“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.” A single sentence, yet whose interpretation has been hotly debated. This essay is not going to discuss whether the two parts of the Second Amendment – Militia and Right to bear Arms – should be read together or as two separate issues. I will be discussing the arguments made in the gun control debate and how mental health plays into it.
Arms are short for armaments. It does not include just guns, but any weapons. A literal interpretation of the second amendment would give an individual the right to carry any weapons. But we already restrict such unlimited rights to weapons. We ban machine guns, grenades, or the ability of individuals to carry bioweapons or small, tactical nukes. And we will never ban all weapons nor all guns, because many are required for self-defense, protection, and hunting. So the question isn’t if there is an unlimited right to carry weapons or having an absolute ban on weapons, but what type of weapons should be in the hands of civilians.
A question for strict constructionists of the constitution, who do not believe in a ‘living’ constitution but who want us to follow the constitution exactly as the founders intended – should we then remove all restrictions from armaments, but ban any armaments invented after 1791? I don’t think many people will agree to such a suggestion. Times change, technologies change, and our attitudes change. As the technologies of modern guns allow dozens to be killed in a matter of seconds, shouldn’t our laws keep up with the times and advancement of technologies?
I don’t think gun laws should be same nationwide, just like I don’t think minimum wage laws should be same nationwide. The reality on the ground in Manhattan is different from the reality in rural Montana. But there should be minimum federal standards in gun laws just like it is in minimum wage. In a populated place like New York City where anyone can mow down dozens before we realize what is happening, guns laws should be extremely strict. In rural areas with low population density, law enforcement not nearby, and where people hunt for a living or for food, guns laws must be different from New York City.
But what is the need for military-grade weapons in the hands of civilians? Why should a civilian have access to semi-automatic weapons that can kill dozens in the blink of an eye, or have access to high-capacity magazines? These aren’t weapons for self-defense or for hunting. These are the weapons for mass murder. And there is no unrestricted “right” to such weapons of mass murder because we already restrict numerous weapons of mass murder. Why should a civilian be allowed to build an arsenal of dozens of semi-automatic weapons and tens of thousands of ammunitions that can kill scores of individuals?
Some say that the purpose of guns is to bring down a tyrannical government. I think this is such a fantasy that I do not even know how to react. It is as if they don’t realize the situation in 1776 and 2018 are not the same. The United States has the most powerful military in the world. Does anyone expect civilians to win a firefight with the US military. And if they truly believe that stashing of guns with civilians is a deterrent against the might of the US military, then shouldn’t the same civilians have the right to more advanced weapons like machine guns, tanks, and their own WMDs in case these “troop supported Patriots” decide to fight the same troops some day? The United States is the greatest example of the success of a democratic society. As long as the citizens themselves perform their civic duty and support the foundations of democracy, the government won’t be tyrannical. And no, a fairly elected government of the opposition party isn’t by default a tyrannical government if it stays within its constitutional bounds. And the path to stop politicians from gaining too much power is through elections and standing up for democratic principles over partisanship and tribalism, not through fantasizing a future war between American civilians and the American military.
There are few, if any, unrestricted rights just because “I like it”. My liking of machine guns, rocket launchers, or driving over 100 mph does not give me the ‘right’ to do any of it. Someone’s liking of semi-automatic weapons or high capacity handguns shouldn’t give them unrestricted rights to those guns either. The number of people killed by guns in a single day is similar to the total number of deaths by Islamic extremists since 9/11, and by domestic far-right violence. Yet the President would rather ban all Muslims than deal with the American lives lost because of guns or because of the far-right extremist groups and individuals. A few toddlers are killed each year by reversing cars, and rightfully we made it mandatory for all cars to have a rear-view camera. We did not ban all cars, but we put regulations. The debate about guns isn’t banning all guns or allowing all weapons to be available to the general population. It is about why should an individual have access to such weapons of mass murder, and I don’t think personal liking or fetishizing certain weapons makes it a right to own those weapons. We can have these semi-automatic guns available in regulated gun ranges. But a civilian should not have access to weapons of mass murder.
Some say that cars also kill people, but we don’t ban cars. Yes, we do not ban cars, but we have numerous regulations on vehicles. We have regulations on size, speed, and what sort of vehicles should be on what kind of road. And vehicles are restricted to roads only, and some vehicles aren’t allowed on all roads, and some aren’t allowed on public roads at all. Also, the purpose of a car is for transportation. The single purpose of a gun is to kill and/or injure, and it can be carried to any place unlike a car. We regulate everything based on safety and need, and regulations of firearms must also follow such standards. The other arguments are about video games and movies. But rest of the world also plays violent video games and they also watch violent movies. Yet the epidemic of gun violence is a uniquely American condition, and it is not a topic one in which should tout American exceptionalism. Other countries that did face gun violence took steps to reduce such violence and it has worked. Saying that restricting of some guns will not work is intellectually hollow and moral cowardice. Research, experience, and reality says it does. Protection of American lives should not be held hostage to a small group’s unhealthy addiction to high capacity firearms.
