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.

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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.

 

 

4 Dangerous Beliefs About Guns (4)

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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/albund

 

In previous installments, we looked at the dangerous beliefs that (a) the Second Amendment was intended to ensure that citizens can fight against their own government; (b) gun regulation is a hallmark of tyranny, and (c) armed citizens can defend themselves against oppressive governments. Now we’re going to examine the Big Enchilada, the biggest, most popular, most dangerous belief of them all, the one that feeds all the others.

Dangerous Belief # 4 : Guns Make Us Safer

As mentioned last time, gun culture beliefs (like the beliefs of just about any fanatical ideological faction) are based on presumption rather than fact. That’s true of the beliefs listed above, and it’s most emphatically true of this, the cornerstone belief, which gunsters take for such a self-evident and unquestionable maxim that it has been elevated to the status of sacred cow. I’ve actually heard some of them proclaim that if you doubt this Golden Truth, then the burden of proof is on you.

You’ve no doubt seen plenty of anecdotal evidence: stories about how a little old granny with a shotgun fends off a burglar/ rapist/ terrorist and sends him scrambling with a derriere full of buckshot, etc. But even when these incidents are all they’re presented to be (and not all are) it’s often hard to know (a) how they would have played out had no gun been involved and (b) whether they even would have occurred at all had no gun been involved.

Gunsters, of course, are convinced they know the answers, particularly the first. Their presumption about defensive gun uses (DGUs) is that without a gun, the putative defender would have ended up dead or at least victimized. But bear in mind that the gun is the easy solution; and very often, the easy solution leaves much to be desired. Blowing out someone’s brains is not a good alternative to using your own.

Whatever the outcome of gun-involved encounters, there’s little doubt that some unspecified portion of them would not have occurred at all had not the alleged defender been armed. We get a clear indication from examining in detail the reports of specific DGUs that the alleged defenders had been indulging in what’s known as risk compensation. which is to say that whenever there is an increased level of security, we tend to compensate for it by increasing our level of recklessness.

In some activities (e.g., driving a vehicle) the added risk may be less than the risk reduction as a result of an added safety measure (e.g., seat belts). But when it comes to firearms, it appears that the added risk is greater, and perhaps much greater, than the risk reduction.  One study of  incidents in Philadelphia found that

(a)fter adjustment, individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 (P < .05) times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, this adjusted odds ratio increased to 5.45 (P < .05)

If these results are typical, it’s hard to see how guns possibly could make us safer.

But what if you just keep your guns at home? You know, to defend yourself from that horde of home invaders you hear about? Well, keeping one at home actually puts you at greater risk of being burglarized (if nothing else) , since guns are a favored commodity among burglars. It also, of course, increases the odds of suicide or accidental death or injury.

And what if you keep your weapons unloaded and locked up to prevent tragic mishaps? Then you’re going to make it harder to access and use them if confronted by a criminal. Plus, you’re still not going to keep determined thieves from stealing them. And you’re still not going to eliminate the possibility of misuse — the two boys in Jonesboro, Arkansas who went on a murderous rampage at their school did so with rifles that had been locked in a cabinet.

Still, it seems reasonable that there are some circumstances in which it is advisable for civilians to be armed. I’ve never owned a gun in my life, and have fired one perhaps half a dozen times; yet I probably wouldn’t want to be without one if I ever went hiking alone through Alaskan bear territory. But bears don’t shoot back, and the chances would be very slim that an innocent bystander would be shot; so in this case the potential benefits would outweigh the potential hazards. (Even so I’d try to be conscious of whether my being armed would be inspiring me to indulge in unnecessary risk.)

But while a gun, singular, may make a person, singular, safer under some circumstances, it does not follow that guns, plural, make people, plural, safer overall.  To justify such a conclusion, we’d have to establish that guns effect a net reduction in crime – that they are used to prevent crimes more often than to commit them. And contrary to what the gun culture consistently maintains, this has by no means been established. We just do not have, nor is it likely that we ever will have, a practical means to determine accurately how often guns are used defensively.

