The Second Amendment is a ludicrous historical antique: Time for it to go

Sooner or later, change will come: Younger Americans won't tolerate this constitutional delusion much longer

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published April 23, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

A sign that read "Guns" is on display as House Democrats gather for an event on gun violence at the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on March 29, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A sign that read "Guns" is on display as House Democrats gather for an event on gun violence at the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on March 29, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Those of us who are not gun fetishists are supposed to "keep our powder dry" on the subject, but it must be said: The Second Amendment is as antique as a muzzle-loaded long gun, and should be treated as a historical artifact.

We're not supposed to even whisper such things because the NRA and right-wing extremists have sensible Americans — including many gun owners — so bullied and cowed that we feel we are only allowed to hope for sensible gun-safety legislation around the edges of their highly profitable assault on American lives.

We've said it before, but it is always worth repeating for the millions of younger people coming to voting age each year who may not have considered it before: It doesn't take a grammarian or a constitutional scholar to tell you that the opening clause of the Second Amendment is obviously conditional:

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.

Meaning, so long as a militia of citizens is necessary (and a well-regulated one, at that), then what follows is true. But only if that first part pertains.

It no longer pertains and hasn't since the modern National Guard was formally established in 1916. We've got the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force and even that Space Force thing, as well as the National Guard, with members who swear an oath to both their state and their federal governments. (I note that dual allegiance for all the anti-federalists still lurking out there, seething about some "tyranny" of the federal government, while at the state and local levels you busy yourself with taking away voting rights, reproductive rights, public schools and public libraries.)

The six branches of the armed forces, including the National Guard. No other militia need apply. It's covered.

If you want to help protect the interests of your state and your nation, assist citizens during emergencies, understand tactical maneuvers and carry a gun (and learn how to operate it), you can sign up here or here. Join the Coast Guard. Or you can become a police officer. It turns out we need better ones. Your service will be deeply appreciated, if only by lip service from the right-wingers who drone on and on about how much they love the military and the cops.

So, the need for a well-regulated militia, crucial to the early history of the country, is no longer in play. We need to rewrite the amendment, dispensing with the oddball capitalization and punctuation, to fit the times:

The right of the people to serve in the armed services or the National Guard, or to serve as law enforcement officers if duly qualified, shall not be infringed.

I dropped the prefatory clause, since everyone ignores it anyway. And that word "militia" has gotten especially confusing of late. Now the thing is up to date.

But don't take my word for it. After the Parkland, Florida, school shootings of 2018, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote an op-ed in the New York Times describing the Second Amendment as "a relic of the 18th century" and arguing it should be repealed. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative appointed by Richard Nixon, said in 1991 that the NRA's reading of the Second Amendment was "a fraud" and said that if he were writing the Bill of Rights today he'd flat-out dump it. 

We've got the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Coast Guard, the Air Force and even that Space Force thing, as well as the National Guard. We're covered. No other "militia" need apply.

The current batch of right-wing Supreme Court justices sponsored by the Federalist Society have further discredited the high court by pretending they can peer into the hearts and minds of the founders as a way to keep the country hobbled on this issue. It's always worth noting (especially, again, for younger voters) that the Heller decision, in which Justice Antonin Scalia simply divorced the "keep and bear arms" part of Second Amendment from any connection to militia membership, was in 2008, not way back at the founding of the republic.

We don't live in colonial times, people. We live in these-here times — days of conspiracy theories, white nationalism and so-called government leaders who do all they can to prove government cannot work, who praise despots and work with them to undermine democracy, who call journalists "the enemy of the people" and dehumanize their political opponents. 

OK, none of that is entirely new to American history, but today we live in a country where there are more guns than people, where there are more mass shootings than days on the calendar, where Fox News has gun-clutching people living in a constant state of paranoia and fear, where young people are increasingly paying with their lives.

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If we could somehow summon up Franklin or Madison or Hamilton to speak to us on the gun issue, I imagine they'd have a lot to say. One suspects the founders would take a look at modern handguns and assault weapons, learn how they operate and tell us a bit more about the intent of the Second Amendment. They would say, I think, that the citizens' right to safety and the pursuit of happiness far outweighs any imagined individual right to own a weapon of war or carry any kind of gun in public. 

Those who claim to be both "pro-life" and "pro-gun" should be aware that the rest of us consider those terms absurdly paired — and we see through the marketing fluff of "pro-life" used in place of "anti-abortion," as well as the "pro-life" willingness to let women die in childbirth an abandon kids to lives of poverty. But in this country, where politicians of a certain stripe are busy teaching us that up is down and facts aren't facts, and where the NRA owns many of those politicians, we see people being gunned down every day in every venue one can imagine — shopping centers, grocery stores, movie theaters, concerts, hospitals, churches, schools.

The vast majority of citizens want sensible gun regulations now. Parents and younger Americans of all political stripes are frustrated and deeply unhappy with gun culture, with all its simmering fear and dread about the next news bulletin and days of fruitless discussion of the shooter and his motive, and the hopelessness created by talk of the "slippery slope" if we take any action to stop the carnage.

This is what political operatives on the right have done so well for decades: They work the refs and move the goalposts until any objections to their aims are no longer recognized as legitimate. That "well regulated Militia being necessary" becomes (courtesy of the NRA and Scalia) no militia need apply becomes a tradition with deep roots in our culture becomes a God-given right.

It would be laughable if it weren't so tragic, and if guns weren't now the leading cause of death of younger Americans.

Young people recoil at the Second Amendment argument even more than they cringe at that out-of-fashion furniture their parents have piled up in the basement and are now offering them. Thanks, but no thanks.

We parents would like our children (and grandchildren) to be safe when they are at the movies, in a mall, in church, at school. All of us would like to feel safe in public spaces. We don't need to hear a single damn thing from a criminal organization like the NRA or from politicians in the pockets of that criminal organization.

The Second Amendment is an antique curiosity — laughably outmoded for our times. It's time for it to go.

We must say it precisely because we have been so bullied for so long into believing that we must not or cannot say it. One day, if we can keep our democracy intact against the frantic efforts of the self-proclaimed American "patriots," younger Americans will band together to do what they did with laws against marijuana and will do in short order with restrictions on reproductive rights: They'll put the Second Amendment right where it belongs, in the dustbin of history, already piled way too high with spent shells and needless deaths. 

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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Commentary Gun Violence Guns Mass Shootings Second Amendment