government to ensure that the militias themselves do not become a threat to the security of our nation. If you are paying attention, you will see how this ties very neatly with the next phrase in the Second Amendment, namely "being necessary for the security of a free State." The Founding Fathers wanted to give Americans the power to defend themselves, but they also wanted to ensure that our own countrymen did not become a threat to us. Only with the emphasis on "well regulated" does the concept of a militia not run counter to the security of the state. In any other situation, the militia would be reduced to a gang, and I cannot imagine any patriotic American accepting that.
Gun control will continue to be a hotly debated topic for years to come, and with the NRA pumping huge sums of money into Congress, it is a safe bet that even moderate gun laws, such as stronger licensing checks, longer waiting periods to secure guns, limits on the number of guns that any one person is allowed to own, and a crackdown on unscrupulous internet vendors of weapons and ammunition, will be constantly challenged.
But that does not mean that we should not have a national discussion on this issue. In the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is a heroic figure that battles the forces of anarchy and mindless violence to protect the people of Gotham. Nothing we do will bring back the tragic victims of Colorado or Wisconsin, but we can honor them by rising up ourselves against the perverted interpretation of our Constitution, which is not patriotic but an insult to our Founding Fathers.
If we don't, we will never get to a reasonable place. And more people will die.
Sanjay Sanghoee is the author of two thriller novels. Please visit www.sanghoee.com for more details and to sign up for updates.