The latest breaking news story, as I write this, has at least a dozen children gunned down at a Connecticut elementary school, the latest example of the appalling trend in the United States of the abuse of guns. It should come as no surprise to anyone, and I, as someone who routinely writes about the devastating effects the so-called “pro-Israel” lobby has on peace, US policy and the future for both Israelis and Palestinians (the Lobby is anything but pro-Israel as its actions have demonstrably worked against the
interests of the Israeli people and Jews the world over), appreciate only too well how the National Rifle Association (NRA) has warped the debate over guns in this country.
So here are a few points, and forgive any typos as weeping over dead children while I try to write is always difficult, no matter how practiced I have had to become at it.
First, it’s certainly not just the NRA or other extremists who believe everyone should have the right own a bazooka or a fully automatic high-powered machine gun. The problem is much older and much more ingrained in American culture. As with no other country, the gun is seen in the US as a symbol not only of personal security, but also as an historical icon which won the US its freedom and conquered the land “from sea to shining sea.” Many, correctly, understand that to be glorifying genocide, but it doesn’t change the reality that the wild-west gunslinger as well as the iconic image of the pioneer with his musket and, later, his rifle are at the very heart of romantic notions of American history.
But in the modern era, the discussion really comes down to the Second Amendment to the Constitution. And, as someone with a background in the study of Talmud, I can attest that the Second Amendment is unsurpassed as a piece of writing which has been parsed and reinterpreted to suit people’s needs. But here is the full text, as ratified by the states and certified by Thomas Jefferson:
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’re all probably familiar with the arguments. The NRA and other fanatical pro-gun organizations interpret this as virtually barring any gun regulation. And, to be sure, one can read the Amendment that way, as the operative clause says that the right “…shall not be infringed.” Still, even the NRA has been willing to accept things like background checks and limiting the sale of guns to prevent mentally unstable people and convicted felons from getting them.
In recent years, even as incidents of large-scale gun violence (as opposed to one-on-one incidents that are more closely associated with street crime) have gone up, support for the NRA has actually increased. This would seem to support the NRA strategy that increasing violence makes people more prone to want access to weapons.
Some have argued that the Second Amendment does not bestow a right on individuals, and, until 2008, this was an open debate. That year, the Supreme Court, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller for the first time clearly stated that the right to own firearms is an individual right. I must say that, rare as it is for me to agree with Justice Antonin Scalia, in this case, I think he was correct. No other piece of the Bill of Rights speaks of a collective right unless it specifically states that such is the case, as in the 9th and 10th Amendments. The phrase “the people” can imply the States or the individual, but the 4th Amendment uses the phrase quite clearly as a protection of individual rights.
Yet, Scalia and other advocates of minimal, at best, gun regulation continue to ignore the first conditional clause, which refers to a militia. This explanatory clause is unique among the 10 Amendments of the Bill of Rights; all the others simply state a right, with lesser or greater detail, but no other Amendment sets out a rationale for the right.
This reflects the tension over this issue that existed at the time of the US’ founding. James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper #46 about the militia issue, and many have interpreted his words as holding the individual right to own guns as sacrosanct, though Madison does not explicitly state or even clearly imply this idea. Still, there can be little doubt that the Framers of the US Constitution intended to protect more than just the States’ right to arm a militia and police force. The statements of these men to this effect are many. But did they intend to oppose strict regulation of guns?
This is less plausible. Gun control laws in the early days of the US were pretty stern, mixing a requirement that eligible men (slaves, freed blacks, women and anyone refusing a loyalty oath were forbidden to own a gun) buy their own guns for use in the militia and that their guns pass regular inspection and be registered on public rolls. This also meant a de facto provision that gun owners be trained in their safe use (to the extent safety was feasible with those old-style weapons).
Was that all for gun control? Oh, no. Here’s an interesting tidbit from The Atlantic, an article by Adam Winkler:
In the 1920s and ’30s, the NRA was at the forefront of legislative efforts to enact gun control. The organization’s president at the time was Karl T. Frederick, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer known as “the best shot in America”—a title he earned by winning three gold medals in pistol-shooting at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games. As a special consultant to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Frederick helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model of state-level gun-control legislation. (Since the turn of the century, lawyers and public officials had increasingly sought to standardize the patchwork of state laws. The new measure imposed more order—and, in most cases, far more restrictions.)
Frederick’s model law had three basic elements. The first required that no one carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police. A permit would be granted only to a “suitable” person with a “proper reason for carrying” a firearm. Second, the law required gun dealers to report to law enforcement every sale of a handgun, in essence creating a registry of small arms. Finally, the law imposed a two-day waiting period on handgun sales.
The NRA today condemns every one of these provisions as a burdensome and ineffective infringement on the right to bear arms. Frederick, however, said in 1934 that he did “not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The NRA’s executive vice president at the time, Milton A. Reckord, told a congressional committee that his organization was “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation.” According to Frederick, the NRA “sponsored” the Uniform Firearms Act and promoted it nationwide. Highlighting the political strength of the NRA even back then, a 1932 Virginia Law Review article reported that laws requiring a license to carry a concealed weapon were already “in effect in practically every jurisdiction.”
