When I was in high school, I joined the ROTC initially because I was attracted to the uniforms. I figured they would provide an opportunity to escape the constant berating by fellow students owing to my outdated clothing. I was fascinated with the guns and became an excellent marksman, winning several marksmanship awards.
I also led a drill team, which was very advanced with the art of disassembling and reassembling military rifles in record time. I advanced through the ranks, eventually becoming the city's ROTC executive officer and was offered a scholarship to West Point.
I gained great respect for the military and its role in procuring and maintaining our freedom. I also gained great appreciation for firearms, as well as an understanding of how they can be used for great good or great harm.
Our country is embroiled in an argument about the significance of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which was a component of the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Why was this right important enough to become a part of the United States Constitution?
Obviously, it was felt that people had the right to protect themselves and their property, as has been the case with civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The method of protection and the types of arms used to achieve it has varied with technological advances. Some people prefer to focus on the intent of the Second Amendment, rather than the weapons themselves. Others feel that the biggest problem is the increasing potency of the weapons that can legally be used by virtually anyone. Others find different reasons to either support or argue for different interpretations of the amendment.
Interestingly, we have seen this movie before. During the Revolutionary War for American freedom, the British, who are now our close allies, were not interested in anything that promoted American independence and freedom. They placed multiple restrictions on guns and ammunition destined for the American colonies. They clearly did not want to empower local militias that might at some point in the future threaten their military superiority.
Many will say it is foolish to even imagine that the people of America today could have anything to fear from an authoritarian government that might some day wish to suppress the liberty that we take for granted. Therefore, they reason, there is absolutely no justification for dangerous, military-style weapons in the hands of the populace.
It might be a good idea to point out to such people that a few decades ago, there were few who believed that we would reach a state in which our leaders would decide that they know best what the people need, and that this justifies forceful imposition of their will upon the people.
In addition to being a deterrent to the development of a tyrannical central government, an armed populace can potentially be a tremendous support to the military and the police in the case of a military invasion by hostile external forces or in the case of insurrection by misguided internal forces. I am only referring to major conflicts — as opposed to home invasions and incidents without national implications, which generally can be handled with small arms.
On the other side of the argument, there are reasonable people who look at the tens of thousands of people who are killed each year in this country by guns, and they do not feel that we are doing enough to stop the carnage.
Many of them want to see significant restrictions on the distribution of firearms in our nation, and others want to restrict types and quantities of ammunition. Some would be happy just to make sure that all guns and gun owners are registered, and most reasonable people certainly are not in favor of allowing criminals and mentally unstable individuals to purchase firearms.
If you subtract suicides, the number of individuals killed by guns in America is far less than the number killed by automobiles, yet the government does not tell people they can only buy approved types of automobiles with a limited horsepower — at least not yet.
We do, however, require that anyone driving a car on the streets of our nation have a license to do so, indicating the successful completion of adequate training. We do not grant licenses to certain categories of individuals who would be deemed unsafe drivers. This is done for the safety of the public at large.
Perhaps instead of getting into our corners and screaming at each other, it is time to engage in intelligent conversation about our desire to preserve the rights granted to American citizens by our Constitution while at the same time ensuring the safety of all of our citizens. The way we treat access to automobiles is a good starting point, although there is no perfect analogy. If we keep our goals in mind and dispose of ideological rhetoric, we can solve this problem.
Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.