Emerson panel debates 2nd Amendment's reach

Gun Discussion

By Engelbertus Wendratama

In the third of a series of Emerson College panels on American’s “gun violence culture,”  panelists shared different interpretations of the Second Amendment, but agreed that politicians and not the courts should formulate gun control laws.

One of the four panelists, Mark Tushnet, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, said he believes in the concept of “thin Constitution,” which relies on the people and their representatives to formulate gun regulations.

“Let the process be done in the political way, with the Court be in the end of the process,” he said at the college’s Bill Bordy Theater Tuesday. Tushnet added, the political way is also preferred by gun-rights advocacy groups, including NRA, in its efforts to fight virtually any limitations on gun rights.

The discussion was titled “The Second Amendment: What is it? What is it not?” and it started by showing the words of the Second Amendment, which reads simply, “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.”

Ted Canova, the moderator and executive director of WGBH news, noted that when it was written in 1791, semi-automatic weapons did not exist. “What they meant by arms were muskets, and they’re completely different from weapons we see today.”

He then asked the two panelists from gun-rights groups about their view on this very different context today.

Karen MacNutt, a consulting attorney for gun-rights organizations, said she believes the same right is still applicable, since it’s only a matter of technology.

“The musket was an assault weapon of that day,” she said, noting that knives, the bow and arrow, and other traditional weapons existed when the Bill of Rights was written.

Brent Carlton, president of Comm2A, said that semi-automatic weapon has been around since 1890, and it’s not too different from what we have now.

“Only 15 percent of today’s weapons are semi-automatic, which are typically used for self-defense, and this type is very different from the fully automatic one,” he said. “People also talk about how guns killed innocent people, but they don’t discuss how many times firearms stopped criminals.”

His group, Commonwealth Second Amendment,  filed suit last month in US District Court in Boston against four Massachusetts police chiefs alleging that they violated six citizens Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

Another panelist was Kent Greenfield, a constitutional law professor at Boston College. He said cultural background plays big part in the gun debate. “It depends on how one’s culture views guns and interprets the Second Amendment,” he said. “Research shows that there’s a link between gun ownership and cultural and political viewpoint.”

Tushnet agreed that there are basically two groups with different social visions. “One group sees gun possession as liberty, and the second sees it as an aggressive action. In theory, we just need to find the balance of interests,” he said.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,  President Barack Obama continues to push Congress to act on gun control bills that he says would reduce gun violence. These include efforts to require background checks and limit the number of rounds in the magazines of semi-automatic weapons.

On Thursday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut signed a gun control bill considered as one of the toughest gun laws in the country. It includes background checks for private gun sales and a ban on sales of high-capacity magazines. The bill was applauded by the family members of the Newtown shooting.

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