Second Amendment Follies, Part 5: “Pre-existing Rights”

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As we have seen in the previous installments, there is nothing in the Second Amendment that explicitly guarantees the right of an individual citizen to own firearms. But while arguing to the contrary, gunsters also hedge their bets by claiming that the amendment was not really meant to grant such a right but to reaffirm it; that, since many people owned guns in Revolutionary times, they obviously had a right to do so, and therefore such a right is still in effect today.  It was and is, so they say, a “pre-existing” or “innate” right. Many times they will even refer to it as a “God-given” right, as if that celebrated stone tablet had had a flip side on which was engraved, “Thou shalt be armed to the teeth with weapons to be invented millennia hence”.

There are really two separate but related issues here: tradition as precedent, and the presumed right of ownership in general.

The tradition of tradition

By “tradition as precedent”, we mean the conviction that just because something has always been done or was done in the past, that makes it acceptable, preferable or even mandatory.  This tenet is the backbone of conservatism and even neoconservatism. And it’s absurd on the face of it. As Tevye so famously discovers in Fiddler on the Roof, there are times when faith in tradition severely butts its head against harsh reality.

Surely anyone can readily tick off a list of activities that most people consider undesirable, yet have a very long tradition: murder, theft, rape, child marriage, racism, slavery, violent conquest, genocide and greed, to name just a few. Not only have all such actions been committed on an individual basis for countless ages, but most have been officially sanctioned by societies and governments at various times and in various places.  Indeed, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that tradition, far from being ample justification for continuance of an action, is more likely to be an indication that an action should be curbed.

There is an old saying to the effect that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. And quite often, one particular action that could be regarded as a right (or at least as permissible) under one set of circumstances could be justly prohibited in a different social context. If you only rode your motorcycle on deserted roads, it well might be that you would have a right to ride as fast as you wanted, without a helmet.  But if there is a chance that other motorists will be using that road, then it is incumbent upon you to consider the lifelong impact upon their lives that your unhelmeted, dumbassed death might occasion.

If you live in a cabin on an isolated mountaintop, then you might have every right to burn your trash and take target practice in your yard. If you live in the heart of Los Angeles, that’s another matter altogether. So even if we assume that Americans in the Eighteenth Century had a right to own guns, that wouldn’t mean that the same is true in today’s radically different world.

Reason and the evidence of history indicate that if people followed what is sometimes called The Golden Rule, we’d all be much happier and better off. But they don’t, and won’t. Which is why we have laws.

Of course, the existence of laws and governments results in an occasional clash between legal rights and what we perceive as innate (“God-given”) rights. Homosexuality, for instance, has very frequently and universally been the target of repressive regulation. And we’d normally assume that a family has a right to have as many children as it wishes. But the government of China, fearing catastrophic overpopulation, decided that there should be no more than one child per family (in most cases), which seems to be a violation of said right.

On the other hand, one could argue that such an innate right does not really exist in circumstances under which large families would pose a burden to society (bear in mind that “society” is just another name for “other people”).  Furthermore, it’s at least understandable if not justifiable that a couple in any country should be prohibited from having more children if they have been horribly abusive to the ones they already have.

In any case, whether it’s a matter of innate rights or legal rights, mere tradition alone is clearly not an adequate justification for any activity.

Nine-tenths of the law

But what about the right to own property in general? Surely in a free society you have a right to own your house, your land, your automobile, and — why not — your shooting implements, without any authorization from the government. Don’t you?

Actually, the same principle applies. Let’s not forget that for the vast majority of human history, there was a presumed innate right to own other human beings. It was not until fairly recently in our evolution that we collectively began to realize that slavery was not merely a swing of the fist, but a punch to the nose of human decency. And few people would maintain that a citizen has a right to own a nuclear warhead. Guns are designed for essentially the same purpose on a smaller scale.

Summing up

But aren’t there indeed basic, innate human rights that cannot be justly compromised by any legislation? Well, sure. The Founders of the Republic summarized them very nicely: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That may sound like a short list, but it actually covers a great deal of territory. It includes, for instance, such basics as food, clothing, shelter and medicine. But do guns fall in that category? Perhaps for a limited number of individuals in a limited range of circumstances. But to declare that there is a “God-given” right for all citizens to be armed is a very big stretch indeed — particularly when the evidence indicates that guns do considerably more harm than good.

You certainly have an innate right to defend yourself from harm.  So how, you may ask, do you defend yourself without a gun?  We just as easily could turn the question around and ask how can you even consider guns a viable element of self-defense when they are statistically so ineffective and even, evidently, downright counterproductive. (As a person who once was mugged at gunpoint, I say with confidence that one reason I am alive today is that I wasn’t armed.) But the short answer is, you use your head instead of your trigger finger. It’s hard to be more specific than that, because techniques and strategies will vary by the individual. But in any case, it’s naive and foolhardy to assume that a right to self-defense means you should be armed. And it’s ill-informed to believe you have an innate right to be.

In short, the right that Americans now enjoy (if that is an appropriate word) to own firearms does not come from the Constitution. It does not come from God or any synonym thereof. It does not come from tradition or reason. It does not arise from a need. It proceeds solely from the fiat of “conservative” justices.

 

Second Amendment Follies, Part 4: “to keep and bear arms”

 

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So we have examined the first half of the Second Amendment, the clause that explains its real purpose. Now let us cut to the chase and examine the part of the text that the gun CULTure considers most vital — and indeed often lifts out of context and places on a hallowed pedestal: the second half of the amendment, which reads:

…the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

This, remember, was intended as a condition of a “well-regulated” militia. But let’s humor the gun fanatics for a moment and pretend that the first half of the amendment never existed. Just how does the second half stand up on its own? Answer: upon the most wobbly of legs.

