Debate Forum 12/15/15

Semantics and sensibility

What the %$&? does “sensible gun legislation” mean?
By Sarah Sidlow

Hey, have you heard anything about guns lately?
Your answer is probably somewhere between “um, yes” and “please stop talking about guns already.”
It’s true—guns are back in the headlines. Why? Recent deadly shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, have thrust gun-related violence and how to curb it into the national conversation and onto the presidential campaign trail.
These recent events and the fact that, well, there’s no simple solution, have led to lots of head-scratching, finger-pointing and probably some other gestures we don’t need to illustrate here.
The phrase to know: “sensible gun legislation.”
It’s what a number of pundits and political campaigners (President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders and others) are calling for. But what does “sensible gun legislation” mean, and what would it look like?
There are those who claim the phrase “sensible gun legislation” (aka “common-sense legislation”) is as nonsensical as “calorie-free pizza” (and who wouldn’t love to see a slice of that on the campaign trail?). Interestingly, these nonbelievers may be arguing some very different viewpoints. Some (like the National Rifle Association – NRA) say there’s no such thing, because gun legislation itself isn’t sensible. They cite the good old Second Amendment as reason enough to have their guns and cock them too, and claim any sort of regulation on their right to bear arms isn’t just nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional. Others take issue with the “sensible gun legislation” moniker for the opposite reason: they don’t think guns should be regulated as much as purged from our society altogether. Whatever the rhetoric or the reason, the message is the same: there’s no such thing as “sensible gun legislation.”
But there are many who believe “sensible gun legislation” is more than a catchphrase. House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force member and Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), for example, cites gun safety measures like universal background check legislation (H.R. 2380), expansions of the National Instant Background Check System database (H.R. 2917) and gun trafficking prevention (H.R. 3455) as real, existing examples of legislative pieces of the sensible-gun puzzle. Hillary Clinton says “sensible legislation” is absolutely real, and here’s what it looks like: close the “gun show loophole” and repeal the NRA-backed law that prevents crime victims from suing gun manufacturers.
Fact or fiction, myth or measure, “sensible gun legislation” is a political message that won’t fizzle out with the end of 2015. Is it meaningless political fodder, or is it a call to action?

Reach Dayton City Paper freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at

Civil disservice

By Ben Tomkins

The worst part about discussing the Second Amendment is the ease with which opponents of gun control are argued into a corner. Fundamentally, there are only two cases to be made: Either “A well ordered militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, will not be infringed,” is completely unbounded, or it has boundaries that we as a theoretically civil society have an obligation to identify and evolve.
The first argument is wholly indefensible. One of the better examples amongst a litany that common sense has already brought to the forefront can be found in the majority opinion of Scalia in District of Columbia v. Heller. Heller struck down the DC handgun ban, and the low quality of Scalia’s argument gives the strong impression that the majority sorely regretted taking the case in the first place. The entire thing is a long-winded attempt to assert that those first 13 words didn’t really need to be there, and its extensive annotations are dedicated to the task of grumbling about Justice Stevens’ insistence that the Founding Fathers weren’t just wearing out an old quill.
The reason the word “militia” is there is because the Founding Fathers believed that investing the majority of the military power in the hands of the people was both a safeguard of liberty and philosophically consistent with democracy. In the Virginia Bill of Rights, George Mason’s articulation is as good an explanation as can be found, and is echoed throughout the various other states and drafts of the Second Amendment as we know it today:
“17. That the People have a Right to keep and to bear Arms; that a well regulated Militia, composed of the Body of the People, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free State; that Standing Armies in Time of Peace are dangerous to Liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided as far as the Circumstances and Protection of the Community will admit; and that in all Cases, the military should be under strict Subordination to, and governed by the Civil Power.”
There are several points to be made that are salient to our topic.
You’ll notice that the clauses are reversed and the prefatory clause (A well regulated militia) that Scalia attempts to blow off is about five times as long and five times more explanatory. This “why” he articulates is reduced in the federal Constitution because it is broken up and described in the first Article, and the key terms were well understood and immediately articulated in law as soon as the Constitution was ratified.
The term “Body of the People” is understood in every constitution of the time to mean some variation of “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia.” This particular variant comes from The Militia Act of 1792, which provided federal standards for meeting the constitutional congressional mandate of, “To provide for organizing, arming and disciplining, the Militia,” per Article 1 sec. 8.
The intention was to establish the United States military as one in which every adult male meeting that description would be a citizen soldier, and it was further required that they be disciplined and trained by officers who would be appointed by the states. So clear is the federal imperative to fulfill the duties of Article 1, sec. 8, that it articulates exactly what kind of weapon each citizen was required to have and what accompanying equipment they must maintain.
They must “provide [themselves] with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints and a knapsack … ” etc. These weapons were considered military grade, and should the militia be mustered in full or in part by the President, they would all be trained up and ready to go.
George Washington was well known to bemoan the loathsome state of the militia during the Revolutionary War, and when this act was passed he brightened up quite a bit about the possibility of making a real fighting force out of them.
In fact, this state of affairs persisted until a federalized system of an “organized militia” (Army Reserves, National Guard and the like) was established, and the 1792 act abolished by the Dick Act … in 1903. The government finally conceded that the people simply didn’t care to be involved—1830s state militias were the laughingstock of civic indifference—and they were entirely correct. Hardly anybody even showed up to train, and most of the time it was because nobody bothered to organize it in the first place.
This is the problem we face today. Americans want to claim their cake as if the Second Amendment floated out of the sky, and eat it at home without following up on the civic obligation that ownership of arms entails. Furthermore, the Federal Government has had, since day one, the imperative to decide what weapons that militia should have. Nothing about the Second Amendment suggests that the right to bear arms implies contextual-less possession, and it is the height of citizen apathy to suggest otherwise.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

