Given the defeat of the most rudimentary controls on unregulated gun sales by the Senate, it is necessary to analyze why gun-control advocates’ rationale for change was so weak. It is clear that kowtowing to the Second Amendment and the unconditioned sanctity of the right to bear arms has not proven successful.
It is thus time to analyze the Second Amendment and the supposedly sacrosanct right to bear arms more deeply.
We must begin by viewing the Second Amendment in its historical context. At the time the Constitution and amendments were proposed, the right for individuals to own guns was not in question. They were clearly a necessity for protection from animals and bandits, and they were necessary for meat for a significant portion of the population. In fact, as a reflection of the strength of the gun culture at that time, duels, although outlawed, were tolerated as we know from the famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
So what was the real purpose of including the Second Amendment in the Constitution? As accepted by almost everyone — excepting those who fetishize guns— the Second Amendment is at best extremely ambiguous. However, in addition to the ambiguity of a “well-regulated militia” and its meaning, we need to consider the 1787 reality and the state of mind of patriots at the time. We had just fought and won the Revolutionary War, which still needed to be justified to many Americans and the world at the time. Therefore, it only made sense that they wanted to include a principle that legitimated this revolutionary move.
Further, there was no guarantee at the time of the writing that an individual or group was not going to install themselves as a new monarchy or dictatorship, as Geroge Washington had not yet been elected and established the reality of democracy by stepping down at the end of his terms. In this light, the Second Amendment can be seen as is more about justifying armed rebellion from tyranny than about individuals’ unconditional rights to bear arms.
Obviously, opinion had changed considerably by the time of the Civil War. The central issue of that struggle related to this very point, the legitimacy of armed secession.
In the present-day context, it doesn’t make sense to keep defending the inherent “right to keep and bear arms” when we can witness the carnage from assault-rifle killing power inconceivable to our nation’s founders. They lived in an era of single-shot, flint-lock muzzle-loading weapons that were unreliable and required an unbearably long time to reload. We now exist in an era when military-style assault weapons with magazines easily holding up to 100 rounds, capable of killing innocent individuals as rapidly as the trigger can be squeezed.
In the American of 2013, all the other rights of citizens are conditional on concerns about public safety. Whether they concern cars, airplane travel, or prescribed medicines that unquestionably enrich our lives, it is universally understood that they also all represent large-scale lethal potential.
How could the framers of the constitution have imagined the technological advances of the next 230 years? The constitution outlines a set of principles, not a “how to” rule book that was intended to be valid regardless of societal change. Nothing in the constitution specifically puts gun ownership above all other rights or considerations. Just engaging in the argument about whether basic gun safety is an affront to the constitution gives it a legitimacy and primacy over other rights to life, liberty and happiness” that it doesn’t deserve.
By trying to assuage Second Amendment fanatics, we are feeding the beast. We should challenge the whole relevance of this Amendment and the “gun fundamentalism” to American life today.
Lurking just beneath this notion—that Americans possess an unfettered right to weapons capable of spewing mass death that was inconceivable in 1787—is the fact that many leading gun fundamentalists want arsenals to challenge the government militarily whenever they disagree with laws. How else can we to make sense of all the secessionist talk and even armed rebellion advanced by public officials and congressional candidates from the South and Southwest? How else to make sense of this demand for unrestricted access to military weapons and ammunition?
Yet there has not been a sufficiently sustained and serious challenge to the laughably false premise of the argument that the gun fundamentalist employ in public debate, that these weapons are somehow absolutely essential for self-protection, hunting, or target practice. The gun fundamentalists want unconditional access to weapons intended for mass death on battlefields, but with none of the safeguards that have been firmly established for life-enhancing technological advances cars, planes, or medicine that nonetheless have demonstrated a potential for massive harm to human beings.
By continuing to argue this issue on the terms of the “gun fundamentalists” seeking unconditional access desire for military-level killing power, most fanatic elements of our society, we help to insert their insane definitions at the heart of public debate.
To promote a sane discussion about the proliferation of battlefield weapons in American society, we need to take a short- term risk of challenging the sanctity of weapons to alter the dialogue in the long-term. The recent defeat in the Senate emphasizes the importance of engaging the public with new ways of thinking that confront the “common wisdom.”
When the Senate defied 90% public support for proper background checks, it was an alarming sign about the ways in which Republicans have thwarted majority rule in the Senate. (Similarly, in the House, the GOP systematically utilized a multimillion-dollar REDMAP strategy for re-districting to artificially exaggerate its strength; despite collecting 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic House candidates, the Republicans walked off with a 33-seat majority.
But along with the Republicans sustained efforts to undermine democratic rule, the defeat on background checks reflected the unwillingness of liberals and progressives to directly and boldly confront the vastly-changed meaning of the Second Amendment in an era when the unconditional proliferation of military assault rifles has overtaken anything the Founding Fathers could imagine.
Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter are both writers based in Milwaukee.
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2013
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