A recent feature story in the Leesburg Daily Commercial highlighted a conflict over gun rights in the Umatilla area. Local sources suggest that the facts of the case – in which the owner of a horse ranch complained about her neighbor firing his weapons over her property and spooking her horses – may be open to question. But that isn’t really the point. What matters here is the larger debate about gun rights and the depressingly familiar Second Amendment argument. The story focused attention on the state’s new gun law, which enacted uniform regulations across Florida and prohibited municipalities from enforcing their own gun ordinances. Predictably, local members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) have unholstered their lead-filled pencils in support of this policy, which was imposed upon us all by their reliable allies in the Republican hive of Tallahassee.
Significantly, the original story that sparked this brouhaha was not written by an in-house Daily Commercial writer. When the newspaper did deploy its own human resources, the staffer regaled us with a completely lopsided recitation of NRA objections. Presumably, that was the paper’s attempt at balanced reporting. (To be fair, Gene Packwood’s cartoons have been critical of the new law’s Wild West consequences.) Today’s Voices section brings us a “Letter of the Week” that treats the Second Amendment like a precious virgin daughter who is being beset by marauding Vikings. Our “rich politicians,” we are told, “are trying to change our Second Amendment.”
Let’s deal with the first problem before moving on to this author’s other contentions. The Second Amendment has a few words at the beginning that, for some reason understandable only to the gun lobby and the weapons manufacturers that support them, tend to get left out of the discussion. The NRA keeps harping on about gun rights as if they were unqualified and absolute, but the language of the amendment (which conservatives sometimes tell us is important), suggests otherwise:
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.
In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the right-leaning Supreme Court made the NRA’s dreams come true by decoupling the individual’s right to bear arms from that irritating business about serving in that militia thingy. So much for literal interpretation of the Constitution. And so much for our author’s claim that politicians are changing the Second Amendment. Unless he’s making the unexpectedly sophisticated argument that Republican presidents have packed the Court with conservative ideologues, and therefore blaming politicians for the actions of their judicial agents (and we know he isn’t), he has missed the locus of the action. It’s the nine unelected men and women in black robes who are doing the changing, and it’s been in the direction he wants, towards less government regulation of gun ownership.
Our author then proceeds to pose two rather silly questions. First, he asks what’s wrong with people being able to own guns when they might be able to save your life some day. The obvious answer is that one generally doesn’t want to pour gasoline on smoldering embers, but that makes far too much sense to get any hearing in the modern United states. This kind of question illustrates a typical conservative debating tactic. The negative consequences (in this case, the widespread availability of firearms increasing the probability of gun violence) are completely ignored, being replaced by a benefit of supposedly greater value. (Russ Sloan does this all the time when discussing tax policy, recently arguing against tax increases on the rich on the grounds that they need all that money to give to charity. It was nice to see another letter expose that distortion today.) The gun lobby trots out this argument every time some psycho “goes postal” at the office or at a college campus or school, contending that if the other employees or students had all been packing heat, they could have taken the guy out straight away. Let’s be absolutely, crystal clear about what this means: they really do want to return to the days of the Wild West. Whether out of misguided machismo or poor inductive reasoning skills, they are utterly incapable of evolving beyond that primitive level.
The second, related question was to ask if we could imagine any law that could keep guns out of the hands of the bad guys, which was immediately followed by the blanket assertion that no such law was possible. The author attempted to support himself with a couple of ludicrous anecdotes. The first, which is strong enough to earn him a visiting scholarship at Oral Roberts University, claims that “[a] little Southern town a few years ago had a crime problem…” and required every household to buy a gun. Crime, we are told in this statistical tour de force, “went to zero.” It’s too bad we have no way of verifying the facts in this little story. The companion claim charged that Mexico’s gun laws have failed to control gun violence. Apart from the fact that the U.S. shouldn’t really be comparing itself to Mexico in any respect, but should be measuring itself against other, supposedly developed, countries (against which it fares dismally in the violent crime department), there is also the small problem of the drug wars fueled by profit motives that no self-respecting gang could resist. But that leads off into drug policy, for which we do not have time today.
