Guns and Violence in America

I want to say a few words about guns and violence in America, and I ask everyone to listen with an open mind.

Like it or not, we have the Second Amendment, which guarantees us the right to keep and bear arms. The Founding Fathers were idealists who dreamed of an unprecedented republic. They feared Standing Armies (they had read their Roman history), so they decided to try to defend our republic with a militia system. In their view, if you don’t want a permanent army and a permanent navy that operate somewhat independently from the direct will of the legislature, you need to avoid what they called a standing army, or what we might call a permanent military establishment. So you create a people’s militia instead — a system of minutemen. And that means the people must have weapons they actually own, not weapons supplied to them by their government.

Some of the founding fathers, chiefly Jefferson, also believed in the right to revolution. A well-armed citizenry would make that possible. A disarmed citizenry would make that almost impossible.

That was then. This is now.

Then we had a population of six million. Now 330 million. Then we were an essentially agrarian people—97% of us farmers—diffused over the broad landscapes of America. Now we are much more an urban and industrial nation.

Our weaponry is so different from theirs that it really amounts to a difference not just in degree but in kind. In Jefferson’s time, a high-tech weapon was always, and I mean always, a single-shot rifle or musket or pistol that took 20 to 30, or maybe 45 seconds to reload. Today someone with a 9mm handgun and the right kind of magazine can fire a hundred bullets per minute. The Las Vegas assassin injured hundreds and killed 58 people in ten minutes of shooting.

Do we really believe the Second Amendment, dedicated to a militia system (long gone from American life) and applying to single shot guns, means the same thing in 2018 that it meant in 1789?

The first of the rights Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence was the right to life. Life first, then liberty, and then the elusive and somewhat mysterious pursuit of happiness.

Now that we have had more mass shootings that we can count, beginning with Charles Whitman on the tower at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966—14 killed, 31 wounded—and most recently the high school in Parkland, Florida—17 dead, an equal number wounded—it is time for us to ask ourselves some hard questions:

1. Is the Second Amendment a constitutional absolute? In other words, is any restriction unconstitutional? Or are we free to make reasonable adjustments, regulations, and restrictions so long as we remain firmly committed to the general right of the people to keep and bear arms?

2. What would James Madison, or Alexander Hamilton, or George Washington, or Patrick Henry have to say about the meaning of the Second Amendment and its status if they came back to life and looked around at the gun violence of the United States in the early 21st century?

3. How do we balance public safety—the right to feel secure in public spaces—with the Second Amendment’s guarantee that we have the right to keep and bear arms?

4. Are there steps we can take to ensure public safety that do not erode the Second Amendment?

5. How valuable is the right to keep and bear arms? Canada has no such right, Britain has no such right, France has no such right, Germany has no such right. Are the people of those countries less free than we are because they have no Second Amendment? We know that gun violence is extremely rare in every other first world country, most second world countries, and many third world countries. Is our love of a kind of Lee Greenwood freedom (which, historically and sociologically speaking, appears to be largely an abstraction) more important than public safety?

6. Virtually everyone accepts that there must be some restrictions on freedom of speech (shouting fire in a crowded theater, calling for the assassination of public officials, publishing troop movements in a time of war), and freedom of religion (basing child molestation or honor killings on “sacred” texts). Is it possible, therefore, to craft reasonable restrictions about gun ownership?

7. What would we lose as a people if the Second Amendment magically evaporated overnight, and we had no cultural memory of such an amendment? What would be the effect on America—good or bad?

8. And finally, can we talk about this in a thoughtful, mutually-respectful, rational way?

I don’t presume to know the answers to these questions, but they seem like the right ones to me. I’m committed to the Second Amendment, but I am also committed to the Fifth, the Fourth, the Sixth, and the Ninth Amendments, and especially the First Amendment. I am committed to the Second Amendment but I am even more committed to the General Welfare clause of the Constitution, and I feel that Jefferson’s insistence that we have a natural right to Life (with a capital L) has to be part of this equation somewhere.

What I want is a thoughtful national conversation about this, grounded in actual (not mythological) history, with historians of the early national period, biographers of Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, and Madison, Constitutional scholars, grammarians, textual experts on the Bill of Rights, ministers, policemen, school superintendents, gun enthusiasts, and even the NRA—but only if the NRA comes willing to talk not preach or filibuster.

We all know that the technology of mass killing is only going to get better and more efficient, that the cheapening of mass destruction is one of the most significant developments of the past century and we are only getting started. And I think we all know that our obsession with the Second Amendment is in danger of becoming a deathtrap. In other words, I believe firmly that the time will come, sooner I hope, but soon enough, when we are going to have a historically grounded thoughtful national conversation about the meaning and continuing validity of the Second Amendment.

The people who say, after each shooting, "not now, not yet, not while we're grieving," are mocking the Constitution, mocking their fellow citizens, and mocking Reason itself. If we have a spate of bridge collapses, we pass legislation almost immediately to make sure our bridges are safe and strong. If we have a spate of airplane crashes, we pass legislation to make our air fleet safer. Nobody says, "not now, not yet, not while we're grieving."

Grow up. Let’s get serious about this issue. And here’s proposition one: no hiding behind the Second Amendment. We can talk about it, debate it, disagree about it, but no hiding behind it as if it were sacred.