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By Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH

January 2, 2013 (San Diego)--Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut the news and internet has been abuzz with some variant of “Freedom vs Gun Control,” as if no reasonable rational alternative exists beyond this absolute dichotomy. In the mix is always the 2nd Amendment: “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.” The 2nd Amendment has been interpreted both as a right to individual self-defense and, by some, as a check on government, i.e. a right to use force to overthrow a “tyrannical” government.

Let’s start with local militias’ right to use force to overthrow a “tyrannical” government. The U.S. is a democracy. We have elections. We are not an absolute monarchy, nor a dictatorship. We have the peaceful means to change government, the ballot. What’s more, how would any local militia defeat the most powerful military in the world? Does this right to bear arms including surface to air missiles? How about tactical nuclear weapons? Or anti-tank and armor piercing weapons?

Not only is it absurd to believe that local militias could overthrow our government by force, ignoring the ballot; but apparently those claiming such a right have failed to read our Constitution. Article I Section 8 (Powers of the Congress): “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions. To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” In other words, the militias, rather than existing as a check on the Federal government can be used to suppress insurrections.

But what about individual self-defense? Does one need an assault rifle to defend ones home? Does one need a magazine that holds 30 or more rounds? Personally, I prefer a shotgun. Just the sound of the pump would frighten away most intruders. If not, in the middle of the night I need not be a good shot to render harmless any intruder nor worry about a magnum bullet traveling beyond my home, into some house across the street and injuring or killing someone else. How about a lone woman walking alone? Unless the gun is out and at the ready rather than in a purse, chances are an attacker might end up with it. At Sandy Hook school it is possible that a well-trained principal or other faculty might have been able to stop the killing; but certainly not before many of the kids had already been killed. Maybe half of the victims could have been saved, maybe not. Of course, such an outcome would have been great! However, not only would the staff member have to be well-trained; but capable of reacting appropriately in such a horrible stressful situation. Target practice isn’t the same thing. Are we now going to require combat training of school principals?

In an Op-Ed in Thursday’s San Diego U-T (December 20, 2012), “No Easy Answers,” Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote: “China has very strict gun laws, and, on the same day as the Sandy Hook killings, a mentally unstable man attacked a school in Henan province, wounding 22 children and one adult. His weapon: a knife.” Apparently Navarrette doesn’t understand the difference between “killings” and “wounding.” Had the attacker in Henan province had the firepower displayed at the Sandy Hook school, it would not have been wounded Navarrette would be writing about; but killed! Maybe I’m naïve; but, personally, I think the parents of the kids at Sandy Hook school would have preferred them alive, though wounded.

Given the 2nd Amendment and American culture, we are not going to ban handguns, at least, not before Hell freezes over; but it is a well-recognized principle in law that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” Abraham Lincoln said it and in two different Supreme Court decisions, Justice Robert H. Jackson and Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote it. No one in Colonial times could have envisioned the immense firepower of modern weapons. If their powder wasn’t wet and they were lucky, carrying a couple of pistols, maybe two victims (tragedy enough) might result before others could react, fleeing to safety or overpowering the shooter. Now we have assault rifles that could literally kill 40, 50 or more people before anyone could react. Hunters certainly don’t need assault rifles. People defending themselves and homes do not need large magazines nor assault weapons.

Our Founding Fathers didn’t envision automobiles either. We drive cars; but have speed limits. Did they even have speed limits in Colonial times? We have laws against driving while under the influence, etc.; but except for, perhaps, the lunatic fringe, no one claims such laws will follow a slippery slope ending in losing our freedom of movement. Laws restricting the types of weapons and ammunition to what any reasonable person would consider necessary to defend self and home and what any reasonable hunter would use is not the beginning of a slippery slope, it is simply a rational interpretation and application of our Constitution, taking into account that it is “not a suicide pact” and understanding that our Founding Fathers could not possibly have anticipated modern weaponry.

The 2nd Amendment says “right to keep and bear arms.” Every online dictionary I checked shows “arms” as a military term. The 2nd Amendment doesn’t say “guns” or “firearms” etc. If we were to take the 2nd Amendment literally, although ignoring the first part “in a well regulated Militia,” then any military weapon should be an individual’s right, including surface to air missiles, tactical nukes, flame throwers, anti-tank weapons, etc. So, it should be obvious, that restricting the type of weapon and ammunition that individuals can own is a long accepted concept.

We do have one additional problem which the NRA has pointed out, namely, we have too many laws and they have not been able to substantially reduce gun violence. What we need is one set of national laws. It is absurd for Washington, DC to have strict gun control when across the river in Virginia one can purchase as many guns, including assault rifles, as desired or to have laws requiring gun dealers to carry out background checks when guns shows and private sales are not required to do so. We need one set of laws and one national registry of gun purchases. While the paranoid conspiracists will decry such laws as giving our government one more power, it is certainly better than the hodgepodge of contradictory, confusing, and inadequate laws we currently have. The national law should limit the types of weapons and ammunition that can be sold and possessed in the U.S. to those that a reasonable person would need to defend self and home and that a reasonable hunter would want as well as requiring background checks on any sale or transfer of guns.


After writing this, Wayne LaPierre, spokesperson for the NRA, publicly decried further gun control legislation, blaming the Sandy Hook killings and other similar events on video games and lack of mental health registry, at the same time calling for an armed police officer at every school. We have the highest incidence of such tragedies per capita in the world; yet video games are available everywhere. Is Mr. LaPierre implying that somehow the U.S. has a much higher incidence of mental illness than other countries? Most schools have multiple entrances, including windows. Where would he station the single officer? Perhaps we should turn our schools into fortifications. And what type of weapon(s) would the officer have? Keep in mind that at Columbine there were two heavily armed assailants and a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy, Neil Gardner, was assigned to the high school as a uniformed and armed school resource officer. At the time of the shooting, Gardner was on his lunch break in his patrol car.

So, perhaps, Mr. LaPierre should have called for at least three armed officers in each school, allowing one at a time to go on lunch breaks and/or pit stops, and two others to deal with multiple assailants. And the officers should be armed with assault weapons at the ready. Otherwise, a surprise attack could get them before they could use their weapon. And how would we screen these officers? Given the number that would be involved, how could we avoid the George Zimmerman’s of the world? The bottom line is that studies have shown the key difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world when it comes to school deaths is the availability of guns, not video games, not mental health problems. Guns don’t kill people, people do; but guns make it much easier and amplify the results!

Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH, a native San Diegan, is a retired epidemiologist who has lived in Canada, Sweden and the U.S.  He has worked in the areas of preventive medicine, infectious diseases, medical outcomes research, and evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. The opinions in this editorial reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact


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