Back when I was 6 or 7 years old, I had a toy pistol and cowboy hat that stimulated a childish vision of heroic battles against bandits hiding in the garage and the bushes in the backyard. Like the stars of Sheriff Ken's daily shows, I could dispatch enemies to protect the innocent.
Eventually, I think, my older brothers tired of the harassment and hid the gun and holster.
It was only a few years later that I was introduced to guns through a Scout riflery class that included instruction in gun safety as well as marksmanship. There was an emphasis on responsible handling of a firearm that has deadly capabilities.
Ten years on, Army basic training sessions added care and maintenance of a weapon as an essential tool of the trade that includes the ability to kill, again emphasizing responsible handling. The lesson plan made clear that when you use a firearm, it is with intent to kill. Responsible handling meant appreciating its purpose to avoid unintentional death and injuries.
As the national gun control debate warms up again in the wake of the Colorado theater massacre, arguments continue to avoid the issue of responsible exercise of gun rights.
Not surprisingly, gun rights advocates claim that if other theatergoers had been armed, they could have prevented much of the killing. The argument, advanced even by members of Congress, includes an assumption that anyone carrying a firearm will be trained in responsible use. That clearly is not a valid assumption.
But no gun rights advocate argues that exercise of rights to carry firearms necessarily includes a mandate for responsible use. The point would counter an absolute right to "bear Arms," as established by the Second Amendment:
"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 all debate, the phrase - "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms" - is emphasized. The qualifying phrase - "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" - tends to be downplayed, leading to assumptions about the intent of the drafters of the Constitution.
The wording seeks to satisfy various factions in the debate with a lack of clarity, which revolves around the definition of a "well regulated Militia." In 1790-91, "militia" had a different meaning than we attribute to it today. In the period, militia refers to citizens on call by their community to respond to threats. A member of a militia might be compared to today's National Guardsman - a trained, "well regulated" citizen-soldier on call for defense of the community.
Today militia can refer to any group of armed individuals who are not an organized military force. The connotation is of armed individuals representing ideological factions in a society, as in the groups of individuals supporting Syria's al-Assad regime who are not members of the military and therefore outside the control of the state.
The 1790s concept implies that the individual right to bear arms carries with it a responsibility to the community, in turn implying that the community should have authority to regulate the right - except the Second Amendment bars such regulation of "the people."
That is the contradiction of the Amendment.
A community may have authority to require responsible use of hazardous devices, to regulate individuals who are mentally unstable, such as James Holmes, whose bizarre behavior suggests mental illness, or emotionally immature, such as George Zimmerman, whose actions mimic that of a 7-year-old dispatching imaginary outlaws.
But when it comes to the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the community has no authority to regulate.
When it comes to use of firearms, the community, i.e. government, has authority to regulate irresponsible behavior after the fact.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at hakumoolelo
@earthlink.net. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.