In the aftermath of recent school shootings, the President suggested arming of teachers. This is a terrible idea on many fronts. Arming of teachers reminds me of the myth of “good guy with guns”. It might look sexy in movies and sound heroic in our minds, but does it work in practical life? It might work in a some instances, but would it work in a general situation? Trained law enforcement officers do not have a good accuracy record, so how do we expect civilians to fare better? Especially in a crowded location where mass shootings happen, where people are running in panic, how do you target a shooter? Secondly, if numerous people are armed, how do you determine in a split second who is the shooter and who all are the “good guys with guns”? Thirdly, if a security guard isn’t expecting danger and someone walks in through the door blazing a semi-automatic, does that guard draw his weapon before the bullets hit him? Fourth, schools (or any public place) aren’t small, confined one-room buildings. Arming two-three teachers in a school will not prevent a carnage from happening. By the time these excellent marksmen teachers with nerves of steel can find a shooter, scores of children could be dead. Fifth point – if guards and teachers are always on hair trigger alert, like some cops are, their paranoia can cause them to escalate a situation and shoot to kill when there is no reason to. They might imagine a danger when none is actually present, like we see in numerous police shootings of unarmed civilians. Sixth point – even teachers can have a bad day. How long will it take before we hear news of a teacher gunning down a classroom and committing suicide? Seventh point – accidental discharges can happen in a classroom; or students can get to a gun. The eight point brings me to neuroscience – in the Parkland shooting one cop stayed outside and he was called out as a coward. Except, one never knows how our body and brain will react in a life and death situation until we are in one. Fight or flight are not the only two reactions, but also the reaction of freezing in the face of danger. We do not know if teachers or “good guns with guns” will panic, freeze, or indiscriminately start shooting. If trained police officers cannot control their triggers, we expect too much of civilians. This situation is not much different from how young men have always romanticized wars for finding meanings and glory, and too many come back broken and with psychological issues from war zones. When bullets start flying, when people start dropping dead around you, much of our reaction comes down to basic biology over which we might not have much control. Some will have nerves of steel, but that is the exception, not the norm, unless they are highly trained elite soldiers. Liberals are called-out as idealists who don’t always understand reality, and in many instances that is accurate. But the idea of “good guys/teachers with guns” is a conservative fantasy that has no basis in reality. It does not work in other countries; it goes against basic biology and human nature, and it is a fantasy that must be put to rest forever.
The final point of this issue is how mental health plays with gun violence. Mental health is not an American issue, but gun epidemic is. Neither is it true that most of the world has more mental health support compared to America. The difference isn’t that Americans are more mentally ill compared to the world, but the hundreds of millions guns in the hands of civilians in America. And mental health is not a black-and-white issue and we should be extremely careful about stigmatizing people as such. First of all, it is hard to define what exactly is mental illness and what is “normal behavior”. Some say that adults believing in fairy tales as facts is a mental illness. So should we treat those people differently? Even when people are diagnosed as mentally ill, most of them will not commit a crime.
Mental illness exists across a spectrum and is transient for most people. Many might go through periodic depressions but be ‘normal’ at other times. Many might become mentally ill because of life experiences – be it financial hardships, abusive relationships etc – and become normal when their situation improves. For many, mental illness might be acquired later in life and last forever; many might be born with certain illness and never be cured their entire lives, and many might get cured at some point in life. Not every loner and socially isolated individual will commit crimes. And many who commit crimes do not fit into the stereotypical portrait of a mentally ill person, at least not before they committed crimes.
Yet, if we dive deep into neuroscience, shouldn’t any crime be a sign of mental illness, not just firearms crimes? Should murder, rape, arson be considered a sign of ‘normal’ behavior, or can we classify these criminals as mentally ill? These are the questions we will have to grapple as a society over the next few decades. As neuroscience keeps advancing, and as we can see in the Cambridge Analytica scandal as to how easily we can be manipulated by machines (the way we can manipulate other animal behaviors), we have to wonder how much free will do we really have, and what are the signs of ‘normal’ behavior and what are the signs of mental illness. Yes, dangerous firearms must be kept away from those diagnosed with mental illnesses, but in the present age we do not know who will become mentally ill and when, who can be cured and when, or who will commit a crime. The best prevention is keeping dangerous firearms out of the reach of civilians. No civilian, unless authorized under proper regulations and training, should have access to semi-automatic rifles, handguns with high capacity magazines, or any weapon that can kill dozens before we have a chance to stop such a person.