I am never, ever running for anything, so with the blood of Las Vegas freshly spattered across the nation, I feel quite free to ask: what is so great about the Second Amendment?
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
I know that that provision is in the constitution, and that if you are a public figure and you breathe a word about any sort of restriction on any sort of firearm, the National Rifle Association will attack you for attacking it, because you hate freedom.
So it is by way of forfeiting forever my chance to be elected to anything, anywhere that I confide: As I look at the Second Amendment through the lens of yet another Columbine-dwarfing massacre, it strikes me as a particularly unfortunate combination of fossil and grenade. The first half, as I read it, provides for “well-regulated” state militias that have had little bearing on American security since the War of 1812 was a gleam in Henry Clay’s eye. And the second half – that final “shall not be infringed” flourish in particular – has allowed for a parade of atrocities that have, in my view, served to inhibit American liberty much more than to foster it.
I know that upon reading that, many gun-rights zealots would declare me a traitor; a snowflake; a no-good something that rhymes with “blunt.” But I also know that there are many good, moral, highly intelligent people who view the Second Amendment as the cream -- and the caffeine, and the whole darn bean -- in the coffee of our political system. They further seem to equate the most recent, prodigal Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment as synonymous with the amendment itself. Thus, their response to Las Vegas, as to all its bloody antecedents, is to portray this unconscionable mode of American death as inseparable from any acceptable mode of American democracy.
As I sit here typing, it is with these non-nuts that I imagine myself engaging, and from whom I would really welcome some engagement for real.
Meanwhile, Second Amendment absolutist arguments, as I’ve experienced them over recent years, are in italic. My own responses are in plain.
It’s what the framers intended.
Far be it from me to denigrate the framers of our constitution, whom I truly worship almost as if they were gods. Almost.
Even before DNA testing became possible, it was well established that the framers were actually people. Thus, their transcendent document bore the marks of its time. At that time, the Continental Army had been disbanded, but no standing army had yet come into being. Even in the most established communities, real police forces lay a solid half-century in the future. Formed in the total absence of an army, navy, air force, marine corps, coast guard, national guard, FBI, DEA, DHS, ICE, and 911, it seems fair to say that their sense of urgency about the “right to bear arms” had deeper roots in reality than Wayne LaPierre’s.
Nonetheless, you can’t be too vigilant about guarding liberty. You never know when it will be time to take up arms against government tyranny.
Thinking about this one in light of last week’s comparatively-quaint NFL dustup, I must admit to doing a little double-take: how is it that so many of the same people who most forcefully condemn Americans who fail to stand in honor of the symbols of our nation, are also those who most fervently defend their own right to stockpile arms in preparation to defy the nation itself?
More important, though, I think that nearly 230 years into life under the constitution, it is fair to consider the past to be prologue. In the history of the United States, has there ever been a domestic armed anti-government uprising that has enhanced the American experiment more than it has sullied or even imperiled it? Honest to God, from the Whiskey Rebellion onward, I can’t think of a single one.
In terms of our own day, can someone honestly imagine a scenario involving even the most heavily-armed American civilians going up against the might of a U.S. government truly determined to crush them, in which the civilians prevail? I can’t. (I mean, really: Americans are supposed to rest assured that their armed forces can kick North Korea's ass -- yet keep the faith that if needs be, a hardy band of modern-day minute men could show central command who's boss?)
By contrast, none of us has to imagine situations in which variously-armed civilians have convinced themselves that they can, indeed, defy the government by force. Every so often, this actually happens. The only result is a gut-wrenching standoff, about which the only question that arises is at what point the authorities will resort to how much violence to resolve the matter.
Granted, some Americans may and do regret the fact that there can no longer be such a thing as a fair militarized fight between spontaneously-formed bands of “we, the people” and any armed agency – let alone the aggregate armed agencies -- of their elected government. Those are not the Americans whose lead I wish to follow.
Lose the Second Amendment and we all lose our guns .
