The “Second-Amendment Solution”
Everyone seems to want to know why a previously unknown gunman shot and gravely wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D., Az.), killed federal Judge John Roll and five others, and wounded about a dozen more. What were his motives? Were they political? Is he a right-winger, maybe a Tea Mob member? Was he out to get a Democrat, Giffords in particular, or just any handy government official?
These are the absurd and possibly unanswerable questions with which our media occupy themselves. Meanwhile, they ignore and (perhaps deliberately) obscure the really important questions.
How did this likely deranged person manage to get and keep an extended-cartridge semi-automatic weapon? And how did he manage to bring it to a political rally, apparently without a single objection or challenge, from the time he procured it to the time he committed mayhem? Whether his motives for the shooting were or were not political, the answers to those questions certainly are.
Google the phrase “Second Amendment solution,” and you will get 763,000 hits in less than two tenths of a second. Google the more grammatically precise version, “Second-Amendment solution,” and you will get 1,180,000 more, for a total of almost two million.
To my knowledge, the phrase did not exist as recently as the 2008 presidential election. It certainly did not exist in 2004, when an obscure state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama first thrust his way into the national political arena with a masterful speech about Americans hewing to the center and learning to get along. Its most probable origin is the Supreme Court’s decision in June of last year that the Second Amendment provides a “fundamental right” to keep and bear arms that no state or locality can take away. (McDonald v. Chicago)
So what does the new phrase mean? The chief modern justification for the “right to bear arms” used to be protecting oneself from crime. But you’ll look for that rationale in the results of Google’s search of the phrase in vain. A few posts imply that shooting illegal immigrants might be desirable. But the vast majority of promoters of the phrase imply—and some say outright—that the “Second-Amendment solution” is a proper response to “big government” in general, or, in particular, to the Obama presidency and/or the Democrats’ erstwhile control of Congress, just now ended.
You cannot read even a few pages from these Google searches, let alone the numerous on-line comments to news media and blogs that use the term every day, without coming to a firm but terrifying conclusion. There are now many people in this country who believe that armed violence, or the threat of it, is a legitimate form of political expression.
How did a presumably civilized society once based upon rational and respectful debate come to this pass?
Well, the first two words of the armed extremists’ mantra are “Second Amendment,” so let’s look at it. It’s a single short sentence, which reads as follows: “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.”
To understand what this sentence meant when first written, you have to know something about context. When our Founders ratified our Constitution in 1791, there was no such thing as a semi-automatic weapon. Rifles outnumbered pistols (because they were more accurate and useful), and most had primitive technology that made them far less accurate than today’s counterparts. The average rifle then required muzzle loading, in which the powder and shot were loaded laboriously and separately down the length of the entire barrel—a process that took as much as a minute or more.
So in the context of that time, it would have been utterly impossible for a single person to do what Giffords’ shooter did. After the very first shot—whether or not it hit anyone—the unarmed crowd would have overwhelmed, disarmed and subdued him. So point one is a simple fact: personal small arms create an infinitely greater threat to life, limb, personal security and public order today than they did when the Second Amendment was drafted.
The second point of context relates to the preamble, concerning the “well-regulated Militia.” There has been much debate about whether this clause expresses a condition, the reason, or merely one of several reasons for the right. But two facts are indisputable. First, there was no standing army in constitutional days. To fight our War of Independence against the British and their Hessian mercenaries, we had to raise special armies (at first, separately and specially in each state). We had to find money and means to pay them and arm them, and we did so ad hoc, as the need arose.
The second indisputable fact is that our revolutionary soldiers nearly all brought their own arms. Fortunately for our independence, they came overwhelmingly from rural areas. Many lived on farms or in near wilderness. They needed (and they had) firearms to shoot game and slaughter livestock (both healthy and sick) and to protect themselves from wild animals and infrequent attacks by native Americans.
So when our soldiers came to fight for our independence, they came with their own weapons, which they had bought themselves, knew well and assiduously maintained. Those who didn’t have their own firearms brought pitchforks and other sharp farm implements, made into makeshift spears.
The natural interpretation of the Second Amendment is that our Founders expected that practice to continue, sparing the public fisc from the burden of military supply. In other words, the “right to keep and bear arms” was a way of supplying a collective army by private means, in a form of what today we would call “partial privatization.”
A moment’s thought suffices to show that none of these rationales applies today. Small arms, especially when automatic or semi-automatic, are infinitely more dangerous and deadly than in 1791. The vast majority of our citizens don’t need them for protection or their livelihood because they live not on farms or in the wilderness, but in cities, where professional police forces (with far better skill, training and equipment than the average citizen) protect them. And we don’t need our troops to supply their own weapons because we have built up a vast military-industrial complex far more powerful and advanced than anything to which private citizens could aspire.
So none—not one—of the common-sense historical rationales for the Second Amendment applies today. Yet our Supreme Court, in its wisdom, and virtually ignoring the Second Amendment’s preamble, ruled that it imposes a “fundamental” personal right to bear firearms, in cities as well as the country. That right, said the Court, cannot “be infringed” by state or local government. And the Court, for future reference, essentially arrogated to itself the power to decide what types of weapons that “fundamental” right includes and under what circumstances. (No one ever thought that the right includes heavy weapons, whether cannon and howitzers in colonial times or machine guns and nuclear missiles today.)
More important, several members of the Court hinted that the Second Amendment was designed, at least in part, to allow free citizens to protect themselves against their own government. That rationale, of course, is almost impossible to draw from the text of the Amendment itself, which refers specifically to “the security of a free State.”
So if you want to know who is ultimately responsible for Congressman Gifford’s critical condition and Judge Hall’s murder, look to the top. Look to the five justices who supported the majority opinion in McDonald v. Chicago, namely, Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and (for different reasons) Thomas.
These five men are responsible for perpetuating a “fundamental right” to bear arms, which neither states nor local government can infringe, and for twisting the meaning of a single, clear sentence two centuries out of historical context. More important, by labeling this “right” as “fundamental” and hinting that its purpose was to protect against governmental abuse, they set in motion a chain of consequences that anyone with the slightest understanding of cause and effect could foresee.
Now we must reap the whirlwind that they have sown. Their decision is one of a piece with Citizens United, which allows the men (most are still men) who control the corporations that provide our daily necessities to use the profit portion of money we pay for those necessities to propagandize us and corrupt our leaders. It remains to be seen which of those two intellectually and socially corrupting decisions will lead more quickly to the destruction of our society and the “ordered liberty” that these justices so pathetically claimed they intended to preserve.