President Obama Isn’t Taking People’s Guns—But Maybe He Should

The president zoomed in on exactly the right point Tuesday: What about the rights of those killed by gun violence to live free from terror?

01.07.16 5:01 AM ET

President Obama said a lot about guns in his teary press conference Tuesday, but the one thing that he is not saying, despite all the howling from the right, is that he intends to take away Americans’ guns. Yet equally significant is the realization that individual citizens are unwilling to free themselves of the destructive weapons that are wreaking havoc on our society. Numerous Americans care more about their individual freedoms than our collective freedoms, and they are unable to see how these individualistic desires undermine the essential fabric of a democracy.

This democratic fabric includes the Second Amendment, which has been contorted, misinterpreted, and applied in a way that destroys its intended meaning and threatens the safety and stability of our nation. And as the president pointed out on Tuesday, this grotesque emphasis on the Second Amendment impairs other Americans’ ability to freely exercise many of the other 26 amendments.

As President Obama forges a lone path toward gun regulation, we must wonder how we as a society have arrived to a point where “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” has morphed into allowing individual citizens to possess firearms for their individual protection with little to no concern about the security of a free state.

It is well documented that gun sales and gun-related deaths have increased since Obama came into office, but the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (PDF), which opened the floodgates and redefined the Second Amendment, rarely receives mention.

The court’s decision in the case went against 70 years of legal interpretations of the Second Amendment that stated in United States v. Miller that the “obvious purpose” of the Second Amendment was to “assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of” the state militia, and the Amendment “must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.”

In Heller and then in McDonald v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court in a pair of 5-4 decisions determined that federal, state, and local governments could not create restrictions that could prevent an individual the right to possess a firearm in the home for self-defense. The intent of the Second Amendment had shifted from allowing citizens to own firearms so that they could band together in an organized and regulated militia run by either local, state, or federal governments to allowing citizens to own guns for their own purposes so long as they fell under the individual’s definition of self-defense.

Not surprisingly, countless Americans purchased more and more firearms to protect themselves from the “inevitable” moment when the government or “Obama” was going to forcefully take their guns away. Not surprisingly a byproduct of this new interpretation of the Second Amendment has been a rise in unregulated militias or American terrorist groups who challenge the authority of federal, state, and local governments. Ammon Bundy and his posse of men who call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, who just this week forcefully took over a federal building in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, are just one such iteration of this emboldened unregulated militia movement in America.

The Oath Keepers, formed in 2009, are one of the largest unregulated militia movements in the nation, and regularly you can find them injecting themselves unnecessarily into conflicts. In Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, Oath Keepers arrived carrying semi-automatic rifles so that they could prevent looters from destroying property, and many of them said that they saw nothing wrong with taking the life of a looter to prevent the destruction of property. They also advocated that Ferguson residents obtain firearms so that they could protect themselves from the police.

Instability, terror, and death are the inevitable outcomes of a heavily armed citizenry, yet in the 1846 case Nunn v. State of Georgia, an integral case that the Supreme Court used in the Heller decision, the state of Georgia—my home state—argued that arming citizens and allowing them to openly carry firearms created a safer environment. And the referencing of this decision only continues the Supreme Court’s idyllic reimagining of America’s Southern states.

Georgia in 1846 was a slave-holding state where African Americans were counted as three-fifths of a person and were not allowed the right to vote. Firearms at this time were regularly used to keep blacks in line and sustain the South’s racist, oppressive society. Additionally, duels were a regular occurrence in the South during this time period. In this volatile environment, carrying a firearm out in the open actually did bring about stability. The reason for this was that carrying a concealed weapon was illegal. Therefore, the assumption within society was that most white men owned or carried a gun, so being able to see everyone’s gun made it less likely that anyone would be killed by a surprise bullet. Additionally, guns could not be removed from the society because they were needed to oppress, intimidate, and terrorize blacks in the state.

This was a society whose infrastructure and logic regarding social stability should no longer be applicable to modern society, yet in recent years it has been to disastrous effect. Democracy and valuing human life were not principles that were celebrated in the pre-Civil War South.

But far from rejecting that old logic, we’ve embraced it, and the application of the South’s antithetical principles have brought instability, danger, and a disregard for human life to rest of the United States. Armed and dangerous and unregulated militias are on the rise, in addition to the numerous lone-wolf attacks that befall schools, offices, shopping centers, and public spaces at a disturbing frequency.

Right now the Second Amendment is being applied in a way that takes away the rights of thousands of Americans each year. The president must address this crisis, and not only to ensure the safety and stability of the American citizens who are threatened by gun violence. He also must do it to preserve the ideals and institutions that govern our society that are being threatened by the archaic notions of stability from a racist and oppressive society and the unregulated militias of today that openly advocate armed conflict against the government.

Obama is not going to take away America’s guns. I would argue that he should, as countless Americans have displayed a gross misuse of the social responsibility that comes with gun ownership, except that using force to attempt to disarm people of their firearms might inevitably lead to more violence and bloodshed.

Gun owners should want to regulate and reduce their gun usage for the greater good, but our society is too consumed with the myopia of employing lethal force to resolve minor disputes that it cannot imagine an environment without widespread gun usage. And countless Americans are unable to see that their gun usage actually jeopardizes the very freedoms and liberties they have chosen to fight for and defend via the barrel of a gun.