Discussing the Second Amendment has never been timelier.
By State Rep. Jason Dawkins
Discussion of the Second Amendment has rarely been timelier. Following a score of high-profile shootings and a renewed interest in activism, the tensions between those for and against the amendment that have long been simmering beneath the surface are now visible to the naked eye. I feel the dialogue surrounding the Second Amendment can turn toxic quickly, with many opinions being purely prescriptive — supposed open discussions quickly morph into lectures. That is not what my goal is in writing this piece. I wish to encourage thought around the Second Amendment and its intended and actual purpose in today’s society.
Is the Second Amendment a right or a privilege?
The amendment 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.” But how is the Second Amendment commonly interpreted? As the right to bear arms. Given this, the answer of whether the Second Amendment is a right or a privilege may seem obvious. I want to go further and focus on deconstructing that statement: what does it mean to have a “right,” and is this “right” universal? If it is not, who is this “right” afforded to and why?
In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was enacted, amending the Gun Control Act of 1968. It prohibits possession of a deadly firearm for people who have been convicted of crimes in court and incarcerated for more than one year; unlawful users of any controlled substance; those discharged from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions; those subjected to Protection from Abuse orders; and those convicted of domestic violence.
From this legislation alone, we can conclude that the right to bear arms is not universal. On its face, this conclusion may not be controversial — there are often fully valid reasons to deny those with felonies and misdemeanors the right to possess a deadly firearm.
However, we need to take a deeper look at the Brady Act’s stipulations for banning possession of a firearm. Of the above categories, one of note is “those who are unlawful users of any controlled substance.” While seemingly cut-and-dry, the introduction of medical marijuana has muddied the waters considerably. According to the Pennsylvania State Police, the possession of medical marijuana remains a violation of federal law. Thus, possession of a valid Medical Marijuana Card or the use of medical marijuana makes an individual an “unlawful user of a controlled substance” — someone who cannot possess a firearm legally.
If your right to bear arms can be restricted by past offenses, dishonorable discharge from the armed forces or the use of state-approved medical marijuana, is this truly a universal right?
Beyond what has been legislated and cast into law, there are other, more subtle and unspoken caveats to the “right to bear arms.” Racism and discrimination, both overt and covert, play a huge role in determining who “should” be allowed to carry and possess a firearm. It cannot be denied that there is a gulf of difference in the reaction many have to seeing a white man open carry versus a man of color. Similar scenarios can play out very differently, depending on the race or ethnicity of those involved.
Philando Castile was shot and killed in Minnesota while attempting to show an officer his permit to legally possess a firearm. Mr. Castile had followed procedure during the traffic stop by first alerting the officer of the gun he possessed. It was this fact alone — that Mr. Castile was a person of color with the audacity to exercise his Second Amendment rights in a fully lawful manner — that resulted in his murder.
Knowing this, can we really say that the Second Amendment provides a right for all to bear arms? This right shouldn’t be correlated to the color of a person’s skin.
In January 2016, the Bundy brothers, along with many other armed anti-government militants, took occupancy of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. Over the 41 days that followed, the militants refused to leave the federal property, citing issues with the government’s federal land management policies. During this occupancy, the militants were afforded travel to and from their occupied land, and a representative from the armed militants was permitted to meet on neutral ground with the county’s sheriff. Despite inflicting acts of violence and intimidation upon local citizens, and even going so far as to destroy a portion of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fence, the militants were permitted to remain in occupation. While there was an altercation between militants and FBI agents, resulting in one of the militant’s deaths, the remaining militants were either arrested or allowed to depart the wildlife refuge voluntarily.
For more than five weeks, these militants who were vocally obstinate toward law enforcement officers and obviously armed, were allowed to occupy federal land. They were given freedom of movement and the freedom to hold peaceful negotiations, despite being armed to the teeth. These armed militants were given privileges. I challenge anyone to say that these same privileges would have been afforded to this group had the color of their skin been darker.
This is not a hypothetical point — past movements of unification between people of color, such as the Black Panther Party, were demonstrably met with a level of hostility by the government that far overwhelms the federal response to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge militants. The Black Panther Party worked to provide services and community social programs, in addition to encouraging their members to exercise their Second Amendment rights. They were not a hostile occupying force and yet, the Black Panther Party’s efforts were classified as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The party was subject to surveillance, harassment and government infiltration designed to undermine its leadership and discredit the party’s membership and mission.
While there are many differences between the two movements, distilling these movements to their core reveals a single truth — the government’s response to a movement of armed white men is world’s less hostile than the government’s response to a movement of armed black men. This is regardless of the group’s intended purposes, messages or ideas. These responses are formed solely due to the color of the members’ skin.
At this piece’s start, I asked whether the Second Amendment in its current form is a right or a privilege to all Americans. I hope that these examples, in addition to the multitudes of stories and contrasting narratives that can be found looking at each day’s news cycle, prompt you to reflect on this question and come to your own conclusion. ••
State Rep. Jason Dawkins represents the 179th Legislative District in Philadelphia.