Skip to main content

Put reason back in America's gun debate

By Saul Cornell, Special to CNN
December 17, 2012 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
HIDE CAPTION
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In a Connecticut school, at least 26 were killed, including at least 20 children
  • Saul Cornell: Gun rights ideology makes a mockery of values of Second Amendment
  • He says New York recently upheld a reasonable gun law, but Illinois did not
  • Cornell: It is time to inject more sense and reason back into the debate over guns

Editor's note: Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American history at Fordham University.

(CNN) -- In a Connecticut elementary school, 26 people, including 20 children, were killed by a gunman Friday morning. This comes on the heels of a shooting rampage on Tuesday in Oregon, where a masked man opened fire into crowds at a mall, killing two before killing himself.

Tragic images flash across our television screens and computer monitors, as they have so many times in recent memory. These events will once again set in motion a predictable cycle of ineffectual chatter about gun violence in America. We will be told that now is not the time to discuss policy.

By tomorrow, a well-funded gun rights propaganda machine will move into action. For the adherents of this ideology, the solution to the problem of gun violence is not better regulations but more guns. School shootings? Arm the teachers. Movie theater shootings? Arm the moviegoers.

Analysis: Why gun controls are off the agenda in America

Obama weeps over school massacre
Vigil held for shooting victims
'Newtown will prevail'

Contemporary gun rights ideology makes a mockery of the Enlightenment ideals of the Framers of the Second Amendment. The Founders obviously supported gun ownership, but they favored strong gun regulation. America has the former, but nobody seems willing to talk rationally about the latter. We all need to take a cue from the Founding Fathers.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Some have interpreted the Second Amendment's affirmation of the right to bear arms as a barrier to reasonable regulation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Second Amendment does not pose a barrier to gun regulation, it requires it. As long as there have been guns in America they have been regulated. It would have been impossible to muster the militia to fight the British if we applied today's gun rights ideology to the American Revolution. Registration, mandatory inspection of firearms and frequent training were all essential to a well-regulated militia. In America today, we have many more guns, but far less government regulation of firearms.

Our ideas of armed self-defense are at odds with the Founders' vision. At the time the Second Amendment was written, the common law view of the right of self-defense inherited from England was very limited. Indeed, returning to the original understanding of the right of self-defense would require repealing "stand your ground" laws that some states have adopted.

Under English common law one had a legal duty to retreat, not stand your ground. As early as 1328, Parliament acted to limit armed travel, with the notable exception that members of the nobility were allowed to travel with armed retainers, a legal recognition of the privileges of aristocratic birth.

The American Revolution did not usher in a new era of expansive gun rights. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most pro-gun voices among the Founding generation, proposed but failed to secure a robust individual right to have arms included in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776.

10 ways to put brakes on mass shootings in schools

Individual states did recognize a right to travel armed with a musket to meet the legal obligation to attend militia musters, but states and localities regulated the exercise of this right and in some cases prohibited traveling with a loaded weapon or discharging a weapon at or near a muster.

In 1835, Massachusetts passed a law that severely limited the right to travel armed: "no person may go armed with a dirk, dagger, sword, pistol, or other offensive and dangerous weapon, without reasonable cause to apprehend an assault or violence to his person, family, or property."

The key legal concept here is reasonable cause for fear, precisely the standard that gun rights advocates wish to overturn and a federal court in New York recently upheld.

Supporters of gun regulation won an important victory when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld New York State's requirement that one show "proper cause" to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public.

The court rejected the idea that one had a right to carry arms in the absence of a reasonable fear of imminent violence. The lead plaintiff in the case, Alan Kachalsky, said that the court's emphasis on reason is a "ridiculous interpretation of the Second Amendment." Sadly, the idea of reason has become ridiculous to some.

Polls: Your thoughts on gun control

But champions of gun control were handed a defeat when on Tuesday, in Illinois, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state's ban on carrying a weapon in public is unconstitutional. In contrast to New York, and against the advice of experts, Illinois did not rewrite the law to include an exception for arming oneself when there was a reasonable fear of imminent danger.

The Court of Appeals' ruling in the New York case has put us in the right direction; Illinois ought to follow New York's example.

It is time to inject more sense and reason back into America's debate over guns. Not talking about changing our default gun policy will guarantee more tragedies.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Saul Cornell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT