Last Saturday (2 April 2011), I attended a debate held at Temple Shalom in Fayetteville, AR on the subject of employees of colleges who hold licenses carrying concealed handguns on campus, moderated by Doug Thompson, editorial page editor for Northwest Arkansas Newspapers. Supporting this proposition were Charlie Collins, Representative for the 89th District of the Arkansas House and Wesley Stites, professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Collins originally advocated the proposal during his campaign for office in 2010. In opposition were Thomas Kennedy, emeritus professor of history at the U of A, and Stephen Sheppard, professor of law at the same. Kennedy had written a letter to a local newspaper that criticized Collins’s call for concealed carry on campus, and the exchange between the two led to this debate.
Kennedy and Collins presented the usual arguments against and for carrying concealed handguns. Kennedy named automatic weapons and cop-killer bullets and observed that the recent rulings of the Supreme Court allow for limitations on gun ownership and use. He said that he has no objection to sport shooting and hunting, but does not include self defense as a reasonable cause for owning a gun. Collins, by contrast, stated that calling a campus a “gun-free zone” in no way restrains someone who has made the decision to commit mass murder. The bill that he introduced in the Arkansas House of Representatives would have allowed full-time employees of colleges who also have concealed carry licenses to carry their handguns on campus. He saw this as an incremental approach to expanding gun rights.
I’ve seen these statements many times before. Those who oppose gun ownership raise the terror of bullets that will penetrate the vests of police officers and of automatic weapons without being clear about what they’re talking about. The fact is that any centerfire rifle round will punch through the standard ballistic vest that the police wear, but those same vests usually block handgun bullets. The definition of automatic depends on the context. Historically, automatic was used to mean self-loading. In other words, an automatic pistol was the kind that loaded a new round after the last one fired. We’re not talking about machine guns that fire until the shooter releases the trigger.
Collins’s statement about a campus as a gun-free zone was challeneged by the President of the Temple, Joel Freund, professor of psychology at the U of A and a member of the audience. Freund said that the atmosphere of a campus would change if handguns were allowed. As a college instructor and a supporter of gun rights, I do find this to be the challenging part of the discussion. Just as gentlemen in days gone by removed their hats indoors as a sign that they were not going to do battle in that space, it would be best if college campuses were areas in which the only fighting that takes place is on the intellectual level. That sounds lovely, and I’m not being sarcastic here. Since the middle ages, the university in its ideal was a place of freedom from the church and the state. Unfortunately, reality does insist on intruding. The academic world depends on rational behavior, and by definition, the insane and the evil are not rational. In addition, as easy as handguns are to conceal, we in colleges have no guarantee that everyone is unarmed, and I’d prefer that at least some of the weapons be in the possession of those whose backgrounds have been checked.
The most interesting part of the discussion for me was what Sheppard had to say. He went through the history of the writing and interpretation of the Second Amendment, observing that of all the Bill of Rights, that one amendment has almost nothing said about it in its early days. He suggested that anyone on either side who claims to know what Madison originally meant in the Second Amendment is simply wrong. This was something of a challenge to the claims of Stites that our Founders were radicals in their thinking and saw the Second Amendment as defending a right of the people to overthrow an oppressive government.
More can be learned from court cases that came later. Sheppard told us about a ruling in Kentucky in the 1820s that took an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment and one in Arkansas in the 1840s that favored a collectivist model. The general pattern of court rulings throughout much of American history has been that the amendment limits the power of the Federal government, but leaves the states free to regulate firearms as they see fit. The question that the Supreme Court addressed in the Heller and MacDonald decisions was whether the Second Amendment was incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment, just as was done with the First Amendment in years gone by.
What is important here is to see how our understanding of rights have evolved in the years since the founding of America. Sheppard pointed out that our modern notions of the natural rights of the individual are a recent idea and that the Founders of our country were not nearly as radical as we like to believe. Perhaps I’m revealing my sympathies as a teacher of literature, but a well-chosen mythology is good for our national culture. I’m willing to acknowledge that I’m reading my modern ideas into writers like Jefferson and Madison, but just as we have come to understand that blacks and whites and all other races are included under the beautiful ideas of legal equality, I think that we can find a belief in free citizens as members of the general nobility of America in their words without doing too much violence to the texts.
What I am referring to here is the idea that in Northern European societies, free persons possessed the right to arms by virtue of their status. (This includes having a coat of arms for the family.) Now who was a free person differed from one tribe or kingdom to another, to be sure, but whoever was meant had a right to personal weapons, and the society expected such a person to be armed.
The mythology of America, something that I believe we can read in the works of our Founders, is that each one of us is a free person. It has taken us a long time to work out what we mean by that. We now include those of African descent. We include women and those whose ancestors lived here when Europeans arrived. We no longer require a person to own land to participate in government and rights.
My argument here is that we are more secure and freer when we look for as many individual rights in our Constitution as we can possibly find. The fact that the First Amendment originally only limited the U. S. Congress shows the danger that arises from only finding a state’s right or a corporate right. Stites reminded us that Mao Tse-tung once wrote that all political power flows from the barrel of a gun. I hope that we don’t have to accept that thinking. The American myth is that political power flows from the individuals who make up the population of the nation.
Society must balance the rights of the individual against the stability of the whole and must depend on the responsibility of the actors within. That having been said, the prerequisite is a recognition of the rights that each of us has because we are alive. I prefer groups–businesses, states, the Federal government, and so on–to have to beg permission from individuals. I want all of us to stand up for ourselves, even as we gather together. A personal right to own, carry, and use firearms is one example of this.