Even today, as Congress responds to reprised apocalypse with noises about stock bumps, otherwise-rational people I know have jumped directly from “thoughts and prayers” for Las Vegas to hoots and hollers against a confiscation of all personally owned weapons that not even I am suggesting.
Nor is anyone (well, hardly anyone) except me even entertaining impure thoughts about the Second Amendment. But even if three-quarters of the country were clamoring for it:
Abolishing the right to something is not the same as banning it. Clearly, Americans constantly acquire all kinds of things to which they have no constitutional right: cars, credit cards, doughnuts, Easter bonnets, health insurance. But of course, placing conditions or restrictions upon a good or an activity is easier when it’s not a right. This is precisely why gun advocates are so eager to enshrine arms-bearing as right numero uno – and why the rest of us ought to stop handing them the heart of the argument.
Freedom, freedom, freedom, I need my freedom!
This isn’t a thought, but a very powerful feeling: this feeling that gun-rights folks have, deep inside, that even if they can’t name a reason why any civilian should want to exercise a right to stockpile machine guns, the seeds of tyranny lie in the urge to abridge that right. They’ll insist (correctly) that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are sane, responsible citizens, but scent oppression in any but the lamest measures aimed at distinguishing them from the small but mighty contingent of wackos.
In fairness, it’s not as if there are no such impulses on the left. For example, although the issues are very different, there are plenty of people who just will not countenance any discussion of any legal restriction on any form of abortion, as if this would automatically destroy the rights of all women.
So I ask respectfully, but I do ask:
Why does your favorite constitutional right get to squeeze out all the others? For example, how did the right of Dylann Roof to bear arms affect the right of the congregants of the Emanuel A.M.E. church to worship freely? How did Stephen Paddock’s right to bear an amazing array of arms affect the right of those country music fans to peaceful assembly? How about all the Americans who weren’t present for these or any other mass shootings, but now find themselves thinking twice about what kinds of lawful activities they will pursue; what kinds crowds, in what kinds of venues, they feel safe to join?
How about freedoms that are harder to define?
At what point does your freedom to acquire the arsenal of your choice begin to infringe unfairly upon my freedom to enter a concert, theme park or shopping mall without worrying that I could be next?
How free do young children feel as they learn the shelter-in-place protocols now routinely taught against the possibility that madness might descend on their school some day?
From the right’s own perspective: what kind of libertarian paradise are we building that we have to allow authority figures in more and more everyday settings to dig through our personal belongings so as to lower the odds of a bloodbath?
Of course, so many gun deaths are tragedies. But them’s the breaks, kid! Part of the price we must pay to live in an open society.
What a price we pay for treating the right to bear arms not only as a constitutional right, but one that extends to individuals and includes firearms of almost any kind.
It’s not just the Columbines and Virginia Techs, the Sandy Hooks and the Las Vegases. It’s what might now, scarily, be termed the mini mass shootings – the much more frequent picking-off of three, four, five people that don’t seem such a big deal anymore. It’s the weaponized street gangs, who kill not only each other, but innocent bystanders and the random folks who serve as scalps for their initiations. It’s the garden-variety crooks who shoot just one or two people at a time. It’s the arrests that turn into fire fights because the suspects have guns, and the police encounters with ordinary citizens that turn into altercations because officers reasonably fear that a given citizen might have a gun. It’s the instantly-successful suicides and fatally escalated domestic-violence disputes. It’s the toddlers accidentally killing each other. It’s the billions and billions of dollars in medical costs, lawsuits, death and disability payouts, and all the rest of it.
And for what? For the kind of pop-up state militia we haven’t needed since Winfield Scott was hot stuff? For people to feel safe from a non-existent threat that they won’t be allowed to hunt or have a handgun?
Look, I know that the political impact of my whole line of thinking will be exactly zero and in some ways, that’s a good thing. I know that a Democratic presidential candidate who says “boo” about gun control is a Democratic presidential candidate who hands Florida right back to Donald Trump. I know that any public figure who actually questions the Second Amendment will be answered with retirement.
I know that the Second Amendment is safe.
This does not mean it’s sound. Not anymore.