There long has been a legal, almost philosophical, question hanging over the Second Amendment. While it protects the right to keep and bear arms, is that an individual right or may it be exercised only in connection with the state's need to maintain a militia?
The exact wording of this much-disputed amendment has been the subject of many an historical and even grammatical debate. To quote the sacred text itself: "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."
Is that introductory clause only an explanation of why citizens have a right to bear arms, a kind of rhetorical fillip, or is it a restriction on that right?
That kind of question makes good grist for legal seminars and after-dinner conversations, but now - Uh oh! - the Supreme Court of the United States has decided to rule on it by agreeing to review a decision out of Washington, D.C.
That decision found that the capital city's sweeping gun-control ordinance violates the Second Amendment by making it illegal for ordinary citizens to own a handgun. (Even privately owned rifles and shotguns must be kept "unloaded, disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.")
The result has been just what you might think - the law-abiding are legally deprived of handguns while the lawless show as much respect for this law as they do others.
To quote Cathy Lanier, Washington's acting chief of police: "Last year, more than 2,600 illegal firearms were recovered in D.C., a 13 percent increase over 2005." The bad guys seem to have no trouble finding a weapon in the nation's capital, while the innocent are legally disarmed.
The numbers tell the tale: In the five years before this anti-gun ordinance was adopted in 1976, the murder rate in D.C. was dropping: from 37 for every 100,000 residents to 27. Five years later, the murder rate was back up to 35 per 100,000.
Over the course of the 30 years that this ordinance has been in effect, the annual murder rate has fallen below its 1976 level only once. No one can seriously contend that this law has cut down on crime. Quite the contrary.
"This comports with my own personal experience," writes Mike Cox, who is now attorney general of Michigan. "In almost 14 years as prosecutor and as head of the Wayne County (Detroit) Prosecutor's Office, I never saw anyone charged with murder who had a license to legally carry a concealed weapon.
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