Orlando spotlights our big constitutional responsibility on guns

Story highlights

  • Cedric L. Alexander: After Orlando, we need better enforcement of Second Amendment responsibilities
  • Along with right to bear arms, we have constitutional obligation to serve our communities, 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)Both as a citizen and as a public safety leader, I have been reflecting, following the carnage in Orlando, on the presence and significance of guns in American society. In both roles, citizen and law enforcement, I am bound by the Constitution and its amendments, including the Second Amendment: "... the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."

And to tell you the truth, even if I were not bound by my constitutional oath, I would never argue with a person's right to defend self and home and family and others from imminent threat to life. That is a basic human right.
    Cedric L. Alexander
    The right to keep and bear arms is one of many rights the Constitution enumerates and guarantees. Nobody can take those rights away from us -- not without due process of law. But what we don't talk about nearly as much as the rights are the responsibilities the Constitution also enumerates and implies. But those responsibilities are ours nonetheless.
    The Second Amendment imposes such a responsibility on all of us -- one we need to more fully embrace and enforce. Of the single sentence that makes up that amendment, most people rarely quote its introductory clause: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." After a comma comes: "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."
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    As I wrote after the 2015 on-air shooting of TV reporter Alison Parker (age 24), her cameraman Adam Ward (age 27), and Vicki Gardner (the subject of the interview, who survived her wounds), gun control advocates had long argued that the first clause limits the second. It meant, they said, that we have the right to bear arms not as individuals but only as members of a "militia."
    Although the Supreme Court struck down that interpretation in 2008, it did not -- and could not -- erase the militia clause, itself an expression of an individual responsibility to cooperate collectively in defending oneself and one's neighbors.
    As 18th-century Americans recognized, citizen militias were all about organizing to keep a sparsely populated wilderness nation's far-flung communities secure. The purpose of a militia was not to provide a rationale for the individual citizen's right to keep and bear arms. It was a means of fulfilling every citizen's responsibility to be a community's guardian.
    As we debate the role of guns in our society in the wake of another mass shooting, we should remember that while the Supreme Court can define the right to keep and bear arms as an absolute individual right, it cannot remove the historical link between that right and the responsibility forever linked to it. The right to bear arms entails the moral (and often legal) responsibility to keep and to use them intelligently and safely, in a manner that protects the community.
    For the individual, this means obtaining training in gun safety and storing weapons securely. For our communities, it means doing everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of the very young, the mentally ill and those who have demonstrated -- in a way that satisfies due process of law -- that they pose danger to themselves and others.
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    We already have some applicable laws to enforce these responsibilities. But we need better and more effective means of enforcement, including enhanced record-keeping and communication infrastructure among a variety of law-enforcement agencies. We need to pass legislation linking terrorist no-fly lists with the FBI's list of individuals legally disqualified from acquiring firearms.
    Finally, we must ensure background checks are applied to all gun sales, not just sales by licensed gun dealers, but also sellers at gun shows. Sales from one individual to another must, for practical reasons, be excluded from reporting requirements, but existing laws barring "straw" sales (in which an individual legally purchases a weapon on behalf of someone who otherwise could not acquire one legally) must be strictly enforced.
    These measures do not infringe our Second Amendment right; rather, they embrace our Second Amendment responsibility and will lessen the toll of gun violence. But we deceive ourselves, however, if we think such so-called "gun control" measures will greatly reduce America's bloody butcher's bill. Fortunately, there is more we can do --and have the constitutional responsibility to do.
    We must look out for one another. As the director of public safety for DeKalb County, Georgia, I expect my officers to think of themselves not as warriors in our neighborhoods but as guardians of our neighborhoods. I believe we, as citizens, have to begin identifying ourselves the same way -- just as 18th-century Americans, who formed the militias to which the Second Amendment refers -- thought of themselves. They were guardians then. So must we be today.
    We must join together in our neighborhoods and our nation, just as if we served together, militia-mates in mutual self-defense. The enemy is not our neighbor, whatever her religion, whatever his color, nationality, political party affiliation, economic status or sexual orientation.
    The enemy is hate -- however motivated -- and those who act upon it. United in mutual guardianship, we will defeat this enemy. This was true in 1789 when the Bill of Rights was drafted. It is true today, and it is a responsibility that, faithfully carried out, will do the very most we can to prevent another Orlando.