The gunsters will point to “statistics” of anywhere from 65,000 to 2.5 million annual DGUs in the U.S., as calculated by several widely divergent “studies” – most notably that of Dr. Gary Kleck, who came up with the high end figure. You don’t have to be a sociologist or a statistician yourself to spot the primary problem with these “studies”: they are all blatant examples of false advertising. They are packaged as studies showing how often DGUs occur, but they are all actually surveys of how often gun owners claim they occur.

Dr. Kleck may be a respected and respectable scientist in general, but his signature paper is very bad science indeed. He suggests that we should just take the word of the respondents in his project because he doesn’t believe they would lie – even though he’d eliminated many respondents from his tabulations precisely because it was obvious that they were lying!

So let’s get this straight. Gun enthusiasts tend to be very vocal about their perceived “right” to own a gun, and their perceived need for one. It would be fair to conclude, based on their comments, that many of them are absolutely itching for a chance to use their guns, or at least to give the impression that they have done so. And yet you don’t believe that those taking part in an anonymous survey are going to pad the truth just a little bit – even if inadvertently?

When it comes to actual DGU statistics, the best we can do is compile accounts verified by media or law enforcement.  There are several such compilations online, almost all of them maintained by staunch “gun rights” proponents who urge their constituents to contribute anecdotes. Yet despite their burning obsession with proving that guns are a basic food group, the best these folks can come up with is somewhere between 1000 and 2000 DGUs per year.

Is it possible that there are additional incidents that don’t get reported? Well, sure. Is it likely that there are enough of them to justify the fantastical totals that the NRA purports? Not by a long shot. (Dr. Kleck would have you believe that only about one in every 1200 to 2500 gets reported!) As we’ve stated before, most incidents that truly warrant armed intervention are also going to warrant police and/or media attention. And while gunsters insist that they are responsible, law-abiding citizens, they also want you to believe that in the vast majority of DGUs, the defender lets the criminal get away without taking appropriate measures to prevent him from striking elsewhere.

But let’s cut them some slack and say that, despite all evidence to the contrary, most DGUs are never reported anywhere. Let’s be even more generous and say that 90 percent don’t – no, hell, let’s be incredibly generous and say that 99 percent don’t. Only one out of a hundred is reported.  Let’s continue on our generosity binge and suppose that all of those that do occur, whether reported or not, are genuinely defensive; let’s assume that the defender was an innocent victim, and did absolutely nothing to provoke the incident, and that the use of armed force was necessary and indispensable. Even so, that would amount to, at the very most, some 200,000 DGUs.

Meanwhile, guns are used to commit crimes at least 400,000 times per year in the U.S. This is not a generous guess. It’s not a presumption. It’s not a projection based on a skewed survey posing as a “study”. It’s a bona fide, hard statistic. So do guns really make us safer? Do the math.

The mentality of the American gun culture reflects what I call the Cocoanut Grove Syndrome — a scenario in which the response to a perceived threat does more harm than the threat itself. The Cocoanut Grove was a popular nightclub in Boston during the 1930s and 1940s.. Then one night in 1942, it was the scene of one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history, killing 492 people.

Thing is, most of them probably could have made it out, except that in the stampede toward the exit, they all crowded against the doors,  some of which opened inward, and as a result the doors were jammed. The victims’ own panic, in other words, was more deadly than the fire itself. Because of this tragedy,  new fire and building regulations were adopted nationwide, sparing many lives in the future – and in the process dealing a crushing blow to those who ardently believe that government interference invariably makes things worse.

A pyromaniac might smugly insist that fires don’t kill, people do; but it’s a pointless point. However you choose to apportion blame, the fire was certainly an integral element of the tragedy. Furthermore, fire regulations, like firearm regulations, are designed to be followed by people, not by their implements of destruction.

Like the panicked patrons at the Cocoanut Grove, gun fanatics perceive a real or imagined danger, namely, the threat of armed criminals,  and in their panic they believe that the solution is to rush the door — the door of the local gun dealer. Each looks after what appears to be his or her own interests, unmindful of the fact that selfish interests add up to mob action. Each is convinced that he or she will be the exception who successfully defeats the overwhelming odds of making it to safety through the packed masses. But that’s not quite how things have been turning out.

