Tuesday, May 21, 2013

An Unlikely Proposal

What I'm about to say is going to sound radical; probably more radical than it is, but legitimately radical in its own right.  It is far too radical (or rather, radically liberal) to stand half a chance in today's political climate.  But that is not the main criteria for determining right and wrong.

It concerns the ongoing problem with gun violence in this country: not a new problem or suddenly more urgent problem, though the media can make it feel that way sometimes, but an ongoing one.  Periodically, lunatics and bastards use brutal weapons to commit mass atrocities: often, the cold-blooded murder of children.  It happens all the time, with several high profile incidents every year, and several more that are not afforded media attention.

Not all mass violence in this country is carried out with guns, as the recent bombing in Boston reminds us (though it is worth remembering that shots were exchanged, and people were hurt, during the following manhunt).  But guns, along with explosions, periodically disrupt our lives with new tales of tragedy and madness.  It is not a rare exception, but a hazard of living in America: people are shot and killed every day for no good reason, in reports that you hear about and reports that you don't.

And that is why I genuinely think we should repeal the Second Amendment.

Already I've trodden beyond the acceptable boundaries in American politics and entered into the realm of pure fantasy.  But I like it better out here, and if you'll indulge me I'd like to tell you why.

To begin with, I am not advocating the abolition of guns or the confiscation of every privately held firearm in the nation.  I am not proposing a bizarro-amendment to the effect that "the people shall not have the right to keep and bear arms."  Nevertheless, I am proposing the repeal of an amendment that is a part of the Bill of Rights and has been in force for nearly as long as the Constitution itself.  Calling for the removal of any part of the Bill of Rights is not something that should ever be done lightly, as each of those amendments was written and ratified with the express purpose of safeguarding our rights and freedoms.  To change one is to radically redefine what people in the 1790s regarded as essential liberties.

I'm not saying that people should not have the right to keep and bear arms.  I'm saying that there should be constitutional recourse for the government to infringe that right when it is clearly better for the public's welfare to do so.

I don't intend to spell out in minute detail every conceivable circumstance where a particular weapon should be banned or regulated, nor where a particular weapon is beyond the government's reach.  I lack the expertise to cite the physics and logistics involved.  But I'm asserting that both such circumstances exist and our legal policy toward guns should reflect that.

The Wording

The text of the Second Amendment reads like this:

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.

There are those who regard these words with reverence of a religious, even idolatrous nature.  As I have stated before, no document should be regarded this way, least of all one that was meant as a part of a pragmatic solution to a contemporary political controversy.  Times have changed since 1791, and so have the implications of a blanket statement that people should be able to keep weapons.

In District of Columbia vs. Heller, a 2008 Supreme Court case that upheld the individuals right to own firearms (as opposed to a collective militia right), the Court nonetheless recognized that some regulation is necessary.  According to the court:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.

That is an entirely sensible, even banal statement.  Obviously it would be an unmitigated disaster to have people roaming the streets with Uzis so as to mark their territory with bullet holes.  Reasonable people agree that people should not use guns to commit crimes, and that there are weapons that essentially cannot be used by civilians for any purpose other than committing crimes.  When the Court acknowledged this, it was merely recognizing that the alternative to a limited Second Amendment was insanity.

Essentially, the current law on the subject of firearms is that the right to keep them is absolute so long as the implications are not obviously ludicrous.  But this "sanity exception," this basic principle that the Second Amendment has limits, is not to be found in the amendment itself.  The text simply says "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  It is stated as an absolute, and it is regarded as an absolute by the rhetoric of gun rights advocates.  The only thing keeping it from being a true absolute is our sense of perspective.

The Lunatic Fringe

But some people don't have a sense of perspective.  Some people are concerned not only with guns as a component of liberty, but as the actual manifestation of all their freedom.  They hold fast to that quote by Thomas Jefferson, that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  I am referring, of course, to the notion that our various rights and freedoms are only guaranteed by the fact that if some jackbooted bureaucrat comes to take them, we can shoot him.

 Let there be no doubt that this is a paranoid fantasy.  The people cannot defeat the government in a noble war of principle.  The government can do this:

...and no matter how many AR-15s you stockpile in your basement, you can't.  The world has changed.  We no longer live in a country where open war is an acceptable price for the future possibility of peace and freedom.  The math doesn't add up.  The only possible consequence of mass insurrection in this country is death.

