The Gun Control Conundrum

I know we're always told by the NRA after mass gun-shooting tragedies that "Now isn't the time to discuss gun control." (And in fairness, they're right - the time to discuss gun control is before the shootings.) So, hopefully enough time has passed after the most-recent mass shooting in Louisiana, because an awkward contradiction has kept nagging at me.

If one is a strict Constitutionalist, if one believes firmly in original intent, if one believes in the exact words the Founding Fathers wrote with no wiggle room for modern day interpretation, if one believes implicitly in the Second Amendment as written, that Americans have the right to bear arms --

Well, what I've been trying to wrap my mind around is the interpretative argument that convicted felons shouldn't have the right to bear arms. Or that the mentally ill shouldn't be allowed to own a gun. Or that children shouldn't be allowed to bring guns into a school. Or that anyone should be able to own an anti-aircraft missile or tank or high-grade homemade bomb.

They're all Americans, after all. They didn't give up their citizenship when they went to jail. They didn't stop being American because they're mentally ill. They didn't relinquish their rights as a U.S. citizen under the constitution just because they aren't old enough for having rights. Missiles and bombs didn't stop being arms.

I'm not saying I believe any of this. I think there are limitations on some rights. I think it's proper to interpret the Constitution as life changes around us. Whatever the amendment, whatever the law.

But if someone doesn't believe that, if someone insists deep into the core of their being that the Constitution means what it says, word for word, and it doesn't change because the world does, then I don't see how such a person can argue anything but that convicted felons and the mentally ill and children and more all have the right to carry a gun -- or anti-aircraft missile.

The Constitution doesn't offer wiggle room. It doesn't say that Americans have the right to bear arms - unless (asterisk) you've been to prison or if only you weren't mentally ill. Or if it can shoot down a jet. Those are all conditions set by later interpretation.

(As was the later interpretation that the Second Amendment applies to individuals. As Jeffrey Toobin writes here in the New Yorker, until the 1980s the Supreme Court had always interpreted the right to bear arms literally, as written in the original text - for 200 years - to be meant solely for state militias.)

The thing is, once you do accept those reasonable interpretations about convicts and military-grade weaponry that everyone accepts (well, okay, everyone but far-right survivalists), then you are accepting that there are limitations on the Second Amendment. You are accepting that "The Right to Bear Arms" is not boundless. You are accepting that control of guns is proper and necessary and right.

And that brings us to the ultimate crux of the matter then. For once you accept that there not only are but should be limitations to the Second Amendment -- which we've just established that most people do -- it is no longer a question of should there be gun control, but rather merely what controls and regulations should be accepted.

It's like the old story, attributed to many famous men, starting with Lord Beaverbrook, of his Lordship asking a dowager if she would sleep with him for a million pounds. Yes, was the answer. Would you sleep with me for a single pound?, the gentleman then asked. What do you take me for?!, the indignant woman cried. "We have established that, madam," the fellow replied. "What we are haggling about now is the price."

If you accept therefore that convicted felons, the mentally ill and children shouldn't have guns, that citizens shouldn't be able to own anti-aircraft missiles and homemade bombs, then the argument about unbending Original Intent gun control is over. Gone. Vanished. We have settled that gun control and limits to the Second Amendment are legal and needed -- what we are haggling about is the price.

And if one doesn't accept that, if one thinks that convicted felons, the mentally ill and children should have guns, and that all Americans should be allowed to own anti-aircraft missiles, then it is your right to make that case. But a) the Supreme Court says you're wrong, and b) Good luck getting anywhere with that.

What we are haggling about is the price.


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.