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Misreading the Right to Bear Arms

Confronting gun ownership is an argument about violence -- not about autonomy and freedom.

Fundamentalism is often associated with religion, specifically when literal interpretations of religious texts drive dogma.

Religious fundamentalism exposes how commitments to the material thing can often create behaviors that contradict the larger principles. Consider how interpreting the scripturally-based truism "spare the rod, spoil the child" (Proverbs 13:24) as license for physically spanking or beating children stands in stark contrast to the recurring messages from Jesus about non-violence and the sanctity of children, and all living creatures in powerless circumstances.

Fundamentalism fails because it honors objects over principles. Such is also the case in political fundamentalism, specifically when a gun fetish trumps commitments to liberty and freedom.

Americans, for example, are a gun-loving people who have committed to the right to bear arms without considering the larger principle this founding right sought to protect. In the wake of the unimaginable tragedy of children and teachers killed at an elementary school, political leadership and the public must confront foundational commitments to the right to bear arms—the tension among ownership, freedom, and safety. The horror of the Sandy Hill Elementary shooting suggests it is past time to turn our recurring grief into action.


The Second Amendment reads in full: "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." The popular phrasing, "the right to bear arms," is a clear signal of how political fundamentalism replaces the nuance of principles.

First, the context of gun ownership is clearly established in the right—the need for a "well regulated militia." In the eighteenth century, in the wake of the Revolution, the American mind recognized the essential, and not just symbolic, role of guns in the lives and freedom of people.

Guns were essential for food, in many circumstances, but guns were the mechanism for some degree of equality between the ruler and the ruled. During the late 1700s, then, guns and human autonomy and liberation were literally equal. The thing and the principle were blurred, and the founding documents show that fact in the carefully detailed language of the Second Amendment.

Historically, however, the U.S. has codified and embraced in the popular psyche that gun ownership itself (independent of the principles that ownership represents—"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state") is the right we must defend—and by making this transition, and ignoring the principle for the thing, twenty-first century America is a society trapped in political fundamentalism.

I happen to harbor no fear of the U.S. collapsing into a military state or police state; thus, I find the idea that each American needs to own a gun in order to form a militia if either a military or police action comes to fruition to take away our liberties to be baseless.

I also suspect that if either act of totalitarianism was ever to occur (somehow the people in power turning the military or police forces, composed entirely of citizens, against citizens), armed citizens would have little chance of overcoming the force of our military or police weaponry.

Beyond these fears, however, I find that our obsessive and misplaced commitment to the right to bear arms is, in fact, allowing the far more likely forces to successfully take from each American the exact principle the Second Amendment sought to protect—the right to human autonomy that was literally and symbolically represented by gun ownership in the 1700s.

As a republic, our representative democracy provides basic securities that have replaced each American's need to own a gun by the formation of police forces, justice systems, and the military. These proxies of our gun ownership are intended to protect our freedom and safety. A better concern in 2012 would be not if anyone can own a gun, but whether our police force, justice system, and military are in fact fulfilling their purposes (and often they are not).

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