A group effort

First of all, notice that people is plural. And the people in a passage like this is presumed to be a collective noun. Which is to say that it isn’t necessarily intended to refer to every individual. It would be a true statement to say that the American people eat beets, but it’s not true to say that every American person does. And you can have a right for Americans as a nation to be armed without having a right for every American to be armed.

Gunsters, of course, will insist that such a right is implied, or even explicitly stated.  Our old friends back at GunFacts try to establish this by citing other commentators, court rulings and even public opinion. It’s true, as its author notes, that courts have affirmed several times that the Second Amendment should be interpreted on an individual basis. But they also have ruled otherwise on several occasions. And even when the rulings went in favor of the gun lobby, they were not unanimous; dissenting justices sometimes expressed grave concerns over such a tortured reading.

And here’s the thing: why should it require the interference of a court at all to establish such a meaning? To repeat an intractable principle we’ve stated before: if an interpretation is not unequivocal, then it is not absolute.  Which is to say, if something isn’t clear then it isn’t clear. What could be more basic than that? Courts often step in to determine the exact circumstances to which a constitutional provision should be applied; but in this case, the court made a declaration about what a constitutional provision actually says.

Having and holidng

The next point is that the Second Amendment does not even address gun ownership at all. It just stipulates the right to “keep and bear” arms. Soldiers, whether regular army or militia, routinely keep and bear arms without personally possessing them. And in the Eighteenth Century, the expression “bear arms” was normally, though not always, used in a military context.

Of course, things were very different back then. Militiamen were not only presumed, but required, to supply their own firearms. They were also presumed to be white males. But it doesn’t automatically follow that the Framers of the Constitution presumed such an arrangement would always obtain, throughout all future generations. Moreover, the “right” enumerated in the Second Amendment, as practiced in Revolutionary times, was not one that today’s gun culture would find particularly appealing. As Fordham history chair Saul Cornell comments:

In 1776, most of the original state constitutions did not even include an arms-bearing provision. The few states that did usually also included a clause protecting the right not to bear arms. Why? Because, in contrast to other cherished rights such as freedom of speech or religion, the state could not compel you to speak or pray. It could force you to bear arms…

Militias were tightly controlled organizations legally defined and regulated by the individual colonies before the Revolution and, after independence, by the individual states. Militia laws ran on for pages and were some of the lengthiest pieces of legislation in the statute books. States kept track of who had guns, had the right to inspect them in private homes and could fine citizens for failing to report to a muster.

These laws also defined what type of guns you had to buy — a form of taxation levied on individual households.

Members of the “militia” (National Guard) are no longer required to supply their own weapons. The conditions that led to the adoption of the Second Amendment have radically changed. Which means that the amendment no longer serves the purpose it was designed for.

Another thing that has changed, very drastically, is of course the weaponry itself. And if the Framers could have foreseen what kinds of horrific implements of destruction would be available in the future, chances are they would have worded the Second Amendment such that today’s gun fanatics wouldn’t assume they are entitled to wield an AR-15 or a Nimbus 2000 or whatever.

A flawed comparison

If you’ve ever made the latter suggestion within firing range of gun fanatics, however, then most likely you’ve heard at least one of them retort that by the same token, the Framers would have limited the First Amendment to the use of newspapers only, since that’s the only form of media they were familiar with. It’s a flawed comparison not only because there is a big difference between a medium of mass communication and a medium of mass slaughter, but also because it fails to grasp the actual parallels between the two amendments.

While both amendments mention certain things (“the press” and “arms”), in neither case is this thing the real topic of discussion. Rather, the topic of discussion is the activity with which that thing is associated (expression and defense respectively).  And the First Amendment, while it guarantees the freedom to express oneself through the press, says nothing about anyone’s right to own a press — or a TV, or a computer. Likewise with the Second Amendment and “arms” of whatever flavor.

There have been cases, for example, in which a judge ordered an individual guilty of possessing child pornography, as part of the probationary process, not to have any Internet access. Which is in effect a prohibition against that person owning or accessing a computer. This does not seem to be a violation of First Amendment rights. Why should it be deemed a violation of Second Amendment rights to put restrictions on private usage of something far more lethal? (And let’s not forget that the First Amendment does not imply any right to commit slander or libel, or to disclose classified information.)

On the fringes

Which brings us to that final word in the amendment. What exactly does “infringing” entail, anyway? It certainly does not mean, as the NRA would have you believe, that there should be no kind of restriction on guns whatsoever. In fact, if you read the Second Amendment for what it is, you realize that even if U.S. citizens were strictly prohibited from all private ownership of guns, it would not be an infringement on the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” in the service of a “well-regulated militia”.

That’s never going to happen, of course. But even if we insist on contorting the Second Amendment into a proclamation that all individuals have a right to be armed, that doesn’t rule out also deciding that heavy restrictions on guns are perfectly constitutional.  In fact, the Supreme Court did just that in its celebrated 2008 fiat. Yes, the “conservative” Supreme Court.  Yes, the Supreme Court that is snugly ensconced in the hip holster of the gun lobby. Even as the “conservative” majority incorrectly asserted in Heller v District of Columbia that the sacred text applies to the populace in general, it also freely acknowledged that this does not mean everyone has a right to bear any type of weapon under any circumstances.