The ideals of this country are about more than rugged individualism.  Our society can only function under the rule of law, not of force.  Our freedoms can only survive if we conduct ourselves as free and responsible people.  If we insist that it is necessary to hold anybody at gun point to guarantee we'll still be free in the morning, then we were never free to begin with. 

The Second Amendment supports people in a delusional mindset that they can relive the glory days of 1776, when it was plausible that a ragtag band of rebels might defeat an empire armed only with muskets (and lest we forget, the indispensable aid of the French).  The culture surrounding this delusion makes violence a virtue, and insists that regardless of the will of the majority or the rule of law, might makes right.

On the (slightly) less apocalyptic side, gun-rights groups like the NRA tell us over and over that the only thing that can protect us from guns is guns of our own.  We should not accept that argument.  It is an admission that our society can never be peaceful and nonviolent, an exhortation that the only way to truly live in peace is to be prepared to take a life at a moment's notice.

But a society of violence is not an inevitability.  It is a society of our own making, and the Second Amendment is central to its survival, as we seek to justify its existence.

The Alternative

I see nothing deeply wrong with firing a gun at a home intruder to protect life.  And I can live with a world where proven responsible people can shoot as a hobby.  Guns can have a place in our society, if we have a strong public commitment to keeping them from causing harm.  As it stands now, it is inevitable that our gun culture will claim hundreds and thousands of innocent lives long before it precipitates a righteous second coming of the American Revolution.

The right to bear firearms is not universal across time and space.  It is rather a specific instance of the right to defend oneself, given that firearms exist as a means to do so.  The right to self-preservation is much more obviously fundamental, and worthy of being a part of the Constitution.  Any amendment that effectively abolishes the Second must consequently reaffirm the fundamental right underlying it.

This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn't.  What I am proposing is merely that people should have the right to defend themselves by any means that they can prove themselves responsible to use.  That means background checks and waiting periods.  It means higher standards applied to weapons of more destructive capability.  It means bans on the most disproportionately destructive weapons.  I believe that a reasonable reading of the Second Amendment permits these policies already, but the common cultural understanding of it makes them fraught with controversy.

Nobody claims that these policy changes would solve all of our problems, and that no more children would die senselessly.  But it would make a difference: a society where guns are regarded as a dangerous and controlled resource is preferable to one where people can simply check them off on their grocery lists, no matter what they have in mind.

This proposal of mine is far more grounded in realism and compromise than my flight to the world of imagination might suggest.  It may be a weakness of mine to insist on less than I really want, but I prefer to consider it a strength, given that what I want more than anything is to live in a genuinely free and open society.  I have no faith in the ability of guns to provide that, either in the hands of police or the hands of private fools who make shows of occupying public buildings and streets with the implied threat of violence.

Ours is an unacceptably violent society, but it is not the most violent society.  That is because we have other traits besides a love of guns: we respect law and freedom, and we have been blessed with remarkable power and prosperity.  Were it not for that prosperity, we would have been beyond hope by now.  If we had not regarded guns as totems of our civic mythology, our society might be truly enviable by now. 

Our survival in the face of our own insanity proves that there is more holding this country together than the right to be lethal at a distance.  There is a stronger foundation for freedom than the ability to kill. 

So let's get rid of the Second Amendment, and while we're at it, let's do away with all the cultural baggage that feeds on its legacy.  1776 was a very long time ago, and no amount of glory should convince us to try and recreate it.  Tone down the rhetoric and admit some responsibility into gun policy, and the USA may yet surprise everyone with the freedom and peace it can provide for itself.


  1. As I've noted before you write exceedingly well, and now I will add persuasively. In essence I agree with much - - - perhaps all - - - you have said here. Yet I find something lacking, and it is difficult for me to put a finger on precisely what that might be. I think it likely it has to do with context, or rather lack thereof. There is a disturbing absence of reference to government will and power, other than the one now irrelevant and inconsequential allusion to the wielding of nuclear power. The government has much more subtle and effective ways to influence the minds and motives of its citizenry. That aside, I think it necessary in reaching for rational decisions regarding the matter of gun violence to include the discourse within a larger context which includes the matters of government power and government violence. We do not just live within one of the most violent societies in the world, but our very government, which attempts to direct and focus our individual lives down to the most trivial details, sets a far from exemplary standard by choosing to be among the most violent ruling bodies in the world today. Neglecting this, I believe the entire discussion is derailed. I would really like to hear how you would incorporate your thoughts here in that more inclusive context. I suspect you will not though, at least not for some years to come, because you still have that ingenuous belief in the innocent motives of government so common to youth. (genqueu)

  2. The reference to nuclear weapon was meant to be a reference to the extreme asymmetry in the amount of destructive force that could be wielded by either side in the event of an insurrection. That asymmetry is not merely about nukes; it is also about the massive stockpiles of "conventional" weaponry that could level cities in only slightly more time. Putting it in terms of nukes was probably a little heavy handed, and possibly misleading.

