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Guns: a History Lesson

August 17, 1988

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified Dec. 15, 1791, reads:

"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."

The National Rifle Assn. would like Americans to believe that the Second Amendment grants Americans an absolute right to own a gun. And opinion polls show that this is indeed what most Americans believe. To support their argument, the NRA and the pro-gun lobby often quote the last 14 words of the Second Amendment while ignoring the first 13.

However, when the Second Amendment is read in its entirety, it is clear that the right to bear arms is a conditional right. Translated into modern English, the amendment reads: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed (because) a well-regulated militia (is) necessary to the security of a free state." This amendment is really about national security.

The Founding Fathers gave the citizenry the right to bear arms because the federal government could not afford to maintain a standing army. In addition, civic republican doctrine back to Machiavelli held that a citizen militia was more reliable and dedicated to the protection of the republic than were mercenaries. But modern America, with an annual military budget of nearly $300 billion, hardly needs a citizen militia to defend itself.

It is time to stop accepting the NRA's twisted interpretation of the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the Second Amendment gives a state militia, not an individual, the right to bear arms.

When Congress returns from its August recess it will be time, once again, for another battle over gun control. This time the focus will be on the Brady Amendment, named after President Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, who was shot through the brain and crippled for life by John Hinckley in his attempt on Reagan's life in 1981.

The Brady Amendment would institute a national waiting period of seven days on all handgun sales. The 1968 Gun Control Act supposedly prohibits felons, the mentally ill, minors and drug addicts from purchasing handguns. But, without the time to conduct background checks, there isno way to enforce these restrictions. The Brady Amendment would close this loophole. California already has a 15-day waiting period, but in 22 states a person can purchase and walk away with a handgun the same day.

Don't let the NRA fool you. The Brady Amendment would be a good law. The Founding Fathers wouldn't have any trouble with it.

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