UPDATE: Reader Barry called my attention to a piece in Politico Magazine, “How the NRA rewrote the Second Amendment,” by Michael Waldman, that’s well worth reading. It discusses the origin of the Amendment, and then how legal opinion beginning in the late 19th century consistently argued that the Amendment didn’t guarantee Americans the right to own guns. Beginning in the 1950s, legal opinions changed—largely with funding from the NRA.
One snippet that shows the NRA’s duplicity:
Today at the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, oversized letters on the facade no longer refer to “marksmanship” and “safety.” Instead, the Second Amendment is emblazoned on a wall of the building’s lobby. Visitors might not notice that the text is incomplete. It reads:
“.. the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The first half—the part about the well regulated militia—has been edited out.r
And Waldman’s conclusion:
Molding public opinion is the most important factor. Abraham Lincoln, debating slavery, said in 1858, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” The triumph of gun rights reminds us today: If you want to win in the court of law, first win in the court of public opinion.
The more I reread and learn about the Second Amendment, the more I’m convinced that it is not a Constitutional justification for private gun ownership EXCEPT for the original purposes of allowing for a militia—a purpose now outmoded. Read it:
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.
Somehow people read the second part of the statement, about the right to keep and bear arms, without paying attention to the first, which is the justification. What part of “a well regulated militia” don’t you (or the Supreme Court) understand?
Yesterday I pointed out historian Garry Wills’ trenchant analysis of the history of this amendment, a piece written in 1995 and concluding that the amendment’s purpose was to allow citizens to form militias (duh!) In a new piece at the online New Yorker, “The Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment,” Adam Gopnik agrees. And he makes the point, which is bloody obvious, that if mental instability is the real cause of our burgeoning gun violence, why does America harbor such a higher proportion unstable people? That makes little sense, but this does:
Everyone crazy enough to pick up a gun and kill many people is crazy enough to have an ideology to attach to the act. The point—the only point—is that, everywhere else, that person rants in isolation or on his keyboard; only in America do we cheerfully supply him with military-style weapons to express his rage. As the otherwise reliably Republican (but still Canadian-raised) David Frum wisely writes: “Every mass shooter has his own hateful motive. They all use the same tool.”
Then, like Wills, he runs through the history of the Second Amendment, bringing it up to date with the Supreme Court decision in 2008 that established the supposed Constitutional “right” to own guns for purposes like self-defense. As a palliative, Gopnik recommends, as do I, that you read Justice Stevens’s dissent in that case. Stevens’s last paragraph, relevant to the court’s 5-4 decision to overturn a District of Columbia law banning hanguns, is this:
“The Court properly disclaims any interest in evaluating the wisdom of the specific policy choice challenged in this case, but it fails to pay heed to a far more important policy choice—the choice made by the Framers themselves. The Court would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons, and to authorize this Court to use the common-law process of case-by-case judicial lawmaking to define the contours of acceptable gun control policy. Absent compelling evidence that is nowhere to be found in the Court’s opinion, I could not possibly conclude that the Framers made such a choice.
For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.”
What Stevens is saying in the penultimate sentence is that he cannot find evidence that the authors of the Constitution saw no limits on the ability of elected officials to regulate gun ownership. Citing another of Stevens’s sentences, below, Gopnik concludes that the Second Amendment was designed to regulate gun ownership:
” . Until today, it has been understood that legislatures may regulate the civilian use and misuse of firearms so long as they do not interfere with the preservation of a well-regulated militia. The Court’s announcement of a new constitutional right to own and use firearms for private purposes upsets that settled understanding . . .”
Yet the gun madness continues, justified now by two arguments. Both of these, I was sad to find, were made in a public Facebook post by The Thinking Atheist, Seth Andrews, a man I admire and count as a friend—but also a gun owner. Seth’s post is more nuanced than many, is thoughtful, and ends with a note that he’s willing to reconsider his views. I hope he will, because I think he’s wrong. Let me first show how Seth’s post is far less strident than the views of many gun owners.
He recognizes that not all people who own guns are responsible or thoughtful (his words are indented):
It’s easy for firearms opponents to caricaturize gun owners as a Wild West circus of reckless, blood-drunk fools who finish each day with reruns of “Dukes of Hazzard.” (And, unfortunately, those people exist.)
If someone asked me if I’d rather be pinned down under an active shooter in a grocery store with or without a firearm at my side, my answer is…with! However, it can also be argued that more guns, even on the law-abiding, equals more opportunities for things to go horribly wrong.
There are a thousand steps leading to the ones at Oregon and elsewhere. I’d like to understand all of them. I’d like to see a world where no one, nowhere, wakes with the intent to murder another. And I’m willing to continually assess my perspective and position on legal firearms in this country.
But then he proffers the two arguments for private gun ownership—arguments I hear all too often. The first claims that the monthly carnage we see on American campuses, theaters, and other public places is not attributable to America’s lax gun laws. It is due to mentally unstable people who just happen to use guns to exercise their animus. As Seth argues:
I don’t subscribe to the idea that the weapon to do harm doesn’t matter, only the desire to harm, although I maintain that the desire to harm – often borne of a hugely troubled mind – remains at the root of this terrible problem.
. . . Do written laws cause madmen to say, “Wait…this is illegal?”
Fine words, but they fail to explain why countries that must surely harbor just as high a proportion of “madmen” as the U.S. have so much less gun violence. Are Americans really sevenfold crazier than our Canadian neighbors? (We have seven times the per capita rate of homicide via guns.) Or could the presence of the tools help those madmen hurt others? After all, you can’t kill 22 people in a school with a knife or a taser.
The second argument is that now that we have so many guns floating around, we’ve crossed the Rubicon: it will be impossible to get rid of them, or impose realistic legislation, so that the rest of us must have guns to protect us from those bad people who have guns. Seth:
But does the idea of an armed, law-abiding citizen have merit? Possibly, especially as firearms are ubiquitous, and it only takes one rogue among the peaceful to wreak real havoc. If someone asked me if I’d rather be pinned down under an active shooter in a grocery store with or without a firearm at my side, my answer is…with! However, it can also be argued that more guns, even on the law-abiding, equals more opportunities for things to go horribly wrong.
. . . There are over 300 million firearms in this country. The gorilla is out of its cage. So if we were to approach gun violence deaths by simply removing the guns, how would this be accomplished, what law would be a (forgive the expression) magic bullet more effective than previous gun legislation, how would you get firearms from those who ignore gun laws, and how would you address an underground that can already get any other illegal substance at the drop of hat?
This last argument echoes a pointed piece in The Onion called “‘No way to prevent this, says only nation where this regularly happens.” An excerpt:
“This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”
I’m sorry, but I think there’s a way to put that gorilla back in the cage. It’s simply not possible to conceive of a democracy being unable to do so. A few suggestions:
- Appoint a liberal Supreme Court to interpret the Second Amendment properly. This is a matter of a single Presidential appointment. This, perhaps, is the most important issue, for all regulatory legislation can be abolished by the court, just as they did in 2008. Republican Presidents have done more damage to American democracy via their Supreme Court appointments than through any policy decisions they’ve made.
- Stop saying that the problem cannot be solved, for that creates a national climate of despair.
- Get rid of concealed carry laws, which as far as I can know, are not prima facie Constitutional.
- Do not buy guns, and question those who own them. (I”m not adamantly opposed to guns for target shooting, but they should be kept at gun clubs in lockers, as in the British system.)
- Get rid of semiautomatic weapons; there is no right to own such things. They once were banned, but that federal ban expired in 2004 and has not been renewed (thanks, NRA!)
- Tax the hell out of guns and ammunition. This, too, seems constitutional.
A lot of this depends, of course, on the will of legislators and on our citizens to lobby them. Ask politicians their policy on gun control and do not vote for them if they support the existing regulations. (That, of course, may mean that you vote for nobody.)
I refuse to believe that Americans are so much more mentally unsound than citizens of other democracies that the U.S.’s big lead in gun violence must be attributed to American’s peculiar mentation.