In sum, the Second Amendment was meant to guarantee a well-regulated (and organized) militia, in service of the federal government rather than in opposition to it, and was not meant as a guarantee that any citizen could be armed for any purpose. But confronted with these facts, the gun culture goes for a hail Mary, trying to buttress its version of the amendment with an argument outside the amendment. And that’s something we’ll consider in the final installment of this series.

Second Amendment Follies, Part 3: “the Security of a Free State”

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So we have seen that the real purpose of the Second Amendment was to guarantee a “well-regulated militia”. Why? Well, continue reading to the next phrase: “being necessary to the security of a free state”. Which is, compared to some of the other amendment’s components, rather straightforward. Which hasn’t prevented the gun fanatics from turning it completely on its ear.

According to them, the real function of this beatific addendum to the Constitution is so “patriots” can be armed to fight against their own government (if the president happens to be a Democrat). Under their logic, they could offer the ultimate demonstration of their “patriotism” and “support for the troops” by killing as many troops as possible.

Never mind that the chances of an armed citizenry successfully fighting an armed government are exactly two: slim and none. No, make that infinitesimally slim and none. The peddlers of this myth like to claim that the American Revolution itself was an example of such a successful campaign. Nope. The Revolutionary War was not fought between civilians and their government; it was fought between armies, supplemented by militia. And that militia, as we’ve already noted, was not merely a gaggle of armed citizens.

But at the moment, we’re not really concerned about how realistic this bit of dogma is, but rather with how constitutionally grounded it is or isn’t. And the gunsters also maintain that the Founders wanted future citizens to be prepared to fight their own government because that’s what they themselves had had to do. In other words, having overcome a tyrannical regime imposed by a monarch on the other side of the planet, the Founders carefully and meticulously constructed a new republic with a system of checks and balances designed to make certain that its government never became monarchical; yet they had such little faith in this new system they designed that they also installed a loophole to encourage anarchy against it.

To buttress this claim, gunsters often quote the Founders on the topic, or at least so it appears. Here’s one example that’s been making the rounds.

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Seems like an unequivocal pronouncement from an unequivocal Revolutionary authority, no? Unfortunately, this photo is fake, and so is the quote — at least the part of it that really matters to the gun cult.  Washington’s actual statement, in part, was this:

A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.

The comments about “discipline” and a “Uniform and well digested plan” is a strong indication that the Father of the Country wasn’t talking about the kind of nightmare scenario that today’s NRA has brought to fruition.

Yet there are other quotes from figures of the Revolution that the NRA cult has packed into its arsenal.  For example, there’s this one from Thomas Jefferson:

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

That’s definitely a strong case, and Jefferson is definitely a well qualified person to make it, so… um, wait a minute. Turns out that one is bogus too.

Of course, there are many genuine quotations from the Founders and their compatriots that seem to support a citizen’s right to be armed. But it’s important not to take them out of context. And it’s especially important not to take them as an admonition to be armed against one’s own government.  There are at least two major obstacles to such a conclusion.

First, there’s Article 3 of the Constitution, which includes this:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

In other words, taking up arms against your own government. That’s a very serious offense, traditionally punishable by death. So do you believe that the Founders spelled out what treason is, and then appended a provision to the Constitution that encourages citizens to commit it?

The second obstacle can be found in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

And in the Militia Acts of 1792:

That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, [words requiring notification by an associate justice or district judge were omitted in 1795 revision. The revision gave the President more authority] the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed. And if the militia of a state, where such combinations may happen, shall refuse, or be insufficient to suppress the same, it shall be lawful for the President, if the legislature of the United States be not in session, to call forth and employ such numbers of the militia of any other state or states most convenient thereto, as may be necessary…

All of which adds up to the bottom line that the militia is ultimately answerable to the president.  Furthermore, if one state’s militia is unwilling or unable to do his bidding within the bounds of its state, the president is authorized to summon forth militias of other states to do the job. (And note that the mention of different militias for different states is a strong indication that a militia was meant to be more than just an armed populace.) Which means that in order for the gun culture fantasy of bringing down Uncle Sam to be realized, the president would have to mobilize the militia against himself. And while some really kooky happenings are happening at the White House these days, this is not likely to be one of them any time soon.

Still, it’s not inconceivable that the Founders did indeed intend for the militia to be available to combat tyranny. It’s just that, inevitably, it would be marshaled to support the federal government instead of to oppose it.  A classic example occurred in 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with federal directives to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. Faubus initially mobilized the Arkansas National Guard (i.e., the militia) to impose his own will and resist what many southerners considered the “tyranny” of forced desegregation. This sounds like the gun culture wet dream. No, actually, it would be more like armed civilians marching on Washington and overthrowing the president because of this “tyranny”.

But what happened then was that President Eisenhower stepped in and took control of the Guard, as presidents have the right to do. The tyranny of Faubus was suppressed, and segregation in Arkansas schools was ended. This is the kind of “security of a free state” the Founders had in mind. And it’s the way they intended militias to work. How do we know? Because they clearly said so.

(Next installment: we get to the heart of the matter, the gun culture’s favorite part of the Second Amendment.)

Second Amendment Follies, Part 2: “a Well-Regulated Militia”

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As we have seen, the purpose of the Second Amendment was actually to guarantee a “well-regulated militia”. But what exactly does that mean? Just what is/ was a militia, anyway? The gun culture, of course, has its own answer for that, whether it conforms to reality or not.  Let’s turn again to what is perhaps the definitive treasury of NRA talking points, the publication and website called GunFacts:

Today “militia” might be more meaningfully translated as “defense service”, associated with a “defense duty”, which attaches to individuals as much as to groups of them, organized or otherwise. When we are alone, we are all militias of one. In the broadest sense, militia is the exercise of civic virtue.