Freedom vs Despotism

By Dave Westbrock

The question is, are any weapons control legislative fixes in order? That might be re-phrased as to whether any new gun control legislative initiatives are necessary in American society. Let us first examine the history of gun legislation and who has traditionally favored grabbing guns from citizens.
The second amendment of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was adopted Dec. 15, 1791. A simple statement was drafted: “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.” Interpretation of the stated meaning first came into question in 1822 following the conviction of a man who had concealed a weapon in a cane (Bliss vs. Commonwealth). The conviction was overturned on appeal. The appeals court ruled that the right for individuals to protect themselves was inherent in the state’s constitution. The Supremes, for the first time, ruled as part of the dreaded Dred Scott decision Dred Scott vs. Sandford (1856), that to afford full rights to slaves would include the right for each to bear arms. Parenthetically, this argument was useful to Taney and the court to recognize the mixed blessing of freeing slaves, playing on the fears of Americans. The precedent very early, then, was clearly set that individuals and not only a “well regulated militia” had the rights of self-protection apart from government caveat. This is argument trotted out by the leftist gun grabbers consistently in the latter years, that the second amendment was meant only for groups of individuals in militias blessed by federal or state edict was clearly rejected. Further, the National Firearms Act of 1934 sought not to ban the identified weapons, sawed off shotguns and machine guns, but to levy a tax on such weapons. This was in response to the ’30s gangs under the direction of famous gangsters like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly. It can be argued that in the event of protecting citizens from these criminal gangs that Congress was unwilling to stringently ban self-protection. Further legislation (Federal Firearms Act) banned sales based on commission of certain crimes and licensure requirements. Later laws such as the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady Act and Assault Weapons Ban were passed, further restricting access to guns, the latter of which settled in 1994. Topping federal recognition of the “right to bear arms” were two Supreme Court verdicts in 2008 and 2010 in which the Court upheld restrictions of guns only in federal “enclaves” (District of Columbia) and that the Second Amendment applies to states as well (Chicago).
By the above, Congressional and Federal Judicial history clearly supports the literal interpretation of the “Right to Bear Arms.” The gun control lobby got started then about 1963 in reaction to the Kennedy assassination, which resulted in the Gun Control Act. JFK elected to avoid riding through Dallas without the protective bulletproof bubble over the presidential limousine.
Throughout history, despots have protected their security against their citizens via gun control. Typical examples include Hitler extending a gun control law passed in 1928 Weimar Republic and Stalin’s behavior with regard to guns. Although leftists argue that Hitler did not institute the 1928 gun law, he extended it in 1938 (Gun Control Act), which revoked firearms licenses, seized guns and prevented Jews from working in the firearms industry. To quote one leftist (N.A. Browne) writing on the “Myth of Nazi Gun Control,” “Jews had seen pogroms before and had survived them, though not without suffering.” He seems to take the responsibility away from the Nazis in their deprivations. Indeed, if the Weimar Republic had adopted a gun rights principle in their 1919 constitution, Hitler would have had a harder time seizing guns … and he did!
Stalin stated, “If the opposition disarms, well and good. If it refuses, we shall disarm it ourselves.” He is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million of his citizens. Others who should be enshrined in the Gun Control Hall of Fame are Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Benito Mussolini, Fidel Castro, Karl Marx and Hugo Chavez. Others include many prominent leaders in the US. A recent report in the news suggests that the president will push through gun control even if Congress fails to act. This is the behavior of despots to fail to enforce the law and blow past those with which they disagree, much as the aforementioned rulers. A timely pole by The New York Times shows that since the San Bernadino, Calif. massacre, a majority of Americans are opposed to a ban on so-called assault weapons, but the rules for dictators are not the same as for those who serve at the will of the people.
It is common sense that the right to bear arms for self-protection does not extend to howitzers, mortars or nuclear weapons, but generally there are enough weapons controls on the books now, and in view of the recent news, our home security forces are not very good to stop the terror in our cities.

Dr. Westbrock has been in private medical practice for 35 years. He was the Republican candidate for the U.S House of Representatives in 1994 and 1996. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject of healthcare reform and healthcare policy. He can be reached at

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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