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Breaking down the Second Amendment

Feb. 24, 2011

By Kayla Purvis

Vermont should not have to send its relevant mental health records to the Federal Bureau of Investigation so that the information can be included in the database for gun background checks. Common sense says that mentally ill people should not be allowed to bear or keep arms, but they are Constitutionally – both federally and locally – given the right.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “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.” If we remove the explanatory phrase “being necessary to the security of a free state,” the Amendment reads: “A well-regulated militia, [and] the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” This means that the United States has right to have a militia, or an army. It also means that the people have the right to not only own or have weapons, but to use them. There is an argument about exactly whom “the people” refers to. But using the knowledge of how the Founding Fathers carefully and tediously chose their wording as well as their usage of the same phrase elsewhere in the Constitution, I argue that “the people” refers to the citizens of the United States.

In the preamble to the United States Constitution, it states: “We the people…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” In this context, “the people” are the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution. I am certain they were not granting the right to bear arms to the militia and themselves exclusively, nor would they be referring to just the militia. The militia was not responsible for ordaining or establishing the Constitution.

“The people” is also used when referring to how the representatives and senators from each state will be chosen.

“The right of the people to assemble.”

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons.” Powers not delegated to the federal or state governments are given to “the people.” There is no doubt that the phrase “the people” refers to the citizens of the United States throughout the entire Constitution. We should then assume that the same is true of the Second Amendment.

The Vermont State Constitution, dating back to before the Bill of Rights, states: “The inhabitants of this State shall have liberty in seasonable times, to hunt fowl on the lands they hold, and on other lands not enclosed….That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State….” So not only has the right to bear arms for hunting been granted, but also the right of citizens to bear arms to defend themselves and the State of Vermont.

According to The National Rifle Association, local governments in Vermont don’t regulate the possession, ownership, transfer, carrying, registration or licensing of firearms. And since the United States Constitution only binds the federal government, Vermont’s Constitution trumps the U.S. in this court case, and backs up the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in D.C. v. Heller that gun possession is an individual right.

“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 United States Constitution includes the verbs keep and bear. Still, using the assumption that the Founding Fathers were referring to U.S. citizens when using the term “the people,” the Second Amendment distinguishes between two different rights of the people.

Dictionary.com defines keep as follows: “to hold or retain in one’s possession; hold as one’s own; to have the care, charge, or custody of.” It defines bear as “to have and use; exercise.” This means that there is a distinction between keeping and bearing arms. Having a gun in your house is different than pointing it cocked and loaded in someone’s direction. The Second Amendment makes this distinction in the Founding Fathers’ word choice.

There is an NRA-supported federal law that prevents “those adjudicated as mental defectives or incompetents or those committed to any mental institution” from possessing, receiving, shipping, or transporting firearms or ammunition. This, even though it is a law that is punishable by life in prison, violates the rulings of the Supreme Court in both D.C. v. Heller and in McDonald v. Chicago (2010). Neither case had specifically asked if mentally ill persons could keep or bear arms. As a result, neither ruling is specific to that question. Therefore, the rulings should stand that all persons have the individual right to keep/bear arms. This makes the medical records that the United States Justice Department wants from the State of Vermont irrelevant and unnecessary – regardless of whether or not we think mentally ill persons should or should not have weapons.

Williston resident Kayla Purvis is a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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