Wow. Militia of one. Fancy that tattooed on your knuckles as you pump off a few rounds of civic virtue. In less grandiose terms, what gunsters proclaim is that “militia” today means all of the citizenry, because that’s what it meant when the Second Amendment was etched in stone. But there are at least two major flaws with this claim.

First of all, it just isn’t true.  Gun fetishists likes to quote George Mason, Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, thus:

I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.

But this line uttered in debate is not a part of an official governing document. (Ironically, many individuals willing to brandish it as gospel are also quick to brush off Tom Jefferson’s comment about the wall of separation between church and state because it’s unofficial.) And given the tenor of the times, it’s likely that Mason didn’t quite exactly mean all of the people. Because the Second Militia Act of 1792 (passed only a few months after the Second Amendment was written) designated the composition of the militia as being:

every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years

So if the NRA crowd actually adhered to the original intent (or rather the original meaning, as they really seem to be professing to do), then today’s “militia” would consist only of white males between 18 and 45. And they would be outfitted only with

a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder

And maybe a slingshot or two.

Either Mason was being non-literal, or he was just plain wrong.

Of course, the original definition of militia has been tinkered with over the years since then. In 1862, a new Militia Act finally eliminated the restrictions of race; but there was still no remedy for the sexism and ageism of the original.

Then in 1903 another Militia Act, also known as the Dick Act, established the National Guard as the official “organized militia”, and demoted those who are eligible for Guard membership (i.e., able-bodied males within a certain age range) but not actual members as “unorganized militia” . In recent years, the gun culture has twisted the language and intent of this law into an assertion that “unorganized militia” means anyone who wants to tote hardware for any purpose.  The gun culture asserts that all civilians are a part of the “unofficial” militia and therefore covered by the Second Amendment; they must be wondering why the army never seems to need their services.

Sorry, but the Dick Act does not authorize you to be a — well, jerk. Being part of that “unofficial militia” doesn’t entail wearing a uniform or being privy to a secret handshake. And even if one could make a case that the Dick Act makes all of us “unofficial militia”, whatever rights it confers/ enshrines are legal (i.e., legislative) rights rather than constitutional rights. Its concept of militia is Twentieth Century rather than Eighteenth, and its provisions were not part of either the original Constitution or the Second Amendment; indeed, the Dick Act was passed when the Founders were all long deceased.

The other problem is that the obsession with the composition of the militia is to an extent a red herring. The most important thing about the militia was not its qualifications for membership, but its purpose for existing.  And that’s also clearly spelled out in the two Militia Acts of 1792:

That whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, to call forth such number of the militia of the state or states most convenient to the place of danger or scene of action, as he may judge necessary to repel such invasion… That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.

In other words, the militia was designed to be an organized armed force supplied by the states to execute the laws of the nation. Nothing in the Militia Acts said anything about citizens being armed for deer hunting. Or for “defending” yourself against your government — more about that in a future installment. (And the militia was by no means universally revered among the Founders; George Washington spoke of it disapprovingly on more than one occasion.) The Dick Act actually makes this even more clear. With the establishment of the National Guard as the go-to unit of reserve manpower, the need for a militia in the traditional sense effectively became obsolete — which means that the Second Amendment also became obsolete.

The purpose of the militia is further emphasized by the expression “well-regulated”. And as you might expect, the gun culture also has its insistence that “that word does not mean what you think it means”. Thus from GunFacts:

The origin of the phrase “a well regulated militia” comes from a 1698 treatise “A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias” by Andrew Fletcher, in which the term “well regulated” was equated with “well-behaved” or “disciplined”.

And the author goes on to cite several other illustrations of the word well-regulated from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1709: “If a liberal Education has formed in us well-regulated Appetites and worthy Inclinations.”

1714: “The practice of all well-regulated courts of justice in the world.”

1812: “The equation of time … is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sun dial.”

1848: “A remissness for which I am sure every well-regulated person will blame the Mayor.”

1862: “It appeared to her well-regulated mind, like a clandestine proceeding.”

1894: “The newspaper, a never wanting adjunct to every well-regulated American embryo city.”

What the gun culture has done, in other words, is set up a false dichotomy. On the one hand, there is what they want “well-regulated” to mean: skilled in marksmanship. And on the other hand, there is what they want the “gun control” advocates to want it to mean: strict prohibitive legislation imposed by the government.  And, they suggest, if it means one then it can’t possibly mean the other.

In fact, as you can see from the above examples, even GunFacts acknowledges that well-regulated spans a range of meaning. But all of its possible definitions embrace the sense of disciplined, organized and efficient. And they all apply to a military unit, such as a militia. Incidentally, members of the militia in Revolutionary days were generally conscripted for service. And one of the major ironies of today’s gun fetishists is that they worship the Second Amendment as the embodiment of what they believe to be the ultimate freedom, when in fact it was intended to be a codification of civic obligation.

Indulge the gun zealots for a moment and imagine that “well-regulated” means only skilled in marksmanship. Imagine all the “militias of one” running around on their own initiative and dispensing “civic virtue” in each other’s direction at will. Do you really think this would be a well-regulated militia in the sense that the Second Amendment intended? Militia, like military, is derived from the Latin word for soldier. And a soldier never acts alone even when he is alone.  It is only when an organized body of soldiers, whether they be regular army or militia, is well-regulated in virtually every possible sense of the term, that it will effect the “security of a free state”.