 

 

4 Dangerous Beliefs About Guns (3)

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In the previous installments we looked at the myths that the Second Amendment was intended as an authorization for citizens to take up arms against their own government, and that firearm regulation (“gun control”) is concomitant with tyranny. Now we look at a myth that ties these two together.

Dangerous Belief # 3: Armed civilians can defend themselves against a tyrannical government

This is going to be short and sweet, because we already covered this topic sufficiently in previous posts. See, for example, More on the Myth of Hitler’s Gun Ban, Part 2.

But to review a crucial passage from that essay (pardon me while I quote myself):

A moment ago, I stated that when a small band of armed citizens defend themselves against armed government forces, the odds are overwhelmingly against them. What I probably should have said instead was that the odds of their success are essentially nonexistent — at least if history is any guide. Because I can’t think of a single unequivocal exception to this rule.

The gunsters, however, are convinced that they can.  There are several examples in particular that they keep lobbing in my direction: Afghanis against Soviets, the South Vietnamese against the North Vietnamese and even (I kid you not) the American Revolution. But none of these qualifies as an instance of a small contingent of armed citizens defending themselves against their government.

In each of these conflicts, the insurgents formed an army and/or were aided by outside forces; in the first two, it was the United States supplying much of the firepower. In the Revolution, the colonists formed their own organized and trained army (not just a band of armed citizens) and they were substantially aided by other armies — most notably, that of France. (Sorry, gun nuts. I know many of you love to believe that the French are anti-American socialist pussies; but the truth is that to a very large extent you owe to them the liberty you so fervently claim to cherish.) In each of these wars, moreover, the defenders were warding off invaders on their home turf — which was not the case in Germany.

And what about the French Revolution? Yes indeed, those brie-nibblers did have their own revolt and it was indeed successful, but it was a multi-pronged social upheaval rather than just a military action. And it wasn’t fought by just a small group of people, but by a large contingent of revolutionaries, including soldiers, against a corrupt aristocracy.  Note also that they were on the offensive rather than the defensive end of the clash.

Perhaps I was a bit too loose in my use of the word army , because in the context of this passage, it could be construed to include militia units. But as the folks at Armed With Reason so deftly point out, militias have been less than spectacularly successful in fighting tyranny, and indeed are even more likely to contribute to the rise of tyranny.

Militias that have been successful in warding off foreign aggression overwhelmingly opposed democratic rule. A few examples are Vietnam, Afghanistan, Cuba, Somalia, Iraq, and southern Lebanon; in none of these countries did the militias promote a free State. Add to this list countries where militias have ripped apart society in tribal states or civil war (such as Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Colombia, and the Palestinian Territories) and we can form an even clearer picture of militias. For a more immediate example, one only has to look at the bewildering array of militias (more than “1,000” according to Robin Wright) currently fighting in Syria to see how little they promote democratic values and how ineffective they tend to be on the battlefield. While there may be an example of victorious militias replacing tyranny with freedom since the industrial age hiding somewhere in an obscure footnote of history, the rule that militias are detrimental to preserving freedom holds.

The piece also includes this section, which I perhaps should have quoted in Part 2:

Yemen is currently the second most heavily armed country in the world (per capita), and it is currently a battlefield between a Western dictatorship and various Jihadist organizations who have no love for a free State. Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries are heavily armed, with what can only be described as tyrannical governments. Iraq before the 2003 US invasion is perhaps the best example. Saddam Hussein falls under any definition of a tyrannical dictator, yet the Iraqi people were very heavily armed with a gun culture mirroring that of the US. How armed a population is appears to have no empirical bearing on how free that society is.

Contrary to what the gun culture likes to proclaim, a militia is also a different thing from just a gaggle of armed civilians. Nor does dressing up in combat garb and drilling with guns make you a militia. And civilians have an even more dismal track record of thwarting tyranny than do militias. Furthermore, as we mentioned in the previous installment, those who believe in an armed citizenry as a remedy against tyranny are likely to be severely delusional individuals who make up their own warped definitions of tyranny. We witnessed this recently in Oregon, where a would-be militia occupied a government building and eventually engaged in a confrontation with authorities that resulted in a senseless death.

