Ky. Voices: 2nd Amendment promises security, not limitless marketplace for guns

Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University.
Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University.

It is the common wisdom of the National Rifle Association, its allies and abettors that any measure taken to regulate or control the gun marketplace is an inherent violation of the Second Amendment's guarantee of the individual right to keep and bear arms.

Now it is true that the Supreme Court, in its 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, decided by a 5-4 margin that the amendment recognizes and protects as an individual constitutional right the possession of arms.

The court majority willfully ignored, in its interpretation, the meaning of the law in its full context, that is the grounding of this right in the community's need to have a militia capable of defending it.

This was indeed the way that the court had interpreted the amendment for more than a century. So much for the conservative majority's respect for precedence or its scorning of judicial activism.

One thing is certain: The decision has no more moral standing than did Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which effectively nationalized slavery and declared the African-American a non-citizen, or Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which upheld segregation.

Just as racist ideology was responsible for the 1857 and 1896 decisions, so anti-government ideology drove the court's judgment in 2008. Be that as it may, District of Columbia v. Heller has become the law of the land.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that it will, like its two notorious predecessors, be eventually overturned, either by a constitutional amendment, as Dred Scott was, or by the action of a future court, as Plessy was by Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The latter would appear to be the likelier option, although one prays that it would not take another half-century to constitute a court enlightened enough to overturn Heller.

For the present, it is important to reiterate that the court did not maintain that the right to keep and bear arms was an absolute one. It affirmed, rather, that there are limits the state can impose on this right, limits ranging from the kind of weapons to the access to them.

It is vital that governments at every level take the appropriate measures, whether by legislation or executive orders, to enable us to join the advanced nations throughout the world who have come to realize that an unfettered gun marketplace leads inevitably to a horrific level of gun violence that no civilized society can tolerate.

The security of the community, as President Barack Obama noted at Newtown, trumps individual rights and freedoms.

It is long past time that we liberate ourselves from the culture of violence that, thanks to the National Rifle Association, has been building over the past 40 years, as we have steadily become a militarized society whose carnage claims more than 30,000 lives annually.

(See the excellent article "Battleground America," by historian Jill Lepore in the April 23, 2012 New Yorker magazine, in which she exposes the mad descent into this circle of hell.)

No wonder, then, that this country, the most heavily armed society in the world, has, by far, the highest per-capita rate of gun deaths as well. In fact, the United States' total of homicides is 10 times that of eight other advanced nations with a much larger combined population. For too long, we have accepted this perennial epidemic of violence as the price of freedom.


There is no greater freedom than that of a society living in an environment in which the fear of violence is minimal. The more we work to minimize the availability of the domestic weapons of mass destruction that so many guns have become in the modern age the closer we will come to enjoying that freedom.

Perhaps, in the horror of the unprecedented massacre of innocents at Newtown, the public is at last sickened enough to stomach the reform we need to make us a society once again worth living in. One can only hope against hope.