Which is the troublesome phrase we’ll examine in the next installment.

 

 

Second Amendment Follies, Part 1: An Inconvenient Clause

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Let’s be clear: Americans have a right to own guns. But it’s not a constitutional right. And it’s not a “God-given” right. It’s a right conferred by the rulings of a “conservative” Supreme Court, in a grotesquely distorted reading of the Second Amendment.

But in the interests of accuracy and satisfying curiosity, let’s consider the Second Amendment in more detail. We’ve touched on this topic in a previous discussion, but it was hardly exhaustive. In fact, it was quite cursory, and was designed to show that the amendment is a semantic mess that, at the very least, casts serious doubts on the gun culture’s claims of a constitutional right to be armed. And as long as there is one scintilla of doubt, then you cannot say (as many do) that there is an absolute right enshrined in the Constitution to tote a hogleg.

The gun culture tries to dance around the actual meaning of the Second Amendment in several ways. First of all, it simply ignores the first part of the sentence, the inconvenient explanation for its existence:

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…

And instead, gunsters just cut to the part they actually like…

…the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

You seriously will hear many of them simply quote that second half as representing the entire Second Amendment (as on that handy-dandy magnetic sign pictured above), perhaps followed by a haughty “what part of that don’t you understand?”

How about the part they omitted? The part which, as we mentioned before, could be construed as the actual subject of the sentence. The part which, whether one reads it as the subject or not, is placed at the beginning and is clearly crucial to understanding the Amendment’s meaning and purpose.

Even when they acknowledge this elephant in the living room, the gun fanatics try to diminish its importance. They often try to dismiss the opening as merely a “justification clause” while the second half is the actual “rights clause”; or alternatively, “prefatory clause”, and “operative clause”. Nice words, but they don’t change anything: the beginning clause still expresses the purpose and reason for the amendment being drafted in the first place: i.e., to ensure a “well-regulated militia”. The gun culture’s conclusion that “gun rights” were not meant to be limited to this purpose alone is based on clues extraneous to the amendment itself, and indeed extraneous to the Constitution. (Incidentally, in strict grammarian usage, the two phrases referred to are not really “clauses”; but since that’s the label they’re commonly given, we won’t be sticklers on this point for the time being.)

Suppose you opened up a cookbook and found a passage like this:

A well-made fruitcake being necessary for a traditional Christmas celebration, you should make certain to have a supply of citron on hand.

Would you conclude that this sentence was written to encourage everyone to stockpile citron, all year long? Or would you conclude that it was written to help ensure a well-made fruitcake?

Another tactic the gun culture (and right-wing extremists in general) often employ is playing the “original intent” card; if the Constitution doesn’t say what they want it to, they try to discern what the framers really meant. They do this in part by just playing psychic, though they try to buttress their claims by scratching through an endless supply of documents for “historical context”.

Now certainly historical context is, up to a point, useful and even vital. It’s important, for instance, to understand what words like “militia” and “arms” meant to the Framers who used them. But the “original intent” crowd often turn historical context into a bottomless pit by mining all manner of documents for clues that are really tangential to the point under consideration. I recently had someone try to argue with me, for instance, that the Civil War was really not about slavery because her great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy, and by god he had other motives, and if I would just read all the letters and other papers left by the other Southern peasants, I’d see that they had other reasons for fighting. No doubt. But they weren’t exactly the ones who made the decision to declare war, were they? The ones who did make the decision were quite unequivocal about their motive.

An excellent illustration of how the gun culture utilizes this tactic can be found in what is surely the ultimate compendium of gun culture propaganda: Gun Facts , which is intended to address every “myth” that has been, is being, or ever will be, perpetrated by the “gun control” advocates. It covers gun culture talking points of every possible breed, from mass shootings, to children and guns, to gun laws, to microstamping to concealed carry — and of course to the Second Amendment and court rulings as well. A sleek PDF of Gun Facts can be downloaded for free; and oh by the way while you’re at it, you also can purchase another book heavily marketed within its pages that betrays the real NRA agenda: drawing a bead on “liberals”.

Incidentally, there is a simple but quite reliable litmus test for gauging the probable reliability of any such source of gun “facts”; just check to see whether it places obeisant faith in the absurd “statistic” of 2.5 million defensive gun uses per annum. If it does, there’s an excellent chance it will be just as sloppy about the rest of its “facts”. Gun Facts does, and is. (It also fails another telling litmus test, parroting the claim that Nazi Germany “established gun control” in 1938.) Furthermore, in another section, GunFacts states that firearms are used to prevent 400,000 crimes per day — which would be a whopping 146 million annual DGUs! How can this publication expect to shoot down “gun control propaganda” when it goes gunning against itself?

The main tactic the author uses in the “original intent” argument is to cite passages from several state constitutions (written before and after the U.S. Constitution) that declare residents of those states have the right to be armed for individual purposes. This supposedly demonstrates that the Second Amendment was drawn up with the same intention. See if you can follow the logic here: (a) Several states had constitutions that enshrined an individual right to “bear arms”; (b) the framers of the U.S. Constitution were familiar with these provisions; (c) they did not insert such a stipulation into the U.S. Constitution; (d) therefore, they meant to insert such a stipulation into the U.S. Constitution.

The author also mentions that during the deliberations on the Second Amendment, one senator proposed inserting the words “for the common defense”, but this suggestion was voted down. Evidently, he concludes that rejecting that wording also means a rejection of the concept. (In fact, “for the common defense” is, for one thing, redundant when you already have “well-regulated militia”).  And note the logic here: the absence of a phrase about the common defense means the whole concept is null and void, whereas the absence of a phrase about individual defense means this is clearly what the founders had in mind.

Not content with having shot himself in both feet, the author then turns around and shoots himself in the ass as well by quoting the first draft of the Second Amendment:

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.

Talk about an inconvenient clause. Why would there be a provision for conscientious objectors if the purpose of the amendment is to guarantee individuals the right to go deer hunting or gun down illegal immigrants invading their homes? Yes, this clause was eventually eliminated (after being retained in the second draft). And evidently, the Gun Facts author believes, in Orwellian fashion, erasing the text of it erases it from ever having existed at all. But if you’re talking about original intent, it’s hard to argue that the Framers had private gun ownership in mind when they talked about military service and religious objections. It’s very clear that they were really talking about a well-regulated militia, whatever that means.

And just what that means is something we’ll be looking at in the next installment.

 

 

How to Curb Gun Violence (Really)

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Mass shootings like those in Las Vegas and Sulphur Springs, terrible as they are, are only a small taste of the carnage that goes on in America on a daily basis, courtesy of firearms. Most of it slips under the media radar; it’s only when a bunch of people are killed all at once that the lead holocaust is considered newsworthy. It’s only then that the media start talking about what can be done about it.

And the line of thinking from most media talking heads goes like this. If the shooter was a Muslim, we need to tighten immigration laws. If the shooter was Hispanic, we need to build a wall. If the shooter was black, we need more prisons and tougher laws. If the shooter was white, thoughts and prayers will do the trick. And above all, protect the Second Amendment and sell more guns.

And the causes of all this violence? Well, in addition to immigration, some of the causes that have been seriously suggested are: video games; Hollywood movies; Barack Obama; day cares; the “liberal media” (hey, I guess if the violence isn’t reported, maybe it won’t exist); mental illness; antidepressants (nothing like hedging your bets); abortion; “taking God out of our schools” (not sure how that’s even possible, since God is supposedly everywhere); “gun control”; pornography; not beating kids enough (to teach them violence is wrong, don’t you know); not enough guns out there; and, of course, the victims of the shootings themselves.

The actual causes of gun violence are varied, complex and even to an extent inscrutable. So are the remedies. But as difficult as solving the problem may be, there are really just a few simple principles that we need to keep in mind.

1. Weave a web of regulation

Quite simply, a society should regulate the hell out of firearms. There’s no valid excuse for not doing so, no matter how much distaste you have for “big guvmint” cramping your right to shoot things up.  One of the gun culture’s popular sayings is “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” — which is irrelevant, since regulation is not about “outlawing”.  When you are required to be tested before obtaining a driver’s license. and stick to the speed limit, and drive in the right lane, does that mean that the government is trying to “take away” your car?

Regulation is not the final solution, by any means; on the contrary, it’s just the first step, a necessary foundation.  It’s something that we can’t afford not to do, if we want to avoid a broken windows effect that invites crime and carelessness.

Of course whenever you propose firearm regulation,  someone is bound to respond with another old tried and false big fat floppy red herring: “Criminals don’t care about laws”. Well, their victims might not “care about” bullets, either, but they’re still just as dead. Who the hell cares what criminals “care about”?  The real questions are (a) what kind of message do we want to convey, and (b) do gun regulations (“gun control” in the haughtily dismissive vernacular) help reduce crime?

The evidence is very strong that they do, both when we examine states within the U.S. and when we examine countries around the globe. Japan, to take just one example, has very strict laws about types of firearms allowed, registration, background checks, renewal periods and penalties. And it has, on average, about 30 gun deaths per year (and as few as 6). In contrast, the U.S. (with a population about two and a half times as large) has about 30,000 gun deaths per year.

2. Think long term

Still, even if the U.S. adopts the same gun policies as Japan, that doesn’t mean that America will suddenly become Japan.  They are very different nations with very different histories and cultures.  Japan has a culture of respect and courtesy and a constitution that explicitly states the nation will never again resort to aggressive warfare.  The U.S., on the other hand, has a long tradition of people believing (incorrectly) that they have a constitutional and/or god-given right to build up their own private arsenals without restriction.  And a long history of brutally enslaving and exterminating entire races of people — with the aid of guns.

We here in the U.S. have developed a mythos that brandishes the almighty gun as the infallible key to conquest and power. That mindset won’t be changed overnight. And the effects of gun legislation or any other reforms cannot be expected to manifest immediately.

3. Get creative

When we talk about measures to curb gun violence, we’re not just talking about “gun control”. To tackle a problem of this scope and complexity, we really have to think outside the ammo box. Strangely enough, one of the most interesting proposals came in jest(?) from a comedian. Actually, that’s not so strange; comedians tend to possess the kind of insight that politicians and pundits rarely do. In any case, this is what Chris Rock said in 1999:

You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control… I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… people would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost five thousand dollars. “Man, I would blow your fucking head off– if I could afford it. I’m gonna get me another job, I’m going to start saving some money, and you’re a dead man. You’d better hope I can’t get no bullets on layaway”. So even if you got shot by a stray bullet, you wouldn’t have to go to no doctor to get it taken out. Whoever shot you would take their bullet back, like “I believe you got my property”.

Doesn’t it indeed seem logical that making bullets prohibitively expensive would reduce the number of times people fired them? Furthermore, the extra fees could be in the form of taxes that could go toward further steps to reduce gun violence and/or to clean up the mess it leaves. And what about target practice, you ask? Well, with today’s technology, it surely would be possible for virtual bullets to substitute adequately for the real thing.

