Skip to main content

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.
HIDE CAPTION
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
>
>>
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.

Analysis: Why gun controls are off the agenda in America

Obama weeps over school massacre
Vigil held for shooting victims
'Newtown will prevail'

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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

Polls: Your thoughts on gun control

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT