Skip to main content

Put reason back in America's gun debate

By Saul Cornell, Special to CNN
updated 7:10 AM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
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
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT