Friday, April 19, 2013

Grabbing The Weed By The Root

With this week’s failure by the United States Senate to pass a weak, limp-wristed gun regulation bill, advocates of common sense gun reform must, perforce, regroup.  Facing stiff, entrenched opposition by senators reflecting the will of moneyed corporate interests in the form of the NRA (and other gun lobbying groups), a measure supported by as high 90% of Americans in one poll, to strengthen criminal background checks for firearm transactions went down in flames in the upper chamber of the legislative branch of government.

Of course, perhaps this defeat was merely heading off the inevitable at the pass; the Republican controlled House had been noncommittal on even bringing the hypothetical measure to the floor, let alone passing it.  Yes, it seems the agreed upon strategy of gun reform proponents in the wake of The Worst Thing Imaginable, plus other recent mass shootings, of taking small policy bites, focusing on common sense legislation that most people could agree upon, has no direct path to the law books themselves.  Various explanations abound, but primarily the specter of Wayne LaPierre and the other members of the NRA leadership, and their threat to launch an electoral jihad on any Republican legislators who voted for the measure, are to blame. 

At this juncture, many people willing and eager to confront the national gun violence epidemic must be left wondering what in the holy hell to do, and understandably so.  After all, if these non-controversial reforms that enjoyed broad public support couldn’t even clear the procedural filibuster in the Senate, then there doesn’t seem to be much hope of achieving meaningful steps towards reducing the carnage.   

But there is a way; that is to start talking about the 2nd Amendment itself.  

If there is a more misunderstood and misinterpreted piece of language in the United States Constitution, good luck finding it.  Here it is, quoted directly:

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.”

The part that often gets ignored in most 2nd Amendment shorthand is the ‘well-regulated militia’ bit.  However, this portion is key to understanding the actual rights being granted.  Based on the actual text of the document, not its intent, but the words themselves, the amendment actually says that the ‘Arms’ borne by the citizens are for the purpose of the militia itself. 

Even this is to quibble semantically, and many gun-rights advocates will continue to argue that they, and many other gun owners, make up a kind of ad hoc militia that will, apparently, mobilize into action to stop the threat of supposed tyranny whenever it should rear its monstrous head.  If they think so, sure.

But, I’ll let you in on a little secret.  The 2nd Amendment is as meaningless in today’s modern society, and has been for some time, as the 3rd Amendment, which reads:

“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

Both of these amendments, featured prominently in the Bill of Rights, are products of the time in which they were written.  The drafters of the Constitution, having just fought a war against the British, wrote the 3rd Amendment in direct response to the previous English government quartering troops in the homes of colonists.  It was a spiteful, reactionary rule that, realistically, was not going to be a problem in the new nation.  It remains in the Bill of Rights, but it hasn’t been worth the ink it’s written with for over 200 years. 

Just like the 3rd Amendment, the 2nd is, on its face, a product of late 18th Century society.  Beyond the obvious food gathering utility of owning a firearm in these early years of the Republic, which has long since evaporated as the means of obtaining the next meal, the new United States was a nation beset by dangers.  The Americans living at the dawn of this grand experiment in democracy had serious concerns about attacks on their farms and homes by Native Americans, contentious neighbors, and even wild animals.  But that’s the 18th Century, when using a musket to ward off wolves and settle disputes was an acceptable form of conflict resolution.  In the long march of progress from 1789 to 2013, it’d be nice to think that we’ve moved beyond sending bullets flying in the direction of people with whom we disagree, but that’s probably not realistic.

Now, anyone who attempts to discern the intent of the Founding Fathers of the country is invariably projecting his/her own ideology onto the words of their texts.  However, it is important to remember that this document, the Constitution of the United States of America, was written by men.  Fallible, imperfect men, who were capable of making mistakes.  They’d already made a big one: The Articles of Confederation.  In all of the deification of the founders (ironic, since many of them were Deists who believed in a hands-free creator that did not meddle in the affairs of men), it’s easy to forget that the Constitution, this document that certain elements herald as divinely inspired, was Draft Two.  They got it wrong once before.  It stands to reason that their second go-round, while an enormous improvement, wasn’t exactly perfect.   

While such a dialogue about the merit of an entrenched part of the Bill of Rights will be met with crowing and consternation, it is necessary if we, as a country, actually care to address the violence that plagues us year after year.  In a society that is changing so rapidly due to technology, the environment, and the increased participation and interconnectedness of the rest of the world, it would be foolish not to see that most other developed countries do not have this problem.  A strict Constitutionalist view is no longer possible on these grounds, because that perspective ignores 200-plus years of human progress. 

Perhaps, in time, people will remember that the 1st Amendment is the one that really matters, because it allows us to argue that the 2nd Amendment is an anachronism that, for whatever reason, has hung on.  If gun reform advocates want to go after the big fish, then the conversation about the validity of the amendment itself needs to begin.  

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