April 15, 2007 The Second Amendment is what it is, alas By Tommy Denton No matter how much mayhem and tragedy may be caused by gun violence in the United States, such costs are more than an acceptable trade-off for many people who are determined to preserve "the right to keep and bear arms." No matter how many emotional appeals to stop the violence -- like the somber ringing of a bell 80 times at a vigil in Richmond last January to mark the 80 deaths of Virginia children by gun violence in 2005 -- the sacred Second Amendment pre-empts the naïve notion that regulating the proliferation of firearms in civil society serves the greater purpose of public safety and ordered liberty. So deeply ingrained is that article of constitutional faith in the psyche of many gunpowder patriots that their trigger fingers fairly twitch at the mere suggestion that they be restrained from indulging their menacing fascination. Alas, those who believe that their gun-embracing compatriots pose a clear and present public danger by misinterpreting the true meaning of the Second Amendment will be disappointed to learn that some of the ablest legal minds in the land disagree with them. Even generally liberal law professors such as Harvard's Laurence Tribe and Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas offer no ideological or historical comfort to those who read into the Second Amendment the restriction that guns may be justified only under state-sponsored militia and not under a general liberty bestowed as an individual right. The amendment reads: "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." For better or worse, the militia qualifier has been sufficiently ambiguous that courts have avoided the "either/or" solution and granted limited yet reasonable, prudent regulations to be determined by both Congress and state governments. Even Tribe and Levinson find the nation's history and court precedents to be too firmly fixed as a matter of law and custom to be summarily dismissed even in the arguable interest of public safety. In other words, the Founders may have left a mess that they could not foresee -- the proliferation within civil society of an evolving technology whose destructive firepower would be unimaginable until more than a century later. Yet we should like to think they would be pleased by the agonizing, good-faith struggle of succeeding generations to honor the constitutional rule of law. That balance has been attempted despite its often deadly cost exacted because of the inherent tension between modern society's general desire to protect public safety and an enduring, less-widely-held paranoia rooted in fear -- of crime, of tyranny, of evil generally -- and exploited for political, ideological and commercial purposes. Be clear: I do not advocate the "outlawing" of firearms. I understand and accept the disciplined practices of hunting and sport shooting. I do advocate a strengthening of restrictions on the proliferation primarily of handguns, through requiring a state-approved purchase permit, periodic relicensing to demonstrate proficiency and safety awareness, and registration through a law-enforcement agency. These seem reasonable conditions for a civilized society to impose in the interest of public safety. After more than two centuries, America has gained more than enough experience to realize that an armed citizenry isn't "necessary to the security of a free state." Events of recent history suggest that citizens of other countries -- Iraq, Sudan and Bosnia spring quickly to mind -- would rather not have learned such lessons the hard way. For them, like most Americans, they probably would prefer to try such civil arrangements as free, fair elections and politically accountable representation as the more enduring safeguards of their elusive liberty. Whether the debate is over limiting the marketing latitude of dealers at gun shows or providing open access to lists of people authorized by the state to carry concealed weapons in public, the historic ambiguity over the meaning of the Second Amendment almost ensures tension and at least rhetorical conflict. In the meantime, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, gun violence has escalated by about 10 percent since 2004 after abating modestly at the end of the 1990s. The near-absolutist excuse against imposing substantial controls to prevent gun violence has allowed Virginia lawmakers to defeat even legislation that would deny gun ownership to people convicted of misdemeanor assault or stalking -- those with a proven pattern of violent behavior. The Founders wrote what they wrote, but they wrote for a century and a nation for which the Second Amendment no longer is appropriate. Yet we should adhere faithfully to the letter and spirit of the Constitution: Quixotic as it may be right now, I propose that we begin thinking about invoking the Constitution's Article V and repeal the Second Amendment. Denton's column appears in the Sundays and Tuesday editions of The Roanoke Times.