Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
The modest proposal I’m going to make here may come off as absurd.
But nothing could possibly be as absurd — and horrific — as the fact that this past weekend, in the space of just 24 hours, we saw three major mass shootings in the United States: The deadly spree at an El Paso, Texas Walmart, which left 22 dead and over two dozen wounded. The attack on a bar in Dayton, Ohio, where the shooter killed nine — including his sister — and injured at least 26. And a relatively unpublicized shooting at a Chicago playground, which resulted in no deaths, but seven victims with severe gunshot wounds.
So let’s agree that it’s time for this nation to come together to address this ongoing crisis once and for all — and that small ideas, minimalist policies and “thoughts and prayers” won’t be enough to do it.
That’s why I want to share a solution that should resolve the logjam blocking sensible reform of gun ownership in this country — one that by all rights should get overwhelming support among American patriots of both parties. I call it the “Military Induction for Licensing, Instruction and Training In Arms” Act — the MILITIA Act for short.
The proposal is simple: Anyone purchasing a gun should be required to enlist for military reserve service, spanning the entire period of their gun ownership.
Under this proposal, being granted a handgun license would simultaneously and automatically register you to serve as a reservist in the Armed Forces branch of your choice — it’s that simple. And it should be that simple … because it’s what the framers intended.
Gun advocates tend to talk about the Second Amendment as if it provides the unlimited freedom for any individual to own and carry weapons. The actual language is very different: “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 literal language used in the Constitution focuses on the right to bear arms within the context of — if, arguably, not solely limited by — the security needs of our nation. As Republicans frequently proclaim, our armed forces are deeply under-resourced, with a 2017 survey showing interest in military service in decline, and the army finding it harder to meet their recruitment goals. Consider that, according to a 2018 national survey, there are an estimated one million new gun owners in the United States every year. That’s just a fraction short of the size of our entire active military — which across all services, counts about 1.3 million soldiers.
Making reserve (or active) military service a requirement for gun ownership would ensure that our armed forces has the service pool it needs and deserves. And it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of countries that have some form of compulsory military service.
In fact, around 60 nations have programs requiring mandatory military enlistment for many or all adult males for terms ranging from one month to three years – including some of our President’s favorite countries: Russia, the UAE, North Korea and Israel. The latter two, along with Armenia, Cape Verde, Chad, China, Eritrea, Norway and Sweden, require military service by both men and women.
But this proposal isn’t a turning back of the clock to the days of the draft. It preserves our fundamental goal of having a volunteer armed forces. It just specifies that choosing to own a firearm should be equivalent to deciding to join our nation’s “well-regulated militia.”
Would requiring gun owners to join the Reserve be an undue hardship? Well, being a reservist means undergoing basic training, then returning to civilian life – and spending a minimum of one weekend a month and two weeks per year training to keep your skills sharp. Sounds reasonable for any patriot who wants to have continued access to a lethal weapon. Reserve status would ensure that all guns are registered; there are currently no legal requirements for gun registration in order to purchase and own a firearm in 36 states – no permit or license needed – and, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, only 12 states and the District of Columbia require universal background checks for all gun sales and transfers. Importantly, it would also ensure that gun owners learn how to use and store them safely, and that they are monitored at least once a year for mental health, during their two-week mandatory extended training.
Now, there are some limitations imposed for reservist status. For example, generally one needs to enlist before the age of 42. Recognizing the value of serving one’s country, this proposal would waive all restrictions to enlistment – age, gender, sexuality, and so on – as long as the enlistee is physically and mentally capable of service. Even the “physical capability” aspect could be waived, allowing for desk work or other participation for those not capable of field combat. (Of course, even for noncombatant enlistees, the compulsory gun safety training would still be required.)
The only barriers imposed would be standard mental health and background checks — the same ones all military enlistees are required to undergo. Do you have a criminal record? An “adverse disposition” (such as, say, a history of domestic violence)? Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be eligible to serve — and as a result, not eligible to carry a weapon. The proposal would keep the lower age limit of 18 for enlistment too; if you’re not allowed to sign contracts or vote, you wouldn’t be allowed to serve (or own a gun), at least not without parental consent.
This proposal should address every issue that Republicans generally raise as a way to block gun reform from moving forward. It’s fundamentally patriotic, weaving military service back into the fabric of American life. It imposes no restrictions on gun owners other than the ones we already place on our military service people. And it is by definition entirely constitutional, reflecting the literal language in our nation’s charter document. It’s hard to see how the right could argue against this proposal without arguing the Constitution they claim to revere, or attacking the military they say they love, or making it seem like their passion for defending gun rights is only about the money they get from the NRA.
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Of course, it’s not like I’m under the illusion that this proposal is likely to pass. The fear of being seen as a coward or hypocrite hasn’t motivated those who are standing in the way of reducing gun violence so far, after all. But what it should do is to underscore the fact that the dialogue around the Second Amendment has been preoccupied with the personal right to bear arms — and completely ignored the part of the text that focuses on the role of such arms in our nation’s defense.
That is to say, the Second Amendment doesn’t just guarantee an individual freedom; it’s also a proclamation of a collective duty, which can be seen in countries like Switzerland, where gun ownership is mandatory — specifically to be used in defense of that nation against invasion – for adult males 18 to 34 who are viewed as fit for service.
In that sense, the MILITIA Act isn’t entirely meant to be tongue-in-cheek. How different would our gun debate be today if the focus weren’t on the selfish right to personal protection but on our responsibility to serve our country?