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Originally published Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Public safety trumps outdated, irrelevant Second Amendment

Having scheduled a March 2008 hearing for the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, over whether the Second Amendment forbids Washington...

Special to The Times

Having scheduled a March 2008 hearing for the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, over whether the Second Amendment forbids Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban, the Supreme Court will face a fusillade of angry responses — no matter who wins.

Both sides (plus National Rifle Association lobbyists and gun-control advocates) will use the Second Amendment to buttress their briefs. But regarding tangled and contentious issues of ownership and regulation of guns in the 21st century, our Second Amendment — crafted to address 18th-century national security threats — offers no solution.

Indeed, ratified in 1791, the complete Second Amendment considered firearms essential for group defense of our communities: "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."

In 1791, the United States had recently battled England for its independence; France owned the vast Mississippi watershed; and another war with England loomed. Yet, even in 1791, this right to bear arms was deemed conditional.

The nine justices should hone their grammar skills. The introductory absolute phrase ("A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State,") preceding the main clause sets the condition for why the people collectively had a right to keep and bear arms: to be able quickly to muster their local "well regulated Militia," individually lifting smoothbores down from over their fireplaces so they could assemble and march off to defend "the security of [their] free State" against aggressors.

In 2007, however, the U.S. has a large, active-duty military establishment. Replacing 1791's militias, today's local "well regulated" National Guard units maintain armories stocked with government-supplied weapons, each pistol and M-16 assault rifle carefully inventoried upon its return after weekend and summer training periods. Citizen-furnished smoothbores? Long gone.

Given the Founders' original intent clearly contained in that introductory absolute phrase, the consequently irrelevant Second Amendment should be long gone, too.

Despite — or because of — that obsolete amendment, we now live in the most heavily armed society in history: The NRA lists as many as 65 million gun owners in the U.S. and 230 million guns in civilian possession.

We obviously have access to firearms. People facing potentially dangerous workplace confrontations can apply for concealed-weapon permits; buying a rifle to hunt deer poses no problem.

On the other hand, there's a huge difference between sporting rifles and high-cyclic-rate-of-fire weapons designed to suppress enemy defenses during military assaults — in the process disabling or killing as many human beings as possible. Despite Congress' failure to renew the assault-weapons ban, there is no justification for civilians to possess machine pistols or semiautomatic rifles.

With our nation already awash in more than a quarter of a billion firearms — deadly weapons all — the government must enforce measures ensuring that criminal-background checks are performed on all purchasers, that such weapons are registered, the owners licensed, and all losses and thefts reported.

Thus the March shootout at the Supreme Court will concern far more than the outdated Second Amendment's relevance, the District of Columbia's long-standing handgun ban, or security guard Dick Heller's right to take his duty firearm home for self-defense.

Lives are already being lost as the deadly deluge of firearms inundates Detroit, Philadelphia and other besieged cities — overwhelming police departments and slaughtering citizens: In 2005, 846 American service members died in Iraq while 10,100 U.S. civilians died from gunshot wounds.

If the Supreme Court decides that Washington, D.C., does not have the right to ban handguns, it countermands local firearms regulation nationwide. Yet, for these deadly weapons and their ammunition to go unregulated is absurd. The court must decide, then, whether regulation should occur instead at state or federal levels.

Federal precedent already exists: The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has posted its list of 10 categories of people "who cannot legally receive or possess firearms and/or ammunition."

So, which courts should prosecute violations: local; state; federal?

The Second Amendment disappears atop the frothing surge of hundreds of millions of already "owned" guns flooding our streets. The Supreme Court needs to dismiss District of Columbia v. Heller as inapplicable, handing down instead a decision concerning the level at which these deadly weapons are to be regulated for public safety.

Lee Gaillard is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He writes frequently on defense and aviation, among other subjects.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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