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Guest Editorial: What ‘keep and bear arms’ actually means

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By Christopher Coffman
Guest Columnist

Most, if not all, American citizens are aware of the separation of powers inherent in our Constitution. We have three branches of government: the legislative, executive, and the judiciary. That last one is a favorite of mine. However, the Tea Party movement has helped remind people there is another separation: state and federal.  
This is not an article about the Tea Party, though. Instead it is an article about gun control and this author’s opinion that rhetoric stating the federal government, President Obama, or some other group/entity is bent on taking our guns is largely a ploy with two goals. The first, to convince people to vote for pro Second Amendment candidates, the second, to get membership fees for organizations like the NRA.  
As we all know, the Bill of Rights is the name collectively given amendments 1-10 of the U.S. Constitution. What we often forget is that the Bill of Rights was only intended by the Founding Fathers to apply to the federal government.  
In terms of the gun control debate this leads to a very simple conclusion — the federal government must respect the freedom to keep and bear arms. The only conceivable way the federal government could totally abolish this right is through the amendment process. I think we can all agree that is an unlikely occurrence.  
Additionally, the Second Amendment has never been “incorporated” to the States through the 14th Amendment. That’s fancy lawyer talk for saying the Second Amendment has never been held to apply to state government.  
Some people may argue that D.C. v. Heller is a step in that direction, but there are notable differences between the District of Columbia and a state, mainly, though is the fact D.C. simply isn’t a state, even their representatives in Congress are only for show.  
However, nearly all state constitutions carry the same or similar guarantee. Those, too, can only be changed through the amendment process.
By automatically jumping to the “take our guns” position, people lose the ability to meaningfully discuss what “keep and bear arms” actually means.  
When the Constitution was written, the main firearm type was probably a rifle, useful for hunting and killing the British. Now, the main type of firearm is probably a handgun with a 9-to-15 round clip.  In Kentucky we still have plenty of rifles, too, I imagine. In fact, as I write this I have several within arm’s length. I mention that in case anyone confuses me for a gun control Nazi.  I’m not.  But I am reasonable, or at least pretend to be.
What sorts of “arms” do I have the right to keep and bear?  The pro-gun lobby seems to have no problem with owning assault rifles with high capacity magazines, which, by the way, were totally nonexistent when the Constitution was written. Tellingly, though, they don’t extend their definition of “arms” very far. The Constitution does not say keep and bear knives and guns.  It simply says arms.  
This leads to two possible positions — there is no right at all to own a gun because only the minimal definition of arms is required, meaning knives, sabers, spears, etc.; or, there is no limit to which arms we can keep and bear, assuming we can afford them. This of course makes tanks, Black Hawk helicopters, missiles and nuclear arms all fair game.  
Essentially, we are losing the ability to discuss the definition of “arms” and which ones we, as a society, should be able to keep and bear. No one I have ever encountered has seriously advocated keeping and bearing nuclear arms. Aside from the fact nukes are prohibitively expensive, owning them is simply ludicrous. How much defense does a person need?  
I don’t think turning Casey County into a barren wasteland is a reasoned response to a burglar or trespasser. But there are grey areas. Personally, I feel owning an assault rifle is equally ludicrous. This isn’t the Cold War and I have no fear of Russians or the Chinese showing up in my back yard. Ideally, unless I’m a total nincompoop, I really only need a one bullet capacity in a rifle to be an effective hunter; not that people hunt much aside from stalking some sirloin in Wal-Mart.
My conclusion then is this — we are doing ourselves a disservice by jumping to the “take our guns” position rather than having a thoughtful discussion about which arms we should have a right to keep and bear.  The West was won by rifles and six shooters, so I think I heard in a song once, not modified Glocks holding 20 rounds.   
Also, be wary of someone preaching the government is going to take our guns. They will probably want a membership fee or a vote. The government will not take our guns and America in no manner resembles Nazi Germany.  
And, finally, registering your handgun isn’t that terrible of a burden, unless you intend to murder people.

Editor’s Note: Christopher Coffman is a local attorney who practices in Liberty.