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“God Guns & Guts Made America Free”
The National Rifle Association and the Right to Bear Arms
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
In today’s ongoing shoo tout over gun-control legislation, the ammunition preferred by both sides is the weighted statistic. One is assailed by a crossfire of numerical data as defenders and controllers blast away at each other’s conclusions. The controllers report that a handgun is sold in America every thirteen seconds and is the instrument of death in more than one of every two murders. The defenders reply that for every handgun used in a homicide, there are 3,999 others with no criminal taint. The controllers insist that 72 per cent of all homicides are committed by previously law-abiding citizens who shoot a friend or relative in the passion of dispute. The defenders counter with studies showing that the “typical murderer” is someone with a record of six prior assault offenses. The controllers say that the U.S. gun murder rate is two hundred times greater than that of Japan, where personal possession of handguns is prohibited, and also far greater than that of any other Western democracy, most of which require gun-owner licensing and/or firearm registration. The defenders fire back that the harsh penalties of Japanese law deter murder, and that in Switzerland, with one of the world’s lowest murder rates, national security dictates that military arms be kept at home within reach of every able-bodied male. So it goes.
And sooner than later, the argument boils down to interpreting the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which holds: “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 interpretation of the controllers is that the Second Amendment speaks to a collective right to bear arms, the right of states to maintain organized militias—in twentieth-century parlance, the National Guard. The defenders’ interpretation is that the Second Amendment speaks to the right of individuals to bear arms. They further argue that the Founding Fathers saw the Second Amendment as a means of protecting the independence of the states from tyranny of a central government and its standing army; and they are quick to point out that the National Guard today is controlled not by the states but by Washington—thus, the need for a true militia. “I ask who are the militia?” the defenders say, quoting George Mason of Virginia in his remarks on ratification of the Constitution in 1788. “They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officials.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled only once in this century on questions of law arising from the Second Amendment. In United States v. Miller , heard in 1939, the court restricted its opinion to the narrow issue of whether, under the National Firearms Act of 1934, a sawed-off shotgun could be considered a proper weapon of the militia. The court opined: “[W]e cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.” In a recent pamphlet on the Second Amendment, the NRA said of the Miller decision: “The High Court was unaware of the fact that some 30,000 shotguns, including a great number of ‘sawed-off’ shotguns, were purchased by the U.S. Government for use in World War I as ‘trench guns’.…”
Despite such a moderate explanation for the high court’s oversight, the NRA’s stance throughout the long years of the gun debate has been defiant. Indeed, on occasion, it has pursued the fruits of retribution in the eye-for-an-eye style of the Old Testament, and woe unto them who would snipe from the other side. When CBS Reports broadcast its blatantly antihunting The Guns of Autumn in 1975, the word in the trade had it that the show’s original sponsors backed off because of NRA pressure.
“You threatened to boycott [the] sponsors, did you not?” It was Conyers, the congressional gun controller, and he was putting the question, for the record, to Harlon B. Carter, then the NRA’s lobbying chief.
“No, sir,” Carter responded.
CONYERS : That was not a problem?
CARTER : We talked to the sponsors, perhaps, or some of our members did, out in the United States, but we do not threaten boycotts: no, sir.”
CONYERS : … I see. And so the fact that the sponsors, in fact, peeled away was incidental or peripheral to your central activity in that regard?
CARTER : The answer to that lies in the reaction of about 20 or 30 million people, Mr. Chairman, of which we happen to be only the cutting edge.…