As we all indulge in collective outrage over the dreadful events in Aurora, Colorado, many of us reflect on the wisdom or foolishness of the Second Amendment to the United States constitution which codifies the right of its citizens to "keep and bear arms". It is not a lengthy amendment, and here it is, 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."
Though so brief there have probably been many hundreds of thousands of words of commentary - both scholarly and otherwise - written about these few.
I do not claim to have made any real study of these many works, nor of the historical context, but here are my thoughts.
The first words are key, and are easy to understand in the historical and political setting in which they were framed. It was felt, with some justification, that liberty from despotism and defense against attack by foreign states, required an effective and collective response by a free citizenry, appropriately armed and regulated, at least for the duration of the threat.
The second amendment itself probably had its roots in the English Bill of Rights (1689), which restored many long standing rights to the English after the depredations of Charles I, and particularly of James II. The English Bill of Rights was saying, in effect, why should arms only be borne by the ruling class? Why indeed?
But whatever the intentions of the lawmakers may have been, either in England or the United States, they surely did not include the right of individuals to keep an arsenal capable of equipping a whole platoon, nor to deploy such an arsenal in murderous mass attacks. Many well-intended laws have proved to have ghastly unintended consequences. Clearly something must be done. Repeal the amendment entirely? Re-draft it? Is such a law needed in a modern democracy? Trouble is, democracy is a frail and ill-defined thing and easily destroyed without vigilance and constant checks and balances. By definition, vigilance must be the job of the people, not the ruling class. A working democracy depends upon this vigilance being performed through effective opposition political parties and by a trades union movement willing and able to defend the working person.
It is this which would make second amendments and the like surplus to requirements and which, in turn, would open the door to effective gun laws, both in the United States and elsewhere.