The Limits to Our Rights

By Jeffrey Page

The hand wringing over the Second Amendment continues in the days and weeks after the Newtown Horror. In op-ed columns and letters to editors some people who support the gun lobby have expressed concern that any attempt by the government to regulate gun traffic somehow betrays the spirit of the Bill of Rights.

The framers didn’t limit the people’s basic rights 221 years ago so why should we allow limitations now, the question goes. This is specious in two important respects. For one thing, taken to its no-limitation conclusion, we may soon hear an argument by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates suggesting that to prevent someone from possession of flame throwers, nerve gas and nuclear weapons somehow deprives us of our right to bear arms. It sounds absurd, but deep down you know that someone, sometime is going to test this position.

Then there’s the generally overlooked fact that we have always placed limitations on the rights handed to the people in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.

–The limits on free speech – including the cry of “Fire!” in a theater, calls to violence, conspiracy, slandering, and libeling – have been detailed almost to the point of cliché. But platitudes or not, they remain limits on what are generally believed to be – but are not – absolute freedoms in the First Amendment.

–The First Amendment also prevents the government from establishing an official religion, but violations of this occur almost every year around this time. Invariably, some local bodies somewhere in America allow the placement of a Christmas tree, a crèche or a menorah on municipal property, thus violating the spirit of the First Amendment.

–The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” which might come as a surprise to the two-thirds of the states with capital punishment statutes on their books.

–And then of course there is the explicit limitation in the 27 words of the Second Amendment itself: “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.” It’s confusing in its brevity, and this puzzlement is what keeps the fight over the amendment alive. The right of the people to keep arms shall not be infringed, yet the militia – comprised of the people – will be not just regulated, but well regulated.

What does “well-regulated” mean? I suggest that my interpretation of those two words is as valid as the NRA’s, maybe more. Here’s what I mean:

No, you may not possess a hand grenade, an Abrams battle tank or an assault rifle, all of which are designed to kill large numbers and not a white tailed deer or a couple of ducks. Those weapons are for the military.

And yes, background checks on the criminal and mental health histories of prospective gun buyers will be conducted with fervor and honesty. If this results in an extended long waiting period, so be it.

What America needs are politicians with the courage to inform the National Rifle Association that the working definition of “well-regulated” will not be written by NRA flacks.

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3 Responses to “The Limits to Our Rights”

  1. LeeAgain Says:

    At the time the Bill of Rights came into being, assault rifles, semi-automatic guns and Saturday Night Specials had not even been thought of. A massacre such as what happened in Newtown would never have entered the mind of the framers. So, to appease those who insist on following the letter of the Constitution, perhaps we should allow everyone the right to bear any arms which were in existence at the time the Second Amendment was proposed. If Adam Lanza had only a muzzle loader to do his horrific deed, he would have been attacked and disabled before he ever got off a second shot.

  2. Jean Webster Says:

    It’s so logical, it rather blows my mind why people cannot get it. This is not the 18th century. We are not about to be attacked by our government’s “militia.”
    And I chuckle at the picture of today’s gun owners trying to “carry” a muzzle loader from the 1700’s. Try to put that inside your vest or jacket.

  3. Bennett Weiss Says:

    The 2nd amendment is an anachronism that should have been repealed years ago. Of course that is impossible in this gun-crazy country.

    But the good news is that “right to bear arms” is vague enough to allow us to keep this useless relic of a bygone era in tact and still place sever restrictions on weapons ownership.

    A necessary step is to call the NRA what it is – an industry advocacy group. It’s interest is not really ideological and certainly not humanitarian. It’s in the death-machine business.

    Whiile most of readers of this page are probably aware of the NRA’s true nature, bear in mind that many of you friends and nieghbors are not so well informed. Talk to them. Don’t be afraid of Crazy Uncle Louie at the next family gathering. Tell him why that his NRA bumper sticker offends you. In fact, get a STOP THE NRA bumper sticker of your own.

    Anyone who wants a free anti-NRA button, write me at Just put STOP NRA in the subject line.

    Silence is deadly.

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