The profoundly silly article about Wounded Knee I mentioned before would have you believe that if only the Natives had been armed, they could have fought off the U.S. Army’s attack. Like just about everything else the gun culture believes, this is pure presumption with hardly a shred of evidence to support it. But suppose by some miracle this small band of Native Americans had warded off the assault. What would have prevented the army from returning with more troops and bigger guns? What’s that you say? The Indians could have sent for reinforcements too? Ah, but then you’re no longer talking about a citizen-state conflict. You’re talking about a clash between two armies, like Little Big Horn.

To return to Nazi Germany (and we must always return to Nazi Germany, mustn’t we?), it is an article of faith among the gun culture that if only the Jews had been armed, the holocaust never would have happened (even though “gun control” supposedly doesn’t work). Which is another superb example of how ideological beliefs so often ignore the facts. Because the fact is that the Jews did manage to get their hands on guns. And they did engage in episodes of armed revolt — at least a hundred of them. And how much less dead were they in the end?

One reader who was a gun enthusiast himself responded to my observation that all these acts of defiance failed to alter the fate of German Jews, with some comments that were illuminating in a manner he hadn’t intended:

A citizen alone just has to get to safety. That could be as little, as, for example, holding a couple of border guards at bay. For some reason, liberals can’t seem to get off the straw man that the entire armed forces can’t sumultaneously (sic) come after everybody individually. I think this is a symptom of the left worshiping government as a god; the notion that government is not all-knowing and all-powerful is something the left just can’t seem to grasp.

That’s a whole pasture full of straw men, including the one about the “straw man”. I assume the one about “worshiping the government” is an allusion to my mentioning the inescapable fact that it is armies, and not civilians, that defeat other armies. I’m not sure what significance the references to “liberals” and “the left” are supposed to have, but this reader inadvertently makes a meaningful revelation about “conservatives” — particularly those “conservatives” who put great stock in lead. Namely, that they live in a make-believe world in which they have only to pull a lever (or trigger) and the universe will neatly align all of its cherries for their benefit.

He assumes in this fanciful little scenario that he would be able to make it to the border. He assumes that there would be only a “couple” of guards at the border crossing point and no other security measures in place. He assumes that those two guards would be so involved in playing Tetris or watching porn that he could get the drop on them. He assumes that he would be able to maintain the upper hand, unimpeded by anyone else who might arrive on the scene. And he assumes that once he had crossed over into his new homeland (Canada? Mexico?) the authorities would open their arms to a fanatical American bearing a loaded weapon. But alas, real life is usually not like the movies.

Look, it’s not hard to see how such naive fantasies might take root. Most of us want to feel empowered rather than powerless. We want to believe that we can fend off the wolf at the door, blow up the Death Star, topple Goliath singlehandedly. And guns seem to offer an easy, or at least readily feasible means to achieve this.

But they are not what they seem. Behind the screen of gunsmoke, the collective recoil is much greater than people realize. In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that on balance, guns do far more harm than good. As we shall see in Part 4.

4 Dangerous Beliefs About Guns (1)

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Finally, President Obama stood up to Republicans in Congress and the gun lobby that owns them.  And not surprisingly, his announced plans to take action on gun violence triggered a volley of loony objections from the Second Amendment cult: “IT’S UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!! HE’S PLANNING TO TAKE AWAY OUR GUNS!!! IT WON’T STOP GUN VIOLENCE!!! IT’S JUST LIKE HITLER!!!

Media Matters did a good job of addressing most of the negative comments about the president’s specific proposals. But there are certain general attacks that always greet any kind of proposed action to reduce gun violence. They are based on certain beliefs that are not only false but dangerous. The most common are these:

  1. The Second Amendment was intended to ensure that citizens can do battle against their own government.
  2. “Gun Control” is a hallmark of tyranny.
  3. Armed civilians can successfully defend themselves against malicious government forces.
  4. Guns make us safer, and the more guns we have, the safer we are.

