When the first 10 constitutional amendments were ratified they were nothing short of brilliant, offering our young nation both a unifying moral foundation and an exemplary blueprint for future self-governance. Yet, according to congressional expert Ilona Nickels, George Washington's view of the new constitution was that it was an "imperfect product made more perfect by the ability to amend it."
Nine of those first ten amendments have withstood the test of time and events (including, I suppose, the one that talks about quartering soldiers in one's home). One of them, however, is out of date.
The Second Amendment was apt for its day, a shrewd mix of freedom ("the right to keep and bear arms") and duty (the "well-regulated militia" clause). But it was meant for the realities of American life over two centuries ago. The country, 90 percent rural, had no standing army. And available "arms" were pretty much limited to muzzle-loading muskets that took the typical shooter a full minute to load and get off a single shot.
In response to my last post, a call for repeal of the Second Amendment, one reader wrote that the Newtown slaughter was a "small price to pay" for the preservation of Americans' constitutional freedoms. In other words, viewed in the context of today's world, one's unfettered access to all manner of deadly firearms is more important than, say, the bloody liquidation of 20 bright-eyed, smiling youngsters and seven adults.
A chorus of critics, all singing from Wayne LaPierre's NRA hymnbook, condemned my very mention of taking a blue pencil to the Second Amendment (conveniently ignoring the First Amendment's free speech guarantee). Of course these same critics, far more likely to be comprised of NRA leadership than membership, went similarly ballistic when none other than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told Fox News that the founding fathers "had some limitations on the nature of arms that could be borne. So we'll see what those limitations are as applied to modern weapons."
A constitutional amendment entails a drawn-out process, one that takes years to accomplish. If, indeed, it is accomplished at all. See, for example, the Equal Rights Amendment, passed by both houses of Congress in 1972 but ultimately defeated ten years later when an insufficient number of states had failed to ratify by the deadline mandated by Congress. For a "success story," see Amendment 27 (our latest, on the timing of congressional pay increases and decreases) that passed in 1992 after having been introduced in 1789 (no, not a typo).
It is precisely because getting to a constitutional amendment takes so long, and because it involves both houses of Congress as well as each of the 50 states, that I propose it.
With an average time of seven years from congressional approval to states' ratification (or rejection) of a constitutional amendment, we are assured a sustained, concentrated conversation about guns in America. Given the history and increasing frequency of serial mass murders in the U.S. -- and the alarming rates of everyday gun violence in impoverished communities of color (the homicide rate among black children and teens runs at almost twice that of white youth) -- how can we not attach constitutional significance to the task?
As both critics and supporters of gun control note, deficiencies in the diagnosis, supervision, and treatment of mental illness, media and gaming violence, school and workplace safety risks, and other social and profit-motivated business factors are all relevant to the issue of gun violence, deserving of the nation's sustained focus and problem-solving imagination. But they're not necessarily suitable for constitutional intervention.
The urgency with which President Obama is pressing for meaningful gun control (or "gun safety") measures is laudable. It is good that he is pressing forward to reinstitute the assault weapons ban, as well as the ban on high-capacity magazines. It is also vital that he follow up on his commitment to creating a titanium-strength, permanent closure of the gunshow loophole (which Mr. LaPierre shamelessly contends does not exist; someone needs to show him how YouTube works).
Meanwhile, in an effort to help get the grassroots ball rolling in the direction of a constitutional amendment, I offer the following draft. No powdered wig, beige stockings, or quill pen. Just a profound belief that the founders would be appalled at the domestic fire power and violence we've unleashed or tolerated in the name of their magnificent document of 1789.
The Second Amendment (Revised)
In keeping with the historic right of the people to keep and bear Arms in order to protect and provide for themselves and their families, or to enjoy hunting, target practice and shooting matches, Congress shall make no law that infringes upon this right; Congress shall, however, have an affirmative duty to provide for the safe manufacture, sales, and handling of Arms; Congress shall have a duty to require registration and tracking of all Arms; Congress shall require the regulated licensing of those who would own such Arms; Congress shall have a duty to prohibit civilian possession of military or police assault rifles, large-capacity ammunition magazines, armor-piercing bullets, or other Arms features or policies that unduly jeopardize domestic safety and tranquility.