, Newburyport, MA


December 21, 2012

Serious questions need serious discussion

To the editor:

The “Slaughter of the Innocents” has reopened our long-standing national debate about the control of firearms in the hands of the general public. I hope that in this debate we can as a society avoid the two extremes — “all guns should be banned” and “I need my weapons to defend myself from the government.”

I should disclose at the outset that the National Rifle Association taught me, as a junior member, marksmanship and gun safety some 70 years ago. I grew up in a rural area where most households had guns used for hunting, shooting pests and recreation, like skeet and target shooting. I am still the licensed owner of a rifle I use to shoot woodchucks (I am also a gardener) and once, to kill a rabid skunk posing a threat to neighborhood children.

The Second Amendment, which states in part “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” codifies what was thought to be a “natural right” under English law, and we should not forget that our Revolutionary ancestors asserted their rights as Englishmen against a monarch who was ignoring those rights.

Those who favor an “original meaning” approach to the interpretation of the Constitution should bear in mind that, when the Second Amendment was adopted, the term “arms” meant flintlock muskets and pistols, sabers and cutlasses. No one envisioned rapid and continuous fire of multiple rounds, or high-velocity bullets that in effect explode in the body.

It is clear that neither the federal nor state governments can prohibit all private citizens from owning rifles and pistols; the Supreme Court so held in the Heller and McDonald cases in 2008 and 2010. But the court has never held that this right may not be subject to reasonable regulation.

Is it reasonable to allow any one, regardless of age, mental or physical condition, or criminal record, if any, to own a weapon more powerful than those used by the average police force? Is it reasonable to require legitimate firearms dealers to do background checks on purchasers, but to exempt all other sellers — especially those at firearms exhibitions — from doing such checks?

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