Dateline: March 23, 2018
By Jack Moscou and Stephen James
The Second Amendment says: “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.”
You can read this any way you want. You can focus on the first part and decide it does not mean individual people have the right to bear arms except as part of a well regulated militia, or you can focus on the last part of the sentence that the right of people to bear arms meant just that.
However you read it, it was ratified 227 years ago and the founding fathers were thinking that people had the right to bear muskets and flintlocks, not cannons and certainly not the weapons we have today. To our mind the most logical reading would be that the right to bear and keep arms meant that the states had the right to form well regulated militias and in those days, since the state militias didn’t provide guns, if there were going to be militias, the people had to have the right to “bear” arms.
It also helps to put the Second Amendment in context. In the late 18th century, there was a general fear of Indian attacks and uprisings, slave rebellions, foreign invasion, sedition and social unrest caused primarily by poor farmers, forced off their land by a combination of high taxes and falling crop prices. The answer that the colonists had relied on for over 180 years was for the colonies, now the states, to form militias of armed civilians for the general local defense. The militia system provided for calling out men in an emergency. For example, the skirmish at Lexington and Concord in 1775, with the “shot heard round the world” that began the Revolutionary War, was fought by the Massachusetts militia. The regular army was formed later, but the state militias made up the backbone of George Washington’s army. Militias were a fixture in American life.
The Constitution as first written was controversial. One of the major objections was that the Constitutional Convention had failed to adopt a bill of rights proposed by George Mason. The Bill of Rights was intended as a corrective to what many saw as the new government’s power to curtail the freedom of the people and become as oppressive as the monarchy they had just rebelled against.
The history of the Second Amendment is particularly illuminating in this respect. At the risk of over simplification, the original wording of the constitution gave the federal government the authority to raise a standing army. The militias in southern slave holding states were the primary means used to “police” the slave population, to prevent slaves escaping, put down slave revolts, and enforce and maintain slavery. The southern slave holders were well aware that in the recent Revolutionary War Great Britain had offered freedom to slaves who escaped and joined the British army, and that Washington also offered freedom to slaves who joined the revolutionary army. Fearful that at some future date a “national” militia faced with a crisis brought on by a foreign war or an internal insurrection, such as the Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts, might well offer freedom to slaves who fought for the government, the framers of the amendment inserted the word “state” in place of “nation.”
Many anti-federalists, those opposed to a strong central government, maintained that a federal government that became too powerful or insensitive to the needs of the more vulnerable parts of the country, especially the South and West, could abuse their power and attempt to restrict or eliminate state militias for political reasons. The Second Amendment was intended to protect state militias by guaranteeing that the government would not tamper with this time-honored tradition.
The amendment also averted the use of the national military at home, something that had most concerned the colonialists when the British military had been used against them before and during the Revolutionary War.
The Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, was promised by the pro-constitution Federalists as a condition for states as different as Virginia, New York, and North Carolina to ratify the basic constitution.
Almost from the beginning, the meaning of the vaguely worded amendment was debated: whether the amendment protects the right of private individuals to keep and bear arms, or whether it instead protects a collective right that should be exercised only through formal militia units. For over 200 years the collective right interpretation was dominant in Supreme Court decisions and in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. It was not until 2008 in the Heller Decision that the Supreme Court maintained the right of individual gun ownership.
According to ProCon.org, from 1999 until 2015 there have been 533,870 gun deaths, an average of 33,367 per year. Guns are the number one cause of homicide, suicide, and legal intervention (death from law enforcement or military). Guns are also a significant factor in unintentional and undetermined deaths. Firearm suicides were by far the most instances with 313,641 in that 16 year period. Both authors of this article have experienced this tragedy firsthand.
According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, as reported by NPR, the U.S. has an extremely high rate of gun violence compared to other well-developed countries in the world. The U.S. rate of 3.85 deaths due to gun violence per 100,000 people in 2016 was eight times higher than in Canada (.48 deaths per 100,000), 27 times higher than in Denmark (.14 deaths), and 96 times higher than Japan (0.04 deaths). Singapore, South Korea, China, The UK, Iceland, Romania, Indonesia, and Germany all had similar fractions of the number of gun deaths compared to the US.
