- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

The worldwide terrorist activity directed from abroad against the United States has given birth to a Homeland Security Department to help fulfill one of the primary responsibilities of government provide for the public safety.
But if we honor the charge in the Preamble of our Constitution to "ensure domestic tranquility," it is surely not beyond the purview of this new agency to direct some of its attention to the domestic terror resulting from the guns overflowing our streets. Imagine the enormous uproar if the 30 murders daily from domestic gunfire resulted from al Qaeda terrorism.
Indeed, our health-care statistics would closely resemble those of the other Western industrialized societies were it not for our disproportionately higher homicide rate, chiefly due to firearms. This aberration, brought into sharp focus by the recent spree of sniper shootings, suggests an urgent need to review our gun-control laws.
Guns are now so easily accessible in our country that the restrictions imposed by the 1968 Gun Control Act are obviously enforced only in the breach. The more stringent gun control measures currently under discussion, licensing of firearms and a federal database to identify bullets and shell casings involved in crime, are not likely to go far. They simply do not meet the approval of the National Rifle Association.
The publicity swirling around the snipers and their upcoming trials will eventually simmer down, but not the strident voice of the NRA with its familiar battle cry about "our constitutional right to bear arms." Repeated polls indicating public support for more restrictive gun laws have been easily swept aside by this tightly controlled organization that is at the height of its power and has the clout to dominate gun politics.
Perhaps it is just as well. The tepid gun-control measures on the table (including the limitation of gun purchases by individuals to only 25 per year) would have minimal effect on the more than 200 million firearms already circulating around the country in civilian hands. More importantly, they would have no effect on the basic cause of our outrageous homicide rate the misreading of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Clearly, the NRA does not interpret this amendment as the Framers of the Constitution intended.
Rarely quoted is the clarifying preamble to the one sentence Second Amendment: "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" (italics added). "Security" is the key word and refers to a problem completely irrelevant to our nation today.
By today's standards, crime was no serious problem in the largely rural New World, whose inhabitants seldom locked their doors. Aside from rifles for hunting, firearms played a minor role in everyday life. Unknown in Colonial days were serial killings, rival gangs engaged in driveby shootings, hospital emergency rooms flooded with victims of urban gunplay, epidemics of drug-related homicides, teenagers running amok and shooting fellow students, road rage gunfire, the Mafia .
The Second Amendment of our Constitution was obviously not concerned with the type of crimes displayed nightly on our TV screens. Rather, as brilliantly spelled out by James Madison in the Federalist Papers, the wording of the Second Amendment was a reflection of the political climate in Europe at the time. Authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the Federalist Papers were published in 1887-88 to influence the state of New York to ratify the Constitution.
Regarding the Second Amendment, the Federalist Papers focused on the tyrannical kingdoms overseas that would be "speedily overturned" were the people allowed to bear arms. The civilian militia proposed in the Second Amendment was considered an "advantage" the new nation "would possess over the people of almost every other nation" and would serve as a "barrier" to "the despotism which was the scourge of the Old World."
Our Founding Fathers were so wary of a tyrannical central governments that the Federalist Papers proposed a small standing army that would be outnumbered 20-to-1 by a civilian militia. Further, the officers of the army were to be appointed by the individual states, and the money appropriations by Congress were forbidden for a period longer than two years.
But the political landscape in Europe has changed over the past two centuries, and the well-warranted fears of our Founding Fathers are clearly not germane today. Even Charlton Heston, whose rifle would have to be "torn from his cold, dead hands," would agree that the need for a civilian armed militia to prevent the takeover of our government has no validity in the 21st century. To reason otherwise is ludicrous, else the gunslingers of America should augment their arsenal with tanks, anti-aircraft guns and mortars.
Concepts which become outdated were fully allowed for by the prescient intellectual giants who framed our Constitution. "In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will bring."
The NRA has muddied the gun-control waters by insisting that the "militia" in the Second Amendment is not a collective noun, and also can be applied to an individual. But Madison's rhetoric on this point is the essence of clarity as has been repeatedly reaffirmed by our Founding Fathers, our courts and our lexicon. A few examples will suffice:
In the Virginia 1776 Bill of Rights is found: "A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people .
In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that the National Guard was the only rightful owner of the militia label.
In December 2002, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that individuals had no right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.
The dictionary defines militia as: (a) an army of citizens who are not regular soldiers but who undergo training for emergency duty or national defenses. (b) Every state of the United States has a militia called the National Guard.
Despite these legal decisions by the highest courts of the land and our English grammar, Attorney General John Ashcroft, undoubtedly with the blessing of President Bush, has assured the NRA that the Second Amendment gives an individual the right to bear arms. We evidently have an administration that not only sets itself above the law, but has little use for a dictionary.
Badly needed in the U.S. are strict gun-control laws aimed at removing guns from the streets and reducing a firearm homicide rate from 10 to a 100 times higher than that of other civilized nations. In developing such laws, perhaps we should consider, with reservations reflecting our culture and traditions, the firearm penalties meted out in countries whose populations are among the safest in the world e.g., Singapore. There is a certain appeal about living in an atmosphere where one can walk down the darkest alley at midnight without a second thought.

Alex Gerber, M.D., is a clinical professor of surgery, emeritus, at the University of Southern California and formerly was a health-care consultant to the White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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