We’re going to look at each of these in its own separate post. Let’s get started with this one:

Dangerous Belief # 1: The Second Amendment was intended to ensure that citizens can do battle against their own government.

This is actually  a subsidiary myth, with the primary myth being that the Second Amendment was intended to guarantee all citizens a right to be armed. But thoroughly dismantling the immense stack of falsehoods surrounding that claim will take more space than we’ve got here (See later posts).

Yet it should be obvious to anyone who actually reads the Second Amendment and has a basic grasp of the mother tongue that it is, to say the very least, a semantic swamp that leaves a great deal of ambiguity about the supposed right to own firearms for private use; and wherever there is any ambiguity at all, there are no absolutes. Thus, there is no absolute right to own a gun. Which means the notion that there is a right to own a gun to defend yourself against the big bad guvmint is a non-sequitur.

It would behoove the NRA crowd to realize that there is more to the Constitution than just one amendment. If they could only extricate their combat boots from the muck of the Second Amendment, even just long enough to move a few steps back to the original seven articles of the Constitution — the ones written before the Sacred Second or any other amendment was appended–  they might learn that a true “militia”, such as they fancy themselves to be, answers to the President Of The United States, rather than trying to plot his downfall:

(Article 2, Section 2)

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…

So if they are an actual militia, then President Obama would only have to call them into “actual service”, and they’d be obligated to take orders from him, if they truly are the  “patriots” they style themselves. Doesn’t matter whether or not they like him or his complexion — oops, I mean his policies, of course. Furthermore, if they have the fortitude to read only a little further, they might learn that taking up arms against their country not only is not patriotic, it’s the very definition of treason:

(Article 3, Section 3)

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

Treason is a very serious crime. It’s often been punishable by death. And yet you really believe that the Founders went to all the trouble of inserting an amendment into the Constitution so that U.S. citizens would have the opportunity — nay, even the right and duty — to commit such a serious offense?

This myth is particularly dangerous because since the Second Amendment does not mention tyranny, it of course does not define tyranny. That leaves the gun culture to dream up its own definitions, which tend to be deranged and egocentric. Quite often, “tyranny” is anything that happens when they don’t get their way one hundred percent: hence the slogan “if ballots don’t work, bullets will”.  Many of them consider President Obama a tyrant because he wants to make sure they have healthcare.

At this writing, one cringe-worthy example of what often happens when children of white privilege have too much time on their hands and too many toys to play with is taking its course in Oregon, where an armed “””militia””” has taken over an isolated pit stop and threatened violent action if they don’t get themselves excused from the penalties of law that apply to everyone else.

No matter how valid their complaint may have been to begin with, does it really justify this kind of behavior? So far, their actions have not resulted in any violence, but what do you suppose would happen if the big bad guvmint responded to them the same way it responded to UNARMED protesters for Black Lives Matter?

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These “””patriots””” supposedly came to defend a couple of Oregon ranchers who were duly convicted of arson after setting fires on public land to destroy evidence of other crimes, boasting about their deeds and vowing to “light up the whole country on fire”.  Those two, meanwhile, have faced up to their punishment and have said they don’t want the “””militia””” representing them.

Doesn’t matter. The “””patriots”””, led by a couple of other ranchers from Nevada, have decided to take up the gauntlet against the evil guvmint, from whom they receive several forms of assistance to fatten their purses, and have drastically rewritten the nation’s history in the process. And they’ve expanded their narrative to pose as constitutional and legal experts in making the case that the federal government in general has no authority to administer public lands — even though the Constitution and the courts say otherwise.

They have pledged to stay until the death if they are not crowned emperors; yet, while they remembered to bring plenty of weapons and lead, they apparently didn’t think they might also need food during their mission of indefinite duration. Consequently, they have appealed for more handouts — this time from their admirers, but the survival rations are to be delivered by the USPS — another branch of the evil guvmint.

It’s scary enough that people like this are armed at all, much less that they take it upon themselves to decide what kind of “tyranny” needs overthrowing.

(Related Post: “9 Nutty Narratives About the Nevada Standoff”)