In the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. and the increased national debate over firearm regulations, Suffolk University’s philosophy department decided to host a gun rights colloquium for students to discuss their thoughts on the issue.
“Every time there is a [mass] shooting there’s more attention” to gun rights, philosophy department chairman Gregory Fried said, “It’s cyclical. There’s an ebb and flow to the debate.” And when the debate is charged up by a violent incident, like the events at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, both sides tend to radicalize their arguments and demands.
In a packed conference room of students and professors, with some people even sitting in the hall for the chance to participate in the discussion, Fried described two extreme ways to interpret the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution—the strict constructionist view and the living approach.
Through the eyes of a strict constructionist, the articles and amendments must be interpreted “in the light of what the founders thought at the time,” Fried explained. In the case of the second amendment then, the word “arms” could only apply to the gun technology that existed in the late 1800s, not the advanced weaponry that we have today. “The founders could have only meant flint-lock muskets,” Fried said, because that was the only kind of firearm that was available in their time. This reading of the amendment would mean that Americans only have the constitutional right to own flint-lock muskets and even then only in the context of building “a well-regulated militia,” not a professional, permanent standing army.
The living approach to reading the constitution means “interpreting the constitution in the context of the times you live in,” Fried said. If we take the word “arms” to apply to modern times, it could mean anything from handguns to high-tech military weapons. An extreme interpretation from this point of view would suggest Americans have the right to “keep and bear arms” like tanks, ICBMs, and nuclear bombs.
After analyzing other historical perspectives on the second amendment and current statistics on gun ownership and violence in the U.S., Fried opened up the discussion to student and professor opinions. From legislative loopholes to mandatory gun insurance proposals, support for carrying concealed weapons in public places to support for abolishing the second amendment, the Suffolk community discussed many different ideas to solving gun violence in America.
One student, a member of the U.S. military, first wanted to dispel gun classification mix-ups that are widely used in news reports across the country. “Assault weapon is a term used by politicians,” he said, “Military grade and assault weapon are not actual gun classifications.” He also stressed that “the guns [he] uses in the military are not available to the public.” The student called himself a “gun expert” from his military training and said that when he is not at school, he carries a gun because of the possibility of rare events like Sandy Hook.
Another student discussed requiring gun owners to buy gun insurance and register guns in their name in order to curb criminals using illegally acquired guns. “Liability insurance is an answer,” he said, “It doesn’t restrict the second amendment in any way.” He described this system working similar to the way car insurance and registration works. The student also suggested that insurance would act as a deterrent to people amassing an “excessive” amount of guns because the insurance would make owning guns more expensive.
One professor even argued against the constitutional basis of the entire second amendment. He claimed that since the amendment was put in place to ensure a militia to protect against foreign attacks, domestic insurrections, and government tyranny, then it was no longer necessary when a professional standing army is in place. “All presumptions for the amendment are no longer valid,” he said, so the second amendment should be abolished.
Most students were concerned with ensuring that people with mental illness do not have access to guns. “We don’t have specific guideline on who should or shouldn’t own a gun, in regards to mental illness,” one student said. Another student asked how quantifying mental illness and making laws excluding certain people from owning weapons could possibly be federally managed. “Where would the screening stop?” he asked, wondering if the government should go as far to ask potential gun owners if they live with or are in close contact with someone who is mentally unstable, and if this should disqualify someone from possessing a gun.
While students’ and professors’ opinions differed greatly at times, the discussion was always respectful and intelligent. Professor Fried conceded that unanimity on gun rights in America is not on the horizon any time soon but educated discussions and ideas can at least try to alleviate issues of violence. The military veteran student concluded his argument by stating, “If you’re a gun owner, it’s your responsibility to not use your gun unless it’s absolutely necessary.”