David Safier

Let’s talk guns.

It’s a touchy, emotional subject, I know, and I’ll make it a little touchier for some of you by stating up front that I think our current gun laws are inadequate. But I’m not planning to make an emotional plea here by invoking the names of people who have been recent victims of gun violence. In exchange, I’m asking those of you who disagree with me to hold off on talking about preserving our freedoms and our liberties. Let’s curtail the outrage and the rhetoric for a moment. There’s plenty of time to start them up later.

Instead, let’s take a look at the Second Amendment and see what it says. It’s 27 words long, but I only want to look at the 14 words that are quoted most often: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Admittedly, I’m not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar. (I’ll bet the same is true of most of you reading this.) But I’ve spent my adult life studying and teaching the English language, so I’m going to use the skills I’ve developed to see if I can figure out what those 14 words mean.

“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Those are all simple words, except maybe “infringed,” which means, basically, “limited” or “weakened.” So, according to the Second Amendment, no one can limit or weaken the right of the people to keep and bear arms. That may sound clear and straightforward, but it’s not. It gets more complicated when you look at some of the words more closely.

Like, what, exactly, does “the people” mean? Does it mean every person in the U.S.? It can’t possibly mean that. An 8-year-old person shouldn’t be able to walk into a gun store with a wad of twenties in his little hands and walk out with a shopping bag full of guns and ammo. The same should hold true for someone who’s mentally ill. I certainly don’t think it should be OK for a delusional paranoid schizophrenic to have a gun arsenal in his bedroom. And people who have been convicted of gun-related, violent crimes — once they’re released from prison, I don’t want them getting their hands on guns again.

So the question becomes, how do we exclude some people — like people who are too young, or mentally unstable or have demonstrated they’re prone to violence — from keeping and bearing arms without restricting the rights of other Americans?

Then there’s the question, what exactly does the phrase “keep and bear arms” mean? Does it refer to any and all “arms,” any conceivable type of weapons and ammunition? It can’t possibly mean that. It shouldn’t mean my neighbor can have a working grenade launcher or a couple of surface-to-air missiles in his garage or a nuclear weapon. There has to be some kind of limit on what types of weaponry an individual can own.

So the second question becomes, which types of arms should be excluded from personal ownership?

When you strip away the shouting, the emotion, the rhetoric from our arguments about guns, those are the core questions that remain: Which people shouldn’t be allowed to own guns and how do we lessen the chance of guns getting into their hands without stopping others from purchasing and owning them; and, Which kinds of guns and other high-powered weapons shouldn’t be available?

It’s important for us agree on the questions, especially when it’s an issue like this that evokes such strong feelings. That’s a vital, a necessary starting point. We’ll all be back to our turf battles soon enough, but at least we’ll have an idea what we’re talking about.

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