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Put reason back in America's gun debate

By Saul Cornell, Special to CNN
December 17, 2012 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In a Connecticut school, at least 26 were killed, including at least 20 children
  • Saul Cornell: Gun rights ideology makes a mockery of values of Second Amendment
  • He says New York recently upheld a reasonable gun law, but Illinois did not
  • Cornell: It is time to inject more sense and reason back into the debate over guns

Editor's note: Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American history at Fordham University.

(CNN) -- In a Connecticut elementary school, 26 people, including 20 children, were killed by a gunman Friday morning. This comes on the heels of a shooting rampage on Tuesday in Oregon, where a masked man opened fire into crowds at a mall, killing two before killing himself.

Tragic images flash across our television screens and computer monitors, as they have so many times in recent memory. These events will once again set in motion a predictable cycle of ineffectual chatter about gun violence in America. We will be told that now is not the time to discuss policy.

By tomorrow, a well-funded gun rights propaganda machine will move into action. For the adherents of this ideology, the solution to the problem of gun violence is not better regulations but more guns. School shootings? Arm the teachers. Movie theater shootings? Arm the moviegoers.

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Contemporary gun rights ideology makes a mockery of the Enlightenment ideals of the Framers of the Second Amendment. The Founders obviously supported gun ownership, but they favored strong gun regulation. America has the former, but nobody seems willing to talk rationally about the latter. We all need to take a cue from the Founding Fathers.

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Some have interpreted the Second Amendment's affirmation of the right to bear arms as a barrier to reasonable regulation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Second Amendment does not pose a barrier to gun regulation, it requires it. As long as there have been guns in America they have been regulated. It would have been impossible to muster the militia to fight the British if we applied today's gun rights ideology to the American Revolution. Registration, mandatory inspection of firearms and frequent training were all essential to a well-regulated militia. In America today, we have many more guns, but far less government regulation of firearms.

Our ideas of armed self-defense are at odds with the Founders' vision. At the time the Second Amendment was written, the common law view of the right of self-defense inherited from England was very limited. Indeed, returning to the original understanding of the right of self-defense would require repealing "stand your ground" laws that some states have adopted.

Under English common law one had a legal duty to retreat, not stand your ground. As early as 1328, Parliament acted to limit armed travel, with the notable exception that members of the nobility were allowed to travel with armed retainers, a legal recognition of the privileges of aristocratic birth.

The American Revolution did not usher in a new era of expansive gun rights. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most pro-gun voices among the Founding generation, proposed but failed to secure a robust individual right to have arms included in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776.

10 ways to put brakes on mass shootings in schools

Individual states did recognize a right to travel armed with a musket to meet the legal obligation to attend militia musters, but states and localities regulated the exercise of this right and in some cases prohibited traveling with a loaded weapon or discharging a weapon at or near a muster.

In 1835, Massachusetts passed a law that severely limited the right to travel armed: "no person may go armed with a dirk, dagger, sword, pistol, or other offensive and dangerous weapon, without reasonable cause to apprehend an assault or violence to his person, family, or property."

The key legal concept here is reasonable cause for fear, precisely the standard that gun rights advocates wish to overturn and a federal court in New York recently upheld.

Supporters of gun regulation won an important victory when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld New York State's requirement that one show "proper cause" to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public.

The court rejected the idea that one had a right to carry arms in the absence of a reasonable fear of imminent violence. The lead plaintiff in the case, Alan Kachalsky, said that the court's emphasis on reason is a "ridiculous interpretation of the Second Amendment." Sadly, the idea of reason has become ridiculous to some.

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But champions of gun control were handed a defeat when on Tuesday, in Illinois, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state's ban on carrying a weapon in public is unconstitutional. In contrast to New York, and against the advice of experts, Illinois did not rewrite the law to include an exception for arming oneself when there was a reasonable fear of imminent danger.

The Court of Appeals' ruling in the New York case has put us in the right direction; Illinois ought to follow New York's example.

It is time to inject more sense and reason back into America's debate over guns. Not talking about changing our default gun policy will guarantee more tragedies.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Saul Cornell.

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