I was loaned to the editorial desk for a day, and when I asked what I could do for them, they said, "why not write an editorial on gun control?"

Why not? Because it's a more intractable dispute than the fight over abortion, I think, and more insoluble. The abortion debate is like a fight between a couple that has been married too long -- they're arguing about everything under the sun: gender, sex, religion, morality, eugenics, power, family, parental authority, the fact that they just despise each other -- but the debate topic can with effort be contained in a relatively narrow scientific dispute over the definition of life.

That's a vastly complex question, of course, but at least it can be stated in a sentence or two. Most on both sides would agree that killing innocents is wrong, for instance, if you could know what was and wasn't life. Resolve that, and you can knock the center out of the debate, and leave only the fringes (the "every sperm is sacred" fringe and the "all men are rapists/get your patriarchy off my pudenda" fringe).

The national split on guns involves competing visions of the very essentials of what American life is and ought to be: Armed and confident in self-defense, or purged of all violent weapons and safely guarded by professionals. The thing both sides might agree on is, "guns should be kept away from people who someday will use them to kill other people." All you need to do is see the future. Defining life is tiddlywinks by comparison.

And I was supposed to resolve it in 500 words or fewer?

I've never owned or fired a gun in my life. I once held my great-uncle's .22 revolver from his days as a Pennsylvania Railroad conductor, but I'm not sure that gun would even fire. I've been to a shooting range once, to cover a police contest for a newspaper.

My grandfather on my father's side was an avid hunter, as were other men on that side in the late 1800s. I have photos and illustrations of them with rifles in hand. But that never got passed down to my dad, perhaps because his own father died before he had the chance. Probably it wouldn't have mattered. In our suburban existence, nobody talked about guns. It wasn't a gun culture.

So I came of age associating firearms with Christian enthusiasm, flag-waving patriotism, fondness for the military, and other irrational fixations of the right-wing loonies in this country.

I was of the "why would you need an AK-47 to hunt a deer" school of gun control. But back in the '80s I read the Village Voice, and back there among the naughty personal ads they ran Nat Hentoff's column. I read him regularly. And here was this Jewish intellectual from the city, with no more of gun culture in him than I had, teaching me to think of the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights, as a whole.

By this time, my commitment to freedom of speech was solid; up to "shouting fire in a crowded theater," I endorsed it all. So, I set myself the task of devising an argument against the Second Amendment that wouldn't also involve, and constrict, the First.

I couldn't do it, of course. They are of a piece. Would you say that the framers of the Bill of Rights never imagined the destructive power of modern weaponry? Then neither did they imagine the reach and scope of the modern media -- visual as well as printed, and all the more powerful for its pretense of unbias. Was their commitment to an armed citizenry based on an antiquated military model of a minuteman national army? Then so was their commitment to a free press based on a political system where newspapers served as the principle organs of party communications, something that hasn't been true in America since 1880 or so.

You don't need an AK-47 to shoot a white-tail deer, but neither do you need to dunk a crucifix in a piss-pot to make art. (I thought that was a brilliant demonstration of what it would have meant for a God to mantle himself in humanity, by the way, and a deeply moving religious statement.) Guns kill people -- when bad people use them for that purpose. So do words. Or were we never serious about that bit about the pen being mightier than the sword?

So I gave up, and learned to accept the idea that some people grow up with guns and they're not survivalist freaks and they're no real danger to me. The gun problem in America -- and it is real -- is largely associated with urban crime. But until you can invent one set of rules for the black inner city, and another for the deer-hunting backwoods counties, you'll not solve it. The ever-clever Ed Rendell discovered the difficulty of that as mayor of Philadelphia. No state illustrates the dilemma better than Pennsylvania.

Later I got to know people in the South, who had grown up in Atlanta suburbs that looked much like mine on the Main Line, but they had been taught to use and handle firearms, and they used them for pleasure. And I actually admired them their Sunday afternoons blasting plastic milk bottles in the back yard. It sounded like fun, rather. As for whether it would ever be a useful skill, as opposed to a passtime, that question got answered when my friend ended up working in post-war Iraq.

The editorial board where I work is reflexively pro-gun-control. It supports every proposal along that line. Like me, they're people who never have pulled the trigger of a firearm, much less owned one. But in the various courses of my life I've come to know and respect people who shoot and who hunt. I'd actually like to learn to shoot sometime, if I ever have time, though I have no desire to hunt.