    Even if the government regarded nuclear strikes as out of the question, the best a truly capable citizen uprising could hope to accomplish is to put the country through what Europe went through in World War II: massive destruction of infrastructure and the death of millions. Without the kind of determined aid the countries of Europe received (from us) after that war, the odds of our coming out of that struggle with a government even resembling a true democracy are nil (no matter which side wins). That is why the notion that the preservation of liberty depends on the people's ability to mount an effective armed resistance is delusional.

    "Innocent" may not be the right word for the motives of the government, but neither is it malicious with regard to the people as a whole. It wants to continue to function as a government must, because the alternative would be bad for everyone. To do so, it (if we may anthropomorphize it) believes it must maintain certain standards of power. The power that is actually needed to retain legitimacy and effectiveness is not necessarily the same as what the government perceives it to be.

    Our government is too violent, abroad and at home. This is both a cause of and a result of the violence of our culture. But I refuse to see it in terms of a conspiracy.

  3. I am not suggesting there is a conspiracy behind the government's display of force and violence, more likely massive ignorance. Let's assume the parameters at work here are impersonal, even unconscious at times. That would not alter the unfortunate results. I see our society moving inexorably toward combustion. Whether the prime movers of that violent agitation will arise internally or externally remains to be seen. The manner in which our government exerts control within and without its geographic boundaries makes either consequence a reasonable possibility. Agreed, it is likely that "the notion that the preservation of liberty depends on the people's ability to mount an effective armed resistance is delusional" given the current state of affairs. [I think though the Founding Fathers and all colonists who participated in the American Revolution could well have arrived at a similar rational conclusion - - - but they didn't. There is always a line in the sand beyond which it is counterproductive for a ruling body to push the ruled.] That leaves us with the important question: Just how do we preserve our liberty now? [genqueue]

  4. War has changed since Washington's day. An American militia facing a British army in 1776 would have been disadvantaged in terms of supplies and discipline, but they fought with generally the same kinds of weapons and could win given luck and good tactics (and, again, heavy support from foreign governments). Their battles might cause heavy collateral damage, but they weren't likely to annihilate an area's infrastructure.

    The cost/benefit analysis of rebellion is different now, because the cost is much greater: without powerful outside help, I wouldn't recommend rebellion against the U.S. government for anyone unless they had absolutely nothing left to lose. And as bad as things might look sometimes, we still have plenty to lose.

    What can we do to protect our liberty? A year ago I suggested a complete Constitutional revision, and I still think that would work in principle, but there would be no guarantee that it would end with a document that was any better than what we have now. Changing the nature of our system (the functions of elected officials, the way they are elected, etc) could forcibly change the bad habits we've developed over two hundred plus years. It wouldn't be a permanent fix, but it could be a healthy periodic renewal process that would force us to take the task of governing seriously.

    More realistically, the only thing we can do is participate in the system and reward the virtuous while punishing the guilty. That's not a simple proposition, because the guilty and the virtuous have all been tied together and everything comes in shades of grey. But there is no magic answer to fixing the system. The only thing we can do is take one part and put all our exertions toward making it better. Once we've done that, we can turn to other parts.

  5. We'd best --- as a society --- get started soon. We may already have passed the event horizon where productive reform is yet possible. The change you describe in warfare from Washington 's day to our own is just one indicator of the ever-growing disparity between the power of the government and the power of the people. Add to this government's escalating policy of opacity and expanding use of deception, subterfuge, and psychological confrontation in dealing with both dissidents and ordinary citizens alike and ignition of the powder keg may already have been sparked. We no longer even know what the government is actually doing or attempting. If truth is in fact the first casualty when war comes then perhaps we as a society are already - - - unbeknownst to ourselves - - - at war with our own government. (genqueue)