And for that matter, technology offers a wealth of other possibilities. What about, as a random suggestion, mandating that guns be designed so they only can fire when handled by an authorized user. The point is that there are many, many different ways to approach the problem.

4. Radically alter public (mis)perceptions about firearms

And now we come to the portion of the discussion most pertinent to the content of this blog. Even if the Chris Rock Doctrine proves to be impractical, it at least makes a very important point: in order to combat gun violence, you have to condition the public to think about guns very differently. If you think this suggestion reeks of Orwellianism or totalitarian efforts to “reeducate” citizens, what you need to bear in mind is that the public already has been conditioned, for many generations, to have certain perceptions about guns — and those perceptions are quite faulty.

We have inherited the archetype of the rugged frontiersman who lived and died by his gun,  lionization of the screen personae of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood,  and a false perception that an “armed good guy” has a good chance of stopping an “armed bad guy”. A great deal of what the public believes about guns has come from popular entertainment. This is not to suggest that Hollywood is to blame for the violence, but it is to suggest that Hollywood could play a role in addressing it.

Many people seriously think it’s practical to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand. Most Americans don’t even recognize the sound of a gunshot when they hear it, because they’ve been conditioned by entertainment media to associate gunfire with a totally different sound (an unfortunate fact that could affect how quickly a person can respond and get to safety in an active shooter scenario). In the movies, the good guy mows down the bad guy with both six-guns blazing (which in real life is a difficult feat to pull off); the bad guy dies immediately and the good guy rides off into the sunset without a care in the world.

Imagine instead a film industry that portrays gun violence more realistically and responsibly. Imagine studios that stop promoting action films by using publicity photos that make guns appear sexy and glamorous. Imagine an entertainment industry that routinely gives some indication of how much gunshot victims often suffer before they die, and how long it takes them to do so. Imagine more realistic portrayal of the emotional recoil that people feel when they fatally shoot someone — an effect that can haunt them the rest of their lives. Imagine this knowledge uniformly transmitted through awareness programs at schools like Straight Talk About Risks (STAR). Can we afford to be any more lax with kids about the dangers of guns than about drinking or drugs or sex?

If we instill in the public what horrific deadly implements guns can be (which is one of the purposes of enacting stiff gun laws), chances are not so many people will automatically reach for one to settle a dispute over a parking space. Ironically, we can help reduce gun violence by respecting guns — respecting them for what they are rather than worshiping them for what they are not.

5. Spread civility

Even if everybody had a gun, there would be considerably less violence if everyone behaved civilly. That’s a big pipe dream, of course; there is no way everybody will ever behave civilly, which is precisely why it’s a bad idea for most people to be armed.

The gun lobby likes to say that “an armed society is a polite society”. but the facts just don’t support such a thesis. Americans are armed to the teeth, but America is a seething cauldron of anger and rudeness. In fact, there is some evidence that gun ownership actually contributes to this animosity. In any case, it makes the anger and rudeness far more dangerous. The hostility quotient would be high enough even if left to its own devices. But it’s very far from being left on its own; it’s constantly being amped up by a virtual army of demagogues saturating every corner of American media and American culture. And it certainly doesn’t help matters any that one of them is currently in the White House.

Again, the U.S. will never become Japan. But by exercising courtesy as much as possible, we should be able to defuse many of the situations that lead to violence, and thus lead to shots being fired. Arming a society certainly doesn’t make it polite, but being more disarming can make it a bit more dis-arming.

6. Tame the Testosterone

You hear a lot about mental illness being the cause of mass shootings. Well, it does seem to play a role. But it’s clearly not the only factor or even the most important factor.  There are approximately as many mentally ill women as men. But guess what? All the mass shooters, with one exception, have been male.  In fact more than 75 percent of all violent acts are committed by males, and about 90 percent of killers are male.

Maybe some of this is biological. When my son was a toddler, we made a point of keeping him away from “war toys”, and minimizing his media exposure to weaponry. But he still went around pretending to shoot things with whatever object he could pick up.  Maybe there’s something about having a Y chromosome that makes a person attracted to lethal phallic symbols.

But it’s also unquestionably cultural.  (My son soon outgrew his armament phase, unlike many other males, and as an adult has shown no interest in guns at all.) Violence, and particularly an addiction to guns, is largely learned just as misogyny is. And the two tend to go hand in hand. Is it just coincidence that committers of gun violence frequently have a strictly patriarchal worldview, and often a history of domestic abuse? Is it just coincidence that terrorist cultures are also sexist cultures? Is it just coincidence that the U.S., which is a lead-sprayer’s paradise, is now discovering a widespread, deep-rooted epidemic of sexual harassment that has been right under its nose all along?

Bullet Points

The gun lobby incessantly promotes an obscene, and obscenely profitable, lie: the pulp fiction fantasy that guns make you safer. (This is often bolstered by mythical “statistics” about defensive gun use.) In fact, having a gun multiplies several times the odds that you will be the victim of a crime and/or be shot yourself.  You may assume (as many gun enthusiasts apparently do) that probability is for wusses, and you’ll beat the odds, by god. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to be right. But you might want to consider that guns and gun incidents don’t just affect gun owners; they affect potentially anyone the owner — or a recipient of his bullets — comes in contact with.

It would greatly behoove us to reduce and limit the number of guns in circulation. It should be at least as hard to get a gun as it is to get an abortion,  and their use should be at least as stringently controlled as the use of automobiles.  But we also need to radically alter how the public thinks about guns. And we need to clean up cultural garbage of more than one kind.

All of this constitutes a tall order, and we need to be in it for the long haul. But the benefits would be well worth the effort and minor inconvenience.

And Now, the Nominees for the Worst Response to Las Vegas

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Another day, another horrific gun incident in America. And inevitably, another round of inappropriate, irrational and tasteless responses in the hive of American culture. The competition, as always was stiff for the worst response. Let’s roll the drum and announce the contenders.

1. “Thoughts and prayers”

This is a perennial mindless mantra that gets trotted out and echoed over and over after every mass shooting.  It’s made more appearances on the post-massacre stage than Meryl Streep has made on the Oscar stage. Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with offering “thoughts and prayers” to victims and their relatives. But such sentiments do nothing to ward off these incidents in the future. And after the 500th time or so, the phrase begins to sound awfully hollow — particularly when it comes from mouths that normally are occupied with fellating the NRA.

2. Verbal diarrhea from the Putative President

Inevitably, the character in the Oval Office would contribute to the mix. Fresh off his life-saving expedition to Puerto Rico two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, in which he heroically sought to relieve the suffering of the locals by throwing rolls of paper towels at them, he proved once again that he was up to the challenge of making an utter ass of himself.

First, he extended “warmest condolences” to the families of the murdered, as if he were congratulating them on a baby shower; even when he apparently has good intentions, he seems utterly incapable of saying anything that doesn’t sound moronically gauche. Then he declared that the bloodbath was “in many ways a miracle” because the first responders did their jobs — apparently the concept of people doing their jobs is so foreign to him that he finds it a nothing short of miraculous. Then he went to visit the scene of the crime and declared that it was “so wonderful” to meet with the victims and their families. At least this time he didn’t attack the media or Hillary or boast about his election victory or the size of  his audience.

3. Conspiracy Cornucopia

The tinfoil hat brigade always comes out of the crevices after an incident like this, but this time they really outdid themselves with the rumors and allegations they spread.  Here is a list of some of them, courtesy of Media Matters : the shooter was an intelligence agent who botched a gunrunning sting; the shooting was a “false flag” attack from the “deep state”, Obama “shadow government” and/or “Bolshevik revolutionaries”; the shooting is linked to labor unions; the shooter was working with ISIS; the shooter was part of the antifa movement;  MGM Resorts is destroying evidence; the shooter did not act alone; the shooter’s suicide was staged by police;  the shooter was a left-wing radical who wanted to kill T—p supporters; the shooting was part of a plot to promote metal detectors; the shooting was connected to O.J. Simpson’s release from prison; the Democratic Party was behind it; it was part of a leftist plot to murder white people. Etc,, etc., etc., etc., etc.

4. Guns are beautiful

Needless to say, we can’t get through the aftermath of any gun slaughter without hearing the gun lobby and its cult followers rhapsodize about how wonderful the murder weapons are, and how all the carnage could have been prevented if only the citizens present had all been armed too.  Now stop and visualize for a moment. Can you imagine what the results would have been if all the concert attendees in Las Vegas had whipped out their own hardware and opened fire in the direction of the Mandalay Bay? (And no, Hitler did not ban guns. Nor did he say that the way to conquer a nation is to disarm its populace. And so what if he had?)

5. And oh yes, abortion

Gunsters always scramble for anything they can to point the finger of blame at, as long as it’s pointed away from their precious toys. Video games, the media, “gun control”, neglecting God and, inevitably, abortion. No, seriously. Every. Single. Time.

Right-wing pundit Jeffery Lord explains the “logic” thus:

“If we have a culture that disrespects human life and teaches people to have disrespect for human life, how else are we going to wind up than we did with this guy in Las Vegas who had no respect for human life?”

No word on whether “disrespect for human life” includes bombing the bejesus out of civilians or flooding the streets of America with implements of death.

6. And oh yes, more abortion

The GOP-controlled Congress took it a step farther, actually seizing on the massacre as an excuse to pass a cruel new anti-abortion law. The party faithful explain in a blog post:

“As we mourn the lives lost in Las Vegas this week, and welcome Whip Scalise back to Capitol Hill, we are reminded just how precious life is. This message weighed heavily on the hearts of House Republicans as we spoke of the potential of life — especially lives cut short through abortion.”

It isn’t just the dogmatic arrogance of claiming to know when life begins better than does the process of birth itself. It isn’t just the imperiousness of bulldozing their own personal convictions into law for everyone. It isn’t just the inexcusable naivete of thinking that banning abortion is an effective way to prevent it. It’s seizing upon a tragedy of epic proportions and exploiting it as an opportunity to shore up support among their hardcore base — and making no bones about it.

No word on whether they have any concern about “cutting lives short” by taking away their healthcare.

7. And oh yes, even more abortion

But the grand-prize winner surely has to be the social media meme reprinted at the top of the page. It appears with a photo of actor Sam Elliott (it’s not clear that he actually uttered the words, though it’s possible, as he has been known to make dopey statements inveighing against “gun control”).  Whoever is responsible for it, it manages to pack at least three straw men into a very compact space: “anti-gun”; “lectures”; “kill a baby”. All of them strung together by the absurd red herrings that these two issues are somehow related, that pro-choice advocates and gun regulation advocates are necessarily the same, and/or that one must choose between either concern about abortion or concern about gun violence. It’s a powerful achievement in human ignorance and irrationality that surely deserves an award of some kind.