The New York Times reports that a 1993 landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that, rather than offering protection to a family, bringing a gun into the home puts everyone at much greater risk. In response, the N.R.A. pushed Congress in 1995 to stop the C.D.C. from spending taxpayer money on research concerning gun violence. Congress then passed the Dickey Amendment in 1996, and cut funding that effectively ended the C.D.C.’s study of gun violence as a public health issue. In the 22 years since then there have been more than 600,000 gunshot victims. The federal government has largely abandoned efforts to learn why people shoot one another, or themselves, and what can be done to prevent gun violence.
Our friend and colleague Ted Cox comments that in addition to the reasons stated in last week’s post: “one reason the gun-owners are so touchy and hence irrational about the problem is that their primary motivation in owning guns is to hide their fear. In order to address the problem in a rational context, they would have to acknowledge their fear.”
If In the late 18th century, there was a general fear of Indian attack, slave rebellions, foreign invasion, social unrest, and a possible militia crisis, we now have a strong central government with a huge standing army, National Guard militias in every state, and state and local police everywhere. We have much less need for an armed population to alleviate the fears that prompted the Second Amendment 200 years ago. What do members of our society fear today that requires them to arm themselves?
Gun advocates commonly claim fear of criminals, insane mass murders, bad immigrants, terrorists, and government tyranny. Are their stated fears justified? Presumably professional law enforcement could and should take care of these remaining domestic threats and alleviate our fears. Armed rebellion against the United States of America, without enough military power to match the government’s tanks and fighter planes, is a childish fantasy. Similarly, if there were no readily available guns in our country, then armed criminals, mass murderers, bad immigrants, and terrorists would arguably be less dangerous. Maybe they wouldn’t disappear, but there would be far fewer of them with guns.
What is the real fear that Dr. Cox is referencing? I suggest it is fear of life, of the tragedy that is part of life, of pain and suffering, of growing old and frail, of a lack of hope and purpose, of dying alone. Our culture has us push all that fear aside: repress it; deny it; deflect it. Better to focus on the promise of unending joy a new car or house or clothes or latest electronic gadget will surely provide. And to push aside our real fears, to deftly substitute fake fears for the real ones, we have a fake solution, killing machines that will give us the power we seek. The deeper, unconscious fear that is never articulated cannot be acknowledged, but that silently drives the issue forward.
This unending debate over Second Amendment rights and freedom is a smokescreen. The real issues are social psychological: Fear and Dread masquerading as Rights and Freedom. Our society has deliberately turned its back on the problem. It has narrowed the focus to background checks, specific kinds of rifles, purchase age, mental health screenings, and accessories like bump stocks. The issue will never be resolved in a rational context, as Dr. Cox asserts, as long as the real unconscious issues underneath are not acknowledged.
As important, and indeed vitally necessary as it is to explore history and the probable deep underlying psychological issues involved in violence, we also must also look at the social environment in which this violence exists (to be discussed in more depth in another post).
Our society venerates rugged individualism and mindless materialism, and links them to what are described as gun ownership rights. Our nation needs to fully integrate personal transformation with a transformative social structure that embraces cooperation, full employment at socially useful work complete with a living wage, and a culture of civility and humanistic values to end our present endless spiral of violence.
In our current environment the real issue of 265 million killing machines in the hands of otherwise peaceful citizens is not and will not be examined. A staggering rate of violence will not be addressed. The Parkland mass shooting may be the tipping point to finally get the nation moving to learn the truth about guns.
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Jack Moscou is a co-founder of The Writers Collective. He has an extensive background in management training, strategic planning, and political consulting. His commentary on political events was previously posted in www.bloggingforutopia.com. He is the author of Why Not Utopia: A Political Platform in Search of a Party.
Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.