On Monday, the Four College Issues Forum – a joint initiative of the College, Bennington College, Southern Vermont College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts – organized a panel discussion titled “Guns and the Law.”
Bringing together rural and urban law enforcement officers, the talk focused on one of the most contentious issues of contemporary public debate: the right of citizens to bear arms and its ethical, practical and legal implications.
The event took place at Bennington College, with a number of members of the Williams community participating. Among them was David Boyer, interim director of Security; Robert Jackall, professor at the College; and President Falk.
The panel discussion explored the controversy surrounding two recent landmark Supreme Court decisions on the right to bear arms: District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010).
The panelists looked at the ramifications these decisions are likely to have in the national legal and political arenas. Heated arguments sprang in regard to the interpretation of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution adopted on December 15, 1791: “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 panel raised a variety of crucial questions regarding gun control that have been circulating in public debate for a long time. These included the intent of the Founding Fathers regarding gun rights, the meaning of the term “militia” and contextual questions of citizens living in high-crime neighborhoods with poor police services.
In the first case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the “Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” This ruling invalidated laws completely prohibiting the possession of handguns.
In the second case, McDonald v. Chicago, the Supreme Court held that the right of an individual to “keep and bear arms” is incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applies to states. These rulings, however, leave many questions unanswered, and these issues proved contentious during the panel.
Several members of the audience wanted to frame the issue in simpler terms and became disgruntled when members of the panel suggested it was not this simple. The panel seemed in agreement that gun crime is a serious issue but had differing views over how to deal with it.
Richard Gauthier, retired Bennington chief of police, pointed out that despite the prevalence of guns and relatively lax gun laws in Vermont, the state boasts minimal gun crime.
On the other hand, Bridget Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor for the City of New York, and Paul Joyce, Boston police superintendent, stated that their jurisdictions saw serious gun violence, even among children. The guns in these cases were primarily acquired out of state, demonstrating that regions cannot be examined in isolation.
John Morocco, commissioner of public safety in North Adams, saw gun education as a vital piece of this puzzle.
Mike Wynn, Pittsfield chief of police, indicated that current laws in place are adequate but need to be better enforced. Wynn’s comment that “if you’ve never been in a neighborhood where drugs and guns victimize you … you can’t understand it. I think judges simply don’t get it” was met with an uproar of applause.
While the panel stirred animated discussion, it did not provide definitive answers.
At one point, Brennan framed the issue very well by saying that “the constitution is a living document.” The Founding Fathers never could have imagined the current state of the United States, so they created an adaptable document to cope with changing circumstances.
Weapons have evolved, and the notion of a militia capable of overthrowing a tyrannical government no longer applies.
The panel demonstrated that the question of how to adapt to these changes without infringing upon individual rights will remain contentious for many years to come. Undoubtedly however, Supreme Court decisions to come will be gradually shaping the trajectory of this problematic issue.