Morristown, NJ

Guns, Data, History, and the 2nd Amendment (Opinion)

Morristown Minute

A data-driven, historical analysis of the gun culture in America and our second amendment rights.

There are nearly 40 million people living in Iraq, as of 2017. A Small Arms Survey conducted the same year estimated that over 7.5 million guns were in “civilian possession.” Overall, there were about 20 “civilian firearms” for every 100 people in Iraq in 2017.

As of today, there are over 330 million people in the United States. The same 2017 survey estimated that there were about 400 million guns in the U.S., averaging out to about 121 “civilian firearms” for every 100 people.

It may be a rough comparison, between the United States and Iraq, but I’ll remind you, there was a war going on in Iraq that wouldn’t officially end until December of 2017. And the U.S. still had more guns in civilian hands during this time.

In the United States, we could give every adult and child a gun and still have 70 million guns left over. Every single citizen of our northern neighbor, Canada, could buy ten (10) guns and the country still wouldn’t have as many firearms as the citizens of the United States of America.

India, one of the most populated countries on Earth with over 1.3 billion people, has an eighth the number of guns in civilian possession – about 50 million guns with 5.3 firearms per 100 persons.

No country on Earth comes close to the U.S. in the number of civilian-owned firearms per 100 people.

The U.S. is number one, and number two is the Falkland Islands – still on our side of the globe but in the UK's hands – with around 60 guns per 100 people.

According to the 2021 National Firearms Survey, about 32% or 80 million Americans say they personally own guns – that number only includes adults over 18. When you include family members who live in the same household 44% of have a gun in the home.

The same survey found that about a third of gun owners had used a firearm to defend themselves or their property, often on more than one occasion. It is estimated that guns are used defensively by firearms owners in approximately 1.67 million incidents per year.

Of those defensive incidents, handguns were most commonly used (in 65.9% of defensive incidents), and in most defensive incidents no shots were fired (81.9%).

Nearly 80% of these incidents – calling for the use of a firearm to defend oneself – occurred on the gun-owners property. Less than 14% of defensive gun use occurred in public, including in work settings.

Of the 80 million adult gun owners in the U.S., about 20.7 million carry a handgun in public under a “concealed carry” regime.

In the U.S., the average gun-owner owns 5 firearms.

Almost half of all U.S. gun owners have magazines that hold over 10 rounds and about a third own an AR-15 or similarly styled rifle.

Here is the second amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America: let's break it down, word by word.

“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.”

What is a Militia?

At the time of the American Revolution, militias were groups of able-bodied men, organized by the States, who protected their towns, colonies, and states.

What does it mean to be well regulated?

Here we run into some challenges in interpreting a centuries-old document, as the meanings of words change with time and use.

Well-regulated in the 18th century, according to Jack Rakove, author and professor of political science and law at Stanford University who spoke with CNN,tended to [mean] something like well-organized, well-armed, well-disciplined…it means the militia was in an effective shape to fight.”

In other words, well-regulated didn’t refer to the state controlling the militia in any certain way, but rather that the militia was prepared to do its duty to the state.

“…being necessary to the security…” What type of security?

Another point of historical context; consider the climate of the newly formed United States at the time.

The country had just fought a war and won its independence, and the U.S. was quickly expanding west. This was a tumultuous and dangerous time, there was plenty of reason to feel unsafe, so security was a big deal for people.

In this way, the militia would be used to protect the security of the colonizers and residents pushing west from attack.

This portion of the second amendment also refers to physical protection from government overreach.

At the time, a local militia served as a deterrent against national tyranny; if government forces tried to take over any new “legal” land ownership from residents or overstep the boundaries of office, the country would have an institution in place – the militia – that would outnumber any army.

And to be fair, there are about 1.3 million active-duty military members and over 800k reserve forces in the U.S.A. and over 80 million gun owners. So, if the gun owners all formed a militia, the U.S. military would be outnumbered. But war hasn’t been about sheer numbers for a long time.

Considering the size, scope, and technology of the modern-day U.S. military, and since militias, as we know them, no longer exist, it’s hard to imagine the country’s 80 million gun-owners being able to face off against the U.S. military.

What does a free State mean?

First off, State refers to both the individual states and the first 13 states or colonies.

The free portion of this phrase is more nuanced and certainly hypocritical. In general, Madison (author of the 2nd amendment and owner of over 100 men, women, and children) is talking also about the broader state of freedom.

What are the rights of the people?

Our forefathers wrote the constitution with a (warped) sense of moralism. At the beginning of this country, the term rights held a different connotation, they were more moralistic than legal.

Perhaps this will provide a clearer understanding…Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are those so often referred to rights “endowed by [our] creator.”

“Liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be, where there is no law.” – John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government

These natural-born rights included freedom of expression, free speech, and property. What these rights did not include was the right to own a gun.

Citizens at the early stages of our country did not talk about the need to own guns, and there are few records of anyone ever writing about the need for gun ownership as the country was starting out.

What citizens of the time did believe, in relation to the second amendment, was that they had the right to alter and abolish the government.

"Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could." - Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband in 1776

Who are the people?

To be clear, this refers to individual persons, not a collective. And if you look at the original declaration and constitution and bill of rights, it becomes clear that the people the second amendment refers to are white, land-owning men.

Also, it is unclear if people refer to citizens as private entities, or as participants in the Militia. However, the legal consensus is that the second amendment applies to individual rights, within reasonable regulations. More on this below.

What are Arms in this context, and what is the scope of bear-ing Arms?

In the “District of Columbia v. Heller” the Supreme Court decided that the Second Amendment did not specifically apply to the possession of firearms for self-defense purposes only; the decision struck down the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, which heavily regulated gun ownership in D.C.

Therefore, the Supreme Court decided the second amendment provided an individual right to gun ownership.

But what does it mean by Arms?

It seems silly to think our forefathers imagined us all carrying AR-15s, I doubt that’s a future they were trying to build. It also seems silly to carry a musket that takes a minute to reload - if you’re fast - when you need to defend yourself.

Yet, considering the above data, seeing as how most defensive gun incidents occur with no shots fired, it may make more sense to own a musket than an AR-15.

This area of the 2nd amendment is highly contested, as expected.

“To yield to the treasonable fury of so small a portion of the United States would be to violate the fundamental principle of our Constitution, which enjoins that the will of the majority shall prevail.” – Sixth Annual Message of George Washington, November 19, 1794

What’s the point?

Most historians agree, that our founding fathers would be surprised at the conversations we are having today around gun ownership.

The common law right to self-defense wouldn’t surprise the authors of our democracy, but most historians agree, that the framers of the second amendment were not constitutionalizing a personal right to self-defense but instead trying to emphasize the significance of the militia.

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