Today in our church, just a few miles from Newtown, Connecticut, we held a moment of memorial reflection and prayer for the victims of Adam Lanza's heinous slaughter. We should not have had to have done this. Children barely of an age to be able to read and their adult teachers and schoolworkers should be alive today, but they are not. They were mowed down by a madman equipped with a semiautomatic rifle, dressed in combat fatigues.
This was a person pretending to be a citizen soldier. He was not. He was just a sick, deranged person, a person who was definitely not of the profile that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he authored the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment - and a person who was definitely not equipped with the type of weapon that would have been familiar to Jefferson.
Much has been made by pro-gun lobbyists and enthusiasts about Thomas Jefferson's love of guns. But first and foremost, Jefferson loved freedom. Like many of the people who lived through the War of Independence to taste the sweet air of liberty in the world's first truly self-governed federal democracy, Jefferson was suspicious of the power of a permanent military force for national governments, so much so that rather than supporting the idea of a navy with proper ships to counter the military ships of Europe he backed the notion of individual states funding small sailboats each equipped with one small cannon as the solution to protecting our national interests at sea.
But Jefferson was not suspicious of the power of democratic governments to manage military affairs - at the state level. When you look at quotes from Jefferson regarding the right to bear arms, it is very clear that he saw well-regulated state militias of citizen soldiers as the primary solution to all national defense issues. Therefore Jefferson saw gun ownership via the Second Amendment not as an end unto itself but rather as a Constitutionally enshrined military strategy to prevent the nation from relying on the easily corrupted forces of a standing army.
In 1801 Jefferson's first address as President noted "Uncertain as we must ever be of the particular point in our circumference where an enemy may choose to invade us, the only force which can be ready at every point and competent to oppose them, is the body of neighboring citizens as formed into a militia. On these, collected from the parts most convenient, in numbers proportioned to the invading foe, it is best to rely, not only to meet the first attack, but if it threatens to be permanent, to maintain the defence until regulars may be engaged to relieve them." " In an 1813 letter to fellow "founding father" James Monroe, Jefferson noted ""It is more a subject of joy [than of regret] that we have so few of the desperate characters which compose modern regular armies. But it proves more forcibly the necessity of obliging every citizen to be a soldier."
So the concept of a well-regulated militia that is so quickly glossed over by pro-gun lobbyists and proponents is not to be taken lightly. State militias allowed people to keep their own firearms in part because of the expense but also because there was a better chance of them being well maintained and their citizen-soldiers familiar and practiced with their proper use. And the firearms at issue were all of a particular kind at that time: single round hunting rifles or rifles of similar form issued during the War of Independence that people had maintained in their families. Even at the time of the Civil War many decades later, men went to war in their state militia units with treasured family hunting rifles, some dating back to the War of Independence. Since good guns were expensive and, often, still hand-crafted, it was a necessity as much as anything else.
What they did not go to war with were automatic weapons, semi-automatic rifles or, typically, handguns. Neither did they go to war with self-organized militia units, such as some gun enthusiasts aligned with political causes have formed. There was absolutely no doubt who they served as people doing to war: the government of their states. Today, these citizen-solders of the states under the authority of the state governors are organized as units of the National Guard - and clearly under government authority.
Yet neither the type of weapons nor the conditions which lead to their permitted use under the Second Amendment seem to get much scrutiny from pro-gun lobbyists. A semi-automatic rifle killed children and adults last Friday - not a single-round, bolt action hunting rifle of the sort that would have seemed reasonably familiar to Jefferson and other framers of the U.S. Constitution. And Adam Lanza was most definitely not using that gun as a member of a well-organized state militia. He was doing it for sick reasons, and trained in its use by a mother who was obviously not aligned with a state militia either. This was violence on a wholesale scale based on weapons that were inconceivable at the time of Jefferson's authoring the Second Amendment.
Today we do have these weapons, and today, like it or not, we do have a standing military force for our nation organized at the federal level. Conditions for defending our nation changed, but the Second Amendment did not change. The types of weapons available changed but the Second Amendment did not change. Perhaps the amendment is fine as it is, for conditions for our defense may change yet again. But what we can be sure of today is that had the type of weapon that Adam Lanza had in his hand been a single round, bolt action rifle, he would have been able to kill far fewer people and he would have been far easier to overcome by bystanders.
Short of equipping every teacher in the U.S. with automatic weapons, there is no reasonable defense against the madness of high-power, multi-round firearms in the hands of sick people in our schools. Since this is completely unthinkable to sane people, there is really only one good solution to our gun problem in the U.S.: banning the civilian use of all firearms other than single-round, bolt action hunting rifles. If any one wants to own or use anything more powerful than that, they should be part of a well-organized, government run state militia - the National Guard - and should be required to have strict licensing of their use and very strict rules as to when, where and how they may be used and stored.
I think that Jefferson had some very good ideas in mind for the Second Amendment, since tyranny does come in many forms - and our standing military in the U.S. is a great cause for concern at times. It is interesting that under the guise of post-9/11 activities there was movement to reduce our governors' control over the National Guard - by the very people who seem to favor civilian gun use in the U.S. But we should not try to distort Jefferson's plan for national self defense enshrined in the Second Amendment as an excuse to cater to a profit-thirsty gun industry bent on the mass manufacturing of high-power weapons for civilians that have nothing to do with either our national defense or true sport hunting. Corporations are manipulating our citizens into supporting a culture of fear that will only weaken our nation, not strengthen it. This has been true for quite a long time, and it is a shame that totally defenseless children and adults should bring us to the point of potentially recognizing this as a fundamental truth. But then again, in a nation where the ultra-powerful and ultra-rich dictate much of our national debate, why should we expect it to be any different - until Americans come to their senses.