This type of argument against regulation is another typical conservative approach to public discourse: contend that the proposed legislative solution wouldn’t make any difference so should not be tried. We see this logic in tax policy, when we are told that taxing the rich wouldn’t solve the debt problem, so why bother? (We don’t actually need to pay off $15 trillion because some debt is entirely normal and necessary for global finance, and of course increased revenue would help reduce the deficit.) Strangely, however, we don’t hear this logic when the question of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) comes up; in that case, even though the amount of recoverable oil would have no discernible impact on global oil prices, it’s definitely worth doing! All of these arguments are equally bogus. We all know they are made to manipulate public opinion into supporting whatever outcome the right prefers, which 99% of the time translates into higher profits for somebody, somewhere, be that Halliburton or Smith & Wesson.
After the school massacre at Dunblane, Scotland – an unfortunate example of the British emulating the less-desirable behavioral traits of their colonial diaspora – the British Parliament enacted very strict gun laws. Even the landed gentry, who customarily express their love for wildlife by filling it with shotgun pellets from a safe distance, had their ballistic activities circumscribed. Here was a case of a society coming together after a national tragedy and saying, “enough is enough – we aren’t going to accept this.” On this side of the pond, no such legislation could ever pass, and not just for the technical reason that the courts would find it unconstitutional. The political power of the gun lobby is so lamentably immense that our Nobel Laureate president – consummate pol that he is – won’t go near the issue of gun control, despite the shooting of a Congresswoman and several civilians in Arizona. It doesn’t seem to matter how bad the atrocity – the NRA always kills anything that even remotely threatens their precious rights. And the rest of us let them get away with it.
So let’s address the ultimate issue here, and one I don’t see discussed nearly enough. Just how important is the Second Amendment in our constitutional scheme? Should we not, in fact, see it as secondary – behind other rights such as those enshrined in the First Amendment? For if liberty is to come into existence and then survive, it must be nourished by ideas, not bullets. The American Revolution itself, while it included (para)military action, was born of political ideas, expressed tirelessly by men of high principles and character. No amount of force will be able to contain a population that refuses to think the way an oppressive regime desires, as we have recently seen in the Arab Spring. If the NRA really wants to defend liberty, it could start by railing against the Citizens United decision that sold American democracy down the river. But we all know it will never do such a thing, since its members are sufficiently adept with their firearms not to shoot themselves in the foot by undermining a decision that empowered the weapons industry and right-leaning interests in general.
On a related note, the gun nuts’ argument that citizens must be able to protect themselves from a potentially tyrannical government is exceptionally naive for at least two reasons. First, no matter how many AK-47s you’ve squirreled away in your personal arsenal or the tool chest of your F-150, you’re seriously out-gunned. If the state wants to kill you, you will be killed. Just ask any Pakistani villager who has watched his child be transformed into a smoldering heap of body parts by an American Predator drone. (For some reason, our allegedly free press shies away from showing us such images – another area of freedom ignored by our glorious protectors in the NRA.)
The more important issue is why the government would be tyrannical in the first place. In the right-wing’s Gospel of Ronnie, government is inherently evil, and can’t wait to sink its fangs into your life, liberty, and property. But a slightly more sophisticated understanding of politics informs us that the government is merely an instrumentality of the forces that control it. In theory, those forces should be expressions of the democratic will of the sovereign people. In practice, the forces that actually control the American state are anything but democratic. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has been amended to read, “Government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations, shall not perish from the earth.” But such perceptions fall upon selectively deaf ears among the gun lobby, a group of narrow-minded zealots for whom the only sound that matters is the report of a lethal projectile sent on its merry way at supersonic velocity. Their selfish sense of empowerment comes at a terrible cost for the rest of society.
Those of us who have lived abroad see the American obsession with firearms and the extraordinary level of gun violence that accompanies it through slightly different eyes than many of our fellow citizens. America’s gun culture can be viewed as simply the micro-level expression of a larger culture of violence, which manifests itself on the world stage in spectacular outbursts of death and destruction against the bad guys du jour. The United States is the undisputed world leader in weaponry and warfare, and continues to provide potential buyers of its hardware with regular live demonstrations of how effective its products can be. And before anyone even dares to complain that such sentiments are somehow un-American, may I remind readers of the framers’ repeated warnings against the dangers of standing armies, Washington’s famous admonition against foreign entanglements, and Eisenhower’s lament about the growth of a military-industrial complex. Who are the real Americans here? Why have we spurned their wisdom?
America, then, needs to make a decision about what kind of country it wants to be. The Florida legislature has decided in favor of the Wild West. The federal government has decided in favor of a global military empire, exceeding the wildest dreams of Caesar, Khan, and Hitler. These decisions are killing us at home and abroad. Apparently, the right to life – the most important right of all – isn’t quite as important as we’ve been told.