Can we have gun rights and safety?

Story highlights

  • Cedric Alexander: We need to balance the constitutional right to bear arms with the need to reduce the toll taken by gun violence
  • Laws help frustrate the effort to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, he says

Cedric L. Alexander is a CNN law enforcement analyst and director of public safety at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia. He is a former national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)An extraordinary gathering happened in Washington recently. People whose family members died of gun violence in places such as Sandy Hook, Aurora and Charleston gathered to lobby Congress and engage in a town hall led by CNN's Brooke Baldwin.

Cedric L. Alexander
Andy Parker became the newest member of a "club no one wants to join" when his daughter, reporter Alison Parker, was shot to death two weeks ago on live television. "She would be ticked at me if I was not here," he said.
"A single death is a tragedy," goes a famous saying misattributed to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, "a million deaths ... a statistic."
    One of the jobs of the CDC is tracking death and its causes. In 2013, it recorded 16,121 homicides in the United States, 11,208 of them by firearms. Many -- maybe most -- of us hardly blink at such statistics these days.
    Until some "single death" looks us in the face.
    That happened on the morning of August 26, 2015. Millions of us witnessed, close up, the violent deaths of Alison Parker, 24, and her cameraman Adam Ward, 27. They were gunned down while conducting a TV interview in the little town of Moneta, Virginia. The subject of the interview, Vicki Gardner, was wounded.
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    As they always do (Sandy Hook Elementary School, Aurora, Washington Navy Yard, Emanuel AME Church), the shootings brought renewed calls for gun control. Because the 41-year-old gunman, Vester Lee Flanagan, had a history of mental health issues, there were even more specific calls for measures to prevent "mentally ill" persons from obtaining guns. As Andy Parker, put it, "We've got to find a way to keep crazy people from getting guns."
    Sounds like a no-brainer.
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    It is, however, a highly complex issue. The 1993 "Brady Law" (Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act) mandated a National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which compares the identity of prospective gun purchasers against three criminal record databases. Those convicted of certain crimes are barred from legal gun ownership, as are those adjudicated as a "mental defective" or committed to a mental institution. Thus, to some extent, the mentally ill are already disqualified from gun ownership, but only if a court has adjudicated the mental illness or has ordered the individual's commitment.
    Most mentally ill persons never enter the legal system, so they easily pass the required background check.
    Other than a court, what authority can be empowered to decide who is too mentally challenged to own a gun?
    Given the Second Amendment of the Constitution ("... the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"), the 14th Amendment ("No State shall ... deny to any person ... the equal protection of the laws") and patient privacy rights guaranteed by the 2003 Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the answer is none.
    This does not mean that we should stop discussing mental illness, gun control and the relationship between the two. But it does mean that there is no easy way to keep guns, automobiles, chainsaws, rat poison and other dangerous things out of the hands of the mentally or emotionally challenged.
    Much as our First Amendment right to free speech can be limited in some situations (in the absence of a fire, we can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater), the Second Amendment right may be regulated in limited ways by owners of businesses and other property and by states and municipalities. But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down outright gun bans in Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008) and Chicago (McDonald v. Chicago, 2010).
    The right to keep and bear arms is settled law guaranteed by the Constitution. We can continue to argue about the Constitution, but not with it. Instead, let's work together to get more out of the Second Amendment -- to get something upon which we can all agree.
    The Second Amendment is a single sentence, but that sentence has two clauses separated by one comma: "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."
    Gun control advocates have argued that the first clause limits the second: that we have the right to bear arms not as individuals but only as members of a "militia." In 2008, the Supreme Court rejected this interpretation. Yet when the Second Amendment was written in the late 18th century, Americans recognized the need for an armed citizen militia to protect communities in a vast wilderness nation.
    Let's rethink the idea of a "well regulated militia."
    I'm not talking about starting a vigilante movement. I am asking that we begin to think of ourselves -- all of us who live in this great country -- as guardians of our communities. That is the way the framers of the Bill of Rights thought of the "militia."
    While the second clause of the single-sentence Second Amendment gives us the right to keep and bear arms, I believe that the first clause gives us the responsibility for being a militia: the guardians of our country and our communities within it.
    Lawmakers might someday decide that the first clause can serve as a constitutional basis for more thorough background checks, more secure registration and tracking and requirements for owner safety training. But we don't need new laws or guns to see in the Second Amendment both the right to a means of self-defense and the obligation to act as guardians of even more than ourselves, looking out for our neighbors, respecting everyone and claiming a stake in our community.