Constitutional Rights

20 Jan

It is January 20th, 2020, and my city is in a declared State of Emergency. So far (as of 4.26pm) nothing bad has happened. There has been no natural disaster, no major snowstorm.

Today, in Richmond, Virginia, on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commemorative holiday, a large number of protesters have gathered at the Virginia state capitol building to protest “their second Amendment rights being taken away.”

I want to talk about this for several reasons. First, it’s creating national news and a lot of screaming coming from both pro-gun and gun-control advocates, very few of whom seem to be a) listening, or b) making a whole lot of sense. There’s a lot of yelling about dead children and criminals and safety by pretty much everyone.

I want to start with the actual text of the actual bills in question here.

First, SB35.

Control of firearms by localities; permitted events. Authorizes any locality by ordinance to prohibit the possession or carrying of firearms, ammunition, or components or any combination thereof in a public space during a permitted event or an event that would otherwise require a permit. The bill contains technical amendments.

My summary: localities can restrict whether or not a specific event allows guns to be present on their site. In other words, if I hold a private event, I can ask you not to bring your gun. Or I can let you bring your gun. It’s up to me. This extends that to localities. A city that wants to create an ordinance allowing OR disallowing guns can do so. It’s up to the people in that locality and their governments. Not the state of Virginia.

Second, SB69.

Purchase of handguns; limitation on handgun purchases; penalty. Prohibits any person who is not a licensed firearms dealer from purchasing more than one handgun in a 30-day period and establishes such an offense as a Class 1 misdemeanor. The bill exempts from this provision (i) persons who have been issued a certificate by the Department of State Police under certain circumstances and with an enhanced background check, (ii) law-enforcement agencies and officers, (iii) state and local correctional facilities, (iv) licensed private security companies, (v) persons who hold a valid Virginia concealed handgun permit, (vi) persons whose handgun has been stolen or irretrievably lost or who are trading in a handgun, (vii) purchases of handguns in a private sale, and (viii) purchases of antique firearms.

My summary: unless you’re a dealer, a police officer, a security officer, someone who applied for and got an exemption, someone with a concealed gun permit, a private purchaser, or an antique collector, you can only buy one handgun a month. If you aren’t ONE of those things, do you really need to buy more than one handgun? Because if you do, you can get a permit to do so.

Third, SB70.

Firearm transfers; criminal history record information checks; penalty. Requires a background check for any firearm transfer and directs the Department of State Police (the Department) to establish a process for transferors to obtain such a check from licensed firearms dealers. A transferor who sells a firearm to another person without obtaining the required background check is guilty of a Class 6 felony. The bill also provides that a transferee who receives a firearm from another person without obtaining the required background check is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. The bill exempts transfers (i) between immediate family members; (ii) that occur by operation of law; (iii) by the executor or administrator of an estate or by the trustee of a testamentary trust; (iv) at firearms shows in accordance with law; (v) that are part of a buy-back or give-back program; (vi) of antique firearms; (vii) that occur at a shooting range, shooting gallery, or any other area designed for the purpose of target shooting or for use during target practice, a firearms safety or training course or class, a shooting competition, or any similar lawful activity; or (viii) that are temporary transfers that (a) occur within the continuous presence of the owner of the firearm or (b) are necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The bill removes the provision that makes background checks of prospective purchasers or transferees at firearms shows voluntary. The bill also provides that the Department shall have three business days to complete a criminal history record information check before a firearm may be transferred.

My summary: you have to get a background check if you’re transferring a gun from one person to another who is not related to one another, who is doing so by law, who is doing so with an inherited gun, who is at a gun show, who is at a shooting range, or in the case of a threat of bodily harm. That seems like an awful lot of exceptions to me, and it isn’t that you can’t transfer the gun, you just need a permit to do so.

So. Those are the actual bill summaries from the actual Senate with links to the whole bill. I’ve summarized them myself, yes, but I’m using the actual wording here. This is the wording that a whole lot of people–many of whom, by the way, do not live in the state where this legislation is being considered–have decided means that the state “is going to take away my guns.”

Nowhere in any of these does it say anything about removing legal guns from those who own them. Nowhere does it say they can’t buy more guns. Nowhere does it say that they can only have certain types of guns (there was an assault rifle ban being discussed in SB16, but it has been withdrawn).

Let me repeat that in simple wording: None of these bills is taking away guns or telling someone they cannot buy more guns. Yes, they are restricting the ease of access for guns to some people by requiring permits, background checks, and slowing the process of accumulating handguns for some people. But they are not infringing upon the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment, for what it is worth, says this:

Amendment II

(ratified December 15, 1791)

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.

That’s it. The whole thing. Thanks to a bunch of white men living in fear of the British Empire, we got this gnarly mess of an Amendment.

What, for instance, does “A well-regulated militia” even mean these days? Well, in 1791, the US didn’t really have a standing army, for one thing. So instead, we had militia. People who were ready and willing to defend their fledgling country against any attempts the British might make to reclaim territory. Or any attempts that the indigenous peoples who lived here before the colonists showed up and stole their stuff might make to take back their homelands. We didn’t have a multi-billion-dollar army with tanks and nukes and drones.

There was also the point–and this one gets brought up by folks defending the right to keep guns–that the right to have weapons is there to defend the people from their own government. This one feels pretty real in 2020. But let’s go back, for a second, to that multi-billion-dollar army. Even if you can buy seventeen handguns a month, it’s not going to help you if the US Army decides to take you down. People who hole up in their houses and try to keep out the police, the FBI, the military… it doesn’t end well, folks. I agree with the sentiment of being protected from the nefarious machinations of the US government, believe me. I just am not seeing how any of the above laws are going to make any difference if the government decides to come for you at all.

And then, if we’re going to be historically accurate, there’s the point that what “arms” looked like in 1791 is a far cry from what they look like now. As someone who has worked in a Revolutionary-era city on a national historic site and seen people with period weapons… it takes forever to reload even the most portable flintlock pistol, and they’re also about as accurate as throwing a rock. More deadly, sure, but that’s assuming you can hit anything with it. That lack of accuracy is also a reason why 18th-century arms-bearers were a good deal more reticent about firing. First, they might hit their best friend instead of the thing they’re aiming at. Second, the damn thing might just blow off their hand because blackpowder is notoriously fickle. Third… the cleaning and the reloading is just a pain. What that amounts to is the idea that a person with a gun in 1791 was far, far, far more likely to a) understand the risks of gun use, b) only fire when absolutely necessary, and c) to not kill an unintended (or intended, honestly) target. Could they? Sure. Alexander Hamilton is a case in point… but he didn’t expect to die because Aaron Burr was a terrible shot (maybe why he hit his target?) and guns weren’t all that good at hitting things anyway. Also, they certainly wouldn’t have felt the need or had the money to buy more than one pistol a month unless they were soldiers… and that’s still an allowed exception to the above bill.

There is also, of course, the case to be made for hunting. And the bills above don’t have a darn thing to do with that. If you give your kid a gun to teach them to hunt? Totally allowed. If you want to buy a hunting rifle? Totally allowed. Hunting weapons are in no way even remotely mentioned in the above bills.

My ultimate point is that these bills are not infringing upon the Second Amendment, especially not as it was framed in historical context. They are a response to changing technologies and social situations, bringing the laws up to date with those changes. And, guess what?

That’s literally in the Constitution:

Article V

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

When technology changes, when society changes, when we see the need to alter the Constitution, that in and of itself is Constitutional. So when we introduce bills to modify existing aspects of the law and, yes, even the US Constitution, that is absolutely and unequivocally in accordance with the Constitution itself.

If you don’t like the laws, then by all means, protest away, so long as you a) do so legally, and b) without bringing harm to others.

But before you do, please think about whether the thing you’re protesting really is that horrible nightmare of loss-of-rights that the propagandists are telling you, or whether the point of the rally is to garner support for something other than what it claims… something like the Alt-Right, white supremacy, or something else nefarious. Think about who is standing around you, what they stand for, and who they stand with and against.

Defend your rights, yes. But also think about whether or not what you’re protesting is really infringing upon your rights or trying to protect someone else’s.