The NRA’s come a long way, baby.
But there’s still more here. The passion for guns that is inimical to US culture has to be confronted. It will be horribly difficult to amend the Constitution again, and unprecedented to do so in a way that actually puts a limit on an article of the Bill of Rights. I think that’s a hopeless cause—and I work on Mideast peace, so I know from hopeless causes!
But here’s what we can do, and in a number of these steps (perhaps not all), I think many gun owners would not only agree, but help.
- Reduce the glorification of the gun. Anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m not a pacifist. But I (and again, many gun owners would agree) do see violence as an ugly thing that should be a last resort and shouldn’t be easy. The gun, in my view (and here, no doubt, no gun owner will agree with me) is a cowardly weapon. It makes violence, killing, too easy and safe for the assailant. If we stop looking at guns as the solution to problems, as they so often are in movies and TV, but so rarely are in real life (even in cases of warding off potential assailants, this is far less of a “helper” role than is generally portrayed in media), we can make them less desirable.
- Increase gun awareness. This has actually been happening and it is a welcome development. Unintentional firearm deaths declined slightly between 2000 and 2010. Anecdotally, I’ve been told by gun owners that they have seen greater efforts (not by the NRA, of course) to educate gun owners about the safe use and, crucially, the safe storage of guns.
- Accept that gun ownership is protected, but that doesn’t mean the government cannot regulate a lethal weapon. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theater, and the same principle permits gun regulation. Indeed, as I stated earlier, the same “founding fathers” the gun fanatics like to cite also enacted considerable restrictions on gun ownership, as well as promoting responsibility. Moreover, there is no evidence that those same Framers would have supported, for instance, private ownership of a cannon or a warship, had these been debates of the day. Gun ownership may be protected, but it can still be regulated, and this can be inferred by the fact that the Second Amendment is the only one that required explanation. It is clear that the Amendment was intended primarily to defend against governmental tyranny, though self-defense was also held important. Fine, but that doesn’t mean that the government cannot prevent those it deems potentially dangerous (as these very same men did when they barred anyone who would not pledge loyalty to the revolution, a far higher standard than we would impose today) from having guns. That need not be limited to felons and the mentally ill, but to those who cannot pass a competency test, who would not be permitted into the military for emotional or mental reasons, who would not be able to pass an eye test that would permit them to drive, or who have not completed training for safe use and storage of their firearms.
- Shift the attention to the culture, not the law. The constitutional argument is a losing one, in my view. Instead, the gun must be seen differently than it is today. The regulations I mentioned above are not terribly likely to prevent people without criminal records from getting firearms, and in many of these shootings in public places, this means it would not be prevented. And I know a good number of people who have guns and, as much as I hate guns, I can think of far more important things to worry about than their gun ownership. That’s because they know how to use a gun and, more than that, they have a healthy respect for their guns. They would never use their gun lightly or cavalierly.
This sort of attitude can shift the gun culture to a less dangerous one. What should be confronted is the attitude of the NRA who spew nonsense when something like this school shooting happens about people, not guns, killing people. Nonsense. Without guns, this man surely could not have killed a dozen and a half children, more than two dozen people overall. Many people would not commit an act of murder if it were not as simple as point and squeeze the trigger. It would not eliminate violence, but it would make it harder, and that matters. But even more importantly, if the gun is not seen as a thing of prestige, of virility, even of beauty, that would change the culture we live in. It won’t come close to eliminating violence, but it might well reduce it notably.
Personally, I’d rather live in a country that did not protect the right of gun ownership. Not only does that lead us to our own massacres, it has led us to flood the planet with weapons. US weapons, legal and otherwise, are everywhere in Asia and Africa, and the enormous industry which joins compatriot corporations in Europe, Israel and elsewhere create a tidal wave of weapons that fuel wars and smaller conflicts, even interpersonal ones, throughout the world.
But that’s not where I live, and the fact is that both the NRA and many liberals have twisted the wording of the Second Amendment in the tradition of self-serving lawyers everywhere. I have to accept that this country has established private gun ownership as a right, but just as an honest reading of that Amendment demonstrates that point, so does that same honest reading recognize that it was qualified in a way no other right in the Bill of Rights was. Within that framework, there are laws that are possible, and, more important, there are cultural shifts that can be made.
The sort of shooting incidents we have seen recently, of which today’s massacre was only a stark extreme case, are increasing. There were plenty of guns around twenty, thirty and forty years ago, yet these incidents were much rarer. There are many social reasons for this, connected to the economy, despair about the future, and others. All sorts of people will ascribe all sorts of social circumstances that explain the rise in these kinds of attacks. But every one of them can be addressed and confronted by dealing with our collective passion for the gun. It’s time to engage in that fight.