Unlike my peers on the editorial board, I live in a neighborhood where you quickly learn to distinguish by sound a firearm from a firecracker (there's a sort of contained, resonant, hollow-tubeish sound from a pistol shot; it's hard to describe). Yet I'm less zealous for gun control than they are, in their suburban tract housing. Actually, I don't think they're zealots. I think they've just chosen their sides on this one based on other points of agreement, and go along without thinking too hard.

So I started rooting around in the recent news coverage from Virginia. The Virginia Tech massacre was nine months old, but the fight over Virginia gun laws had just begun in the legislature. It was the current national hot spot for that feud. And Virginia, like Pennsylvania, where I live, has a heritage of hunting and gun-ownership in its rural counties, and in its cities serious gun crime and resentment of the perceived intransigence of gun-owners. So it seemed worth studying before I wrote.

In the new legislative session, anti-gun advocates pushed for a requirement that all sellers conduct background checks on firearms buyers at gun shows. Gov. Tim Kaine brought forward families of the Virginia Tech massacre victims to plead for the change. Closing such a loophole makes sense. The victims and their tragedy-touched families are the impassioned voice of the gun control movement. But closing this loophole would have made no difference at Virginia Tech. Seung Hui Cho passed background checks for both guns he bought, despite his history of mental problems. Kaine already has closed the loophole that allowed that.

Which led gun advocates to smell a plot against the Second Amendment -- something they need little prompting to do. "You can kind of see where this is going," one of them said Monday in Virginia. It also did not escape notice that nine of the Republicans who voted to kill the gun show loophole bill received campaign contributions from gun advocacy groups or dealers. And so the futility grinds on.

Gun-control fans will take the occasion of some horrific massacre to wave the bloody shirt for some proposed new restriction that would have done nothing to prevent it. Gun-defenders will conjure up the honorable family hunting tradition, then someone will bring up a weapon designed to slaughter men, not deer, and it quickly will be remembered the Second Amendment says nothing about "hunting."

The more I searched for an answer the further it seemed to recede. There is no -- pardon me -- magic bullet.

Mental health reforms? Virginia blocks more gun sales for mental health reasons than any other state. Besides, right here in my backyard there is a grim list of killers, like Charles C. Roberts IV, who gunned down the little girls in the Nickle Mines Amish schoolhouse, who never brushed against the mental health system.

Crack down on gun-toting criminals? Who will pay for the new prisons? And successful programs in Boston and elsewhere have worked by keeping young gun toughs out of jail -- and under intense interventionary supervision.

Pennsylvania has proposed limiting handgun purchases to one per month. Cho easily outwaited such a law in Virginia. Another proposal in both states would allow cities to set their own restrictions on handgun sales. Given Pennsylvania's municipal crazy quilt, where a township line never is more than a short drive away, that's a joke.

The only thing that got more clear was that this is an internal clash of civilizations. By Monday afternoon, the two sides were waving signs and shouting each other down on the state Capitol lawn. The meltdown featured this memorable exchange:

Jeff Knox, director of operations of the Manassas-based Firearms Coalition, approached survivor Colin Goddard and said students could have stopped student Seung-Hui Cho's rampage if they had been allowed to carry guns on campus.

"I would have stopped him," Knox said. "Because when I went to school, I carried a gun. It was legal; I did it."

Goddard, a Virginia Tech senior who was shot four times in the April 16 massacre, was taken aback, then said: "I feel sorry for you -- the fact that you feel you need to protect yourself in every situation.

"You're afraid of crazy situations happening. I've lived through this and I know that I can't continue in my life afraid of things," he said, adding that he put his "full trust" in the police to protect society.

How do you bridge that gap? I ended up writing something lame like, "What might be more useful than futile legislative trench warfare is a fresh and holistic national debate. Perhaps the presidential season will be an opportunity to start one." All things considered, I'd rather write about abortion.

A rhetorical gunfight over the Second Amendment will be amusing because we get to watch the wanna-be punditry shoot itself in the foot over original intent and the Founders and the language whereby such intent might be discovered.

The dispute arises from the first four words of the Second Amendment, the full text of which 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." If the first two clauses were omitted, there would be no room for ambiguity. But part of the legal controversy has centered around what a "well regulated militia" means.

