The Oregon shooting: This is what America's Founding Fathers wanted?

On the Second Amendment and the tyranny of mass shootings

A memorial for victims of the Oregon shooting.
(Image credit: AP Photo/John Locher)

On Thursday, a 26-year-old male stood outside a classroom and opened fire at students and teachers inside, killing at least nine before he was gunned down by law enforcement. This time the mass murder was at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, a recovering timber town of the type where community college is held out as the path to a brighter future. But unlike after the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966 — the first mass campus shooting in America — the country knew the drill this time: Roughly 45 minutes of respectful mourning, grief, and wild speculation, then angry finger-pointing.

Nobody wants these shootings to happen, and nobody wants to politicize them — or at least be seen blatantly politicizing them. Maybe President Obama is right, that after the mind-numbing number of these mass shootings — at least one every calendar week since 2012 — they are "something we should politicize."

Like everyone else, Obama wants these murderous rampages — mostly by young white men — to stop. Like everyone else, he has proposals but no sure solutions. America already has so many guns, it would be as impossible to take them all away — even if there was legislative will to do so — as it would to deport every immigrant living illegally in the U.S.

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This is where I'm supposed to start pressing for my agenda. So: I would like people to be able to hunt and shoot skeet and target-practice with non-military-grade long guns, pass down heirloom weaponry to their children, and probably even keep a handgun for the protection of themselves and their families, if they think it would keep them safe. Like a majority of Americans, I would also like sensible, reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, including universal background checks on the sale of guns and ammunition. I would like not to worry whenever I hear sirens that there is an active-shooter situation at my children's schools — parents have enough demons to fight without that tragically plausible fear hovering around their ears.

And, frankly, I would like the National Rifle Association to go away — even as I recognize that it won't happen. The NRA doesn't represent gun owners so much as it represents their maximalist fringe. America doesn't usually give this kind of power to a lobbying group with such extreme views. The NRA doesn't just get its muscle from its large membership, fat coffers, and impressive legislative knuckle-cracking — it draws its authority from a claim to be the main protector of the Second Amendment.

Let's be originalist for a minute. Adopted in 1791, the Second Amendment says this:

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.

It wasn't until 2008 that the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, interpreted that enigmatic, curiously punctuated sentence to mean individual Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms. It doubled down on the "individual right theory" in 2010, in another 5-4 vote.

Far be it for me to argue with the learned constitutional scholars on the Supreme Court — at least the five that overruled 70 years of Supreme Court precedent — but sometimes experts can't see the forest for the trees. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution created a brilliant system of government that relies on checks and balances, because the U.S. was founded on rebellion from perceived tyranny. They weren't communitarian hippies, but they were wary of too much power being held by any one person.

A lot has changed since 1787, of course. Some of the Founding Fathers had slaves but none had a flush toilet. Also, "arms" in the 1780s meant muskets and cannons and blades, mainly, none of which could be described as weapons of mass destruction. Today, pretty much anyone can buy armaments that would have given the Framers nightmares, kill a dozen or more strangers, and terrorize a whole nation. As Obama said Thursday, "this is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America."

Would James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the other gentlemen who wrote the Constitution have wanted to give such tyrannical powers to lone Americans? I doubt it, but I can't be sure. What we can be certain of is the vision the Framers laid out in their foundational document's preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [U.S. Constitution]

Make of that what you will. Given how polarized our national war over guns has become, you probably already have.

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