Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Right to Keep and Bear Muskets

In 1789, when the Second Amendment was penned, the firearm technology of the day was the musket. Loading it required the shooter to tear open – usually with his teeth - a paper cartridge containing gunpowder and a musket ball, prime the firing pan with a measure of that gunpowder, carefully pour the remainder of the powder into the muzzle without spilling it, remove the ramrod from the weapon, pack the projectile against the powder charge by ramming the musket ball and the paper wadding firmly down the length of the barrel with the ramrod, then remove the ramrod from the barrel and return it to its position inside the stock, below the barrel. He was then ready to aim and fire. A trained soldier could complete this operation in about the time it took you to read about it: 15 seconds.
It’s not difficult to imagine how last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary might have played out had the shooter been armed with a colonial-era musket. All things being equal (except for the weapon), he might have claimed a single life. After the first shot, however, the assailant would have needed 15 seconds to reload. Odds are that during that span his vulnerability would have been immediately evident and he would have been tackled and subdued. At a minimum, students and staff would have had 15 seconds to flee before the next shot was fired.

Alas, we don’t live in the age of muskets anymore.  We live in the age of the .223 Bushmaster.

©2013 John de Rosier

"The question is how much killing capacity is one person legally entitled to carry, anonymously and without accountability controls, in a modern society."

The rate at which a determined killer can dispense death today is not dictated by how skillfully he can reload, but by the type of weapon he carries, the size of the magazine – which liberates a shooter from the inconvenience of reloading - and the number of magazines he is carrying on his person. With a military-style weapon, sufficient ammunition and limited means for his victims to escape, a mass-killer’s destructive capacity is limited only by the number of targets in front of him and the speed with which first-responders can arrive to stop the madness.

Is this really the best we can do?

It’s commonplace in our society to substantively restrict access to instruments and activities that pose a danger to the rest of us. Take something ordinary, like driving.  To obtain a drivers license, you must prove your competence in a road test and demonstrate basic knowledge in a written exam. You must divulge vital, personal information, have your photo taken, and if you own your own car, you must register it with the state. You must be sufficiently healthy and have adequate vision. Moreover, in every state, you must carry insurance against any harm or damage you might cause to somebody else or their property. All that, just to get on the road!

To fly an airplane, you must demonstrate your ability with hours of supervised training. You must also show that you are medically fit with a rigorous physical exam. And pilot’s licenses are not an open permission slip to roam to the friendly skies. You must qualify – again, with many hours of supervised training - before attempting more challenging and potentially hazardous endeavors like flying at night or during inclement weather. And certification for one type of aircraft does not necessarily transfer to another.

We even have restrictions governing mundane personal services like cutting hair and giving massages. And clearly we have regulation in the medical profession, where matters of life and limb are not mere metaphors. We expect that people who are in a position to harm us have some credential that demonstrates that they have not just walked in off the street.

Why should firearms be any different? The purpose of a gun, which is to transmit death from a position of relative safety, demands that it be treated with at least as much caution as a car, an airplane or a surgeon’s knife, and arguably far more.

The gun lobby wants us to believe that language in the Bill of Rights promising that the “right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” grants guns a categorical exemption from reasonable regulation. What they wantonly ignore is that the language in question was written in the day of the four-rounds-per-minute musket. What the founders could not have imagined is a weapon smaller and lighter than a musket that gives one man the firepower of an 18th century platoon, if not a company.

If we lived in the age of the musket, a persuasive case could be made that the gun lobby’s interpretation is acceptable at face value. But with twenty schoolchildren from Sandy Hook Elementary School and the 6 adults who heroically tried to protect them now buried, not to mention the shooter’s own mother, it’s time for a collective reckoning. America’s musket-era, laissez-faire approach to firearms access leaves the public nakedly vulnerable in the era of the .223 Bushmaster. That must end.

The question facing our country is not simple, but it is straightforward: how much death-dealing power is the average citizen entitled to possess without the sort of accountability measures our society demands for other dangerous devices or activities?

We have models for ensuring accountability all around us. As with automobiles, anyone wishing to shoot a firearm should first be trained and tested. Gun owners should be required to carry a firearms license that bears a photo and a fingerprint. Every weapon should be registered to its owner. Transfer of ownership should be monitored, recorded and taxed. And, as with cars, every shooter should be required to maintain liability insurance for every firearm they own.  

Government can provide the first line of defense with licensing and registration. But insurance is a market-based solution with huge implications. Guns are among the last things in the world for which insurance companies want to be liable, and for good reason: they are designed to destroy, and terribly effective when used as directed. 

Insurance companies would have great incentive to be selective about who qualifies for firearm liability policies because they would be paying the bill whenever somebody got hurt or killed by their policyholder or the insured weapon. So with mandatory insurance for guns, we would likely see innovative but sound approaches to determine who should and should not have one, such as mandating routine psychological testing, just as pilots regularly undergo a physical.  Moreover, insurers surely would determine, as they do with cars, that some makes and models are a greater insurance risk than others. Prospective shooters and their weapons would be screened and billed – or rejected outright - accordingly.  

Our national conversation must move beyond “the right to keep and bear arms.” The question is how much killing capacity is one person legally entitled to carry, anonymously and without accountability controls, in a modern society. Models for accountability already exist that indicate how we might protect public well-being while allowing responsible citizens to continue owning firearms. Nobody is clamoring for a ban on muskets. Ask anyone in Newtown, Connecticut, and they’ll give you at least 26 reasons why.


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