Assailing the Unassailable: Rethinking the Right to Bear Arms

By Eric Mosher '13

After the tragic shootings last December in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been increased calls for tighter regulations on the sale and distribution of firearms. While some of the suggested measures are more controversial than others, and some are more politically feasible than others, requiring universal background checks—or, at least, increased background checks—for gun sales is a common-sense approach that would increase our ability, as a society, to keep dangerous, military-grade weapons out of the hands of those people who should not enjoy an unlimited right to bear arms.

While the 2nd Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” we obviously have to draw a line somewhere if we hope to avoid a Warriors-esque, Hobbesian “state of nature” in which every man, woman and child double-fists assault rifles. We must respect the rights given to us by our Constitution, but we must also ensure that society is kept safe from gun violence.

A universal background check is the best way to ensure that guns can still be sold, and also ensure that they are sold safely and responsibly. The bill that the Senate is currently considering would expand the requirement of background checks to all advertised gun sales, including those posted on the Internet, and would also make checks mandatory at gun shows. Today, only 60% of gun sales—those conducted by federally licensed firearms dealers—are subject to background checks. The Senate bill would expand oversight dramatically.

However, it is important to note that the bill would still fall short of a universal background check requirement. The expanded gun control laws would not cover unadvertised, person-to-person gun sales, transfers within families, or clearly temporary transfers. But I’d gladly take increased checks over the status quo.

Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, it is illegal for anyone meeting the following descriptions to purchase a gun: “[Anyone] under indictment or information in any court for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year; convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year; who is a fugitive from justice; who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance; who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution; who is an illegal alien; who has been discharged from the military under dishonorable conditions; who has renounced his or her United States citizenship; who is subject to a court order restraining the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of the intimate partner; or who has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”

Is it crazy to work harder to make these individuals unable to legally purchase firearms? After deciding as a society that people fitting the above description are unfit to ship, transport, receive, or possess firearms, it seems reasonable that we actually restrict their legal commercial interactions with dangerous weapons.

The question here is whether the right to bear arms should really be as sacrosanct as the NRA wants it to be. If the 2nd Amendment upholds that right in order to support a “well regulated Militia,” maybe we should consider what elements of society would detract from one. Rapists, felons, domestic abusers, and the violently insane would probably not contribute to such a Militia, and we must question whether their right to buy and hold weapons overrides their victims’ right to peace, happiness, and life.

More than 90% of Americans support the expansion of background checks to all gun sales, because they know that it will limit the movement of guns into the hands of criminals. Both houses of Congress should heed public opinion and reason, and move to expand this common-sense rule as soon as possible. I hope that Congress acts strongly and swiftly to pass measures that will make it harder for potentially violent individuals to possess firearms. And I understand that it is not so easy to determine who is “potentially violent.” Probably not every user of controlled substances and undocumented immigrant are going to use firearms for criminal violence. All the same, more background checks will keep weapons out of the hands of many who would misuse them. They will make life safer for many people.

Let me be clear: an expansion of the background check will not eradicate gun violence. Violent criminals who try to access firearms may still succeed, but they will not do so as easily if all gun purchases are subject to a background check. The goal should be the restriction of gun purchases and ownership by those who will use firearms for violence, without infringing on the right of law-abiding citizens to buy and bear arms. If you don’t break laws and aren’t of “defective” mental constitution, background checks will not limit your right to lawful gun ownership.