Judge Silberman's opinion argued, with convincing historical evidence, that the "militia" the Framers had in mind was not the National Guard of the present, but referred to all able-bodied male citizens who might be called upon to defend their country. The notion that the average American urbanite might today go to his gun locker, grab his rifle and sidearm and rush, Minuteman-like, to his nation's defense might seem quaint. But at stake is whether the "militia" of the Second Amendment is some small, discreet group of people acting under government control, or all of us.

The phrase "the right of the people" or some variation of it appears repeatedly in the Bill of Rights, and nowhere does it actually mean "the right of the government." When the Bill of Rights was written and adopted, the rights that mattered politically were of one sort--an individual's, or a minority's, right to be free from interference from the state. Today, rights are most often thought of as an entitlement to receive something from the state, as opposed to a freedom from interference by the state. The Second Amendment is, in our view, clearly a right of the latter sort.

What's missing in all that? In all the modern writing, the word "state" is used only in the sense of "the nation-state," meaning, essentially, "the federal government." Yet it is impossible to talk about the old militias without reference to the states, which authorized them and set such rules for them as were deemed necessary (and which varied widely from state to state), and offered them to federal service, fully formed, only in temporary emergencies.

The old middle, or buffer, of the federal system that we were bequeathed in 1787 has so far fallen out of memory that we write as if there never were such things as "states," or that "the United States," to the Founders, was a plural noun. The Bill of Rights was a set of chains that bound the federal government. Only.

The very idea that the federal government would claim such a right as deciding who in one state or another could and couldn't own a firearm would be a nightmare to the Founders. The argument made by Madison and others against a Bill of Rights was not that it put too much restriction on the federal authorities, but that it was dangerous to list powers the federal government did not have over citizens, because doing so could allow an interpretation of the Constitution that meant anything not on the list was allowed. The anti-Bill men preferred to leave the document such that any and every federal power not spelled out in the text was presumed forbidden. (The current 10th Amendment was meant to allay this fear.)

When Madison first began to compile a bill of rights, unwillingly, from the proposals that had been put forth, he included some provisions that also limited the powers of states. But these were dropped in the Senate. The federal government could do none of the things proscribed in the Bill of Rights. But the states could, and did. New England governments, for instance, continued to tax all their eligible citizens to pay for official state churches well into the 1800s. Many state constitutions therefore had their own version of a bill of rights, sometimes with a clause that mirrored the Second Amendment.

Only after the Civil War destroyed the power of the states, and the courts began opening the Pandora's boxes of the Reconstruction amendments, did the ideas emerge that now govern total federal control over what states can and cannot allow their citizens to do.

The debate also is likely to turn on questions of wording of the amendment, and even punctuation. In which case, it would be pertinent to follow the trail of the wording as the bill made its way through Congress, and to compare it to other contemporary legislation on the topic. Which probably a lot of people won't do before they start writing.

The Founders, with so many lawyers among them, tended to be very careful in their grammar and punctuation. After the Constitution was put together in Philadelphia, but before it was signed, the Founders handed it to a Committee of Style to go over it with a fine comb and put all the grammatical fine points in order in the final document to be voted on. It was a serious matter, and the names on the committee included top dogs such as Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton, Madison, and Rufus King.

Morris, who did the writing for the committee, tried to pull a fast one and give the federal government the power to finance internal improvements, such as canals. Some delegates cherished this vision, but they knew the majority was against it. Morris attempted his trick in copying out Article 1, Section 8, delineating the powers of Congress. They were itemized in clauses, each clause set off by a semicolon.

Morris slipped a semicolon between "To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises" and "to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare." That turned the second phrase, meant as a delimiting clause to the first, into a power unto itself. It thus removed the limitation on the taxing power.

The impact of that doesn't seem so enormous today because we've essentially given federal government all the power Morris could have dreamed for it, and more. But then, it was a radical and horrifying notion. When the committee returned the document to the delegates, Roger Sherman of Connecticut spotted the trick and called the attention of the other delegates to the world-changing semicolon. A comma was restored in its place.

[The incident is described in Forrest McDonald, "Novus Ordo Seclorum," 1985, p. 264-5]

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© November 3, 2004 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"