In the wake of multiple gun-related atrocities in the past few months – Orlando, Las Vegas, and Parkland most recently – I wanted to try and offer a less-biased approach to the background of the “gun issue” in the United States.
From outside the US, I know it’s difficult to understand what the problem is. After all, we have more guns per capita than pretty much anyone else, and we also have a higher rate of gun violence. The global correlation numbers are pretty clear: if we had less guns, we’d have less gun-related violence. I’m not sure you need statistics for that, since it’s kind of like saying “if we had less pasta, we’d have less Italian-related food.” But it’s easy to simply ask, “why don’t you guys just cut back on the guns?”
To begin with, there’s the 2nd amendment to the US Constitution, one of our original 10 “Bill of Rights.” That’s not something we take lightly: the Constitution is literally the bedrock of our entire system of government and more than a little of our entire culture as Americans. It probably has more to do with the national identity of “American” than almost anything else; the Constitution is, for us, what takes a mob of immigrants and turns them into one nation. It’s difficult to explain to non-US citizens, because the Constitution is something we become emotionally connected to at a very young age.
A Brief History of the Second Amendment
There’s a lot of misinformation about Number Two’s origins and history. Some believe it was because British soldiers were confiscating weapons from Americans who needed them to hunt, in order to feed their families. Others believe it was because those soldiers wanted to prevent American colonial resistance. Both of those were likely things that happened, although in reading histories of the time I’m personally pressed to find a lot of evidence of the former. What we do have, however, are fairly copious notes from the original Constitutional Congress where the amendment was first presented.
James Madison proposed it originally, and it was seen as a way to provide more power to state militias. Keep in mind that the concept of Federalization was extremely unpopular with most states at the time, each of whom had previously operated more or less autonomously under British rule. Today’s “state militias” are, more or less, the state National Guard units nominally under the control of each state’s Governor. Madison was fairly clear that the measure was intended to give states the power to fight back against a tyrannical Federal government. Even today, most gun regulation comes from the state level, not the Federal level, with a patchwork of laws and regulations spread across the current 50 states. For example, I believe it’s 44 states that have open-carry laws, even though nothing in the 2nd amendment has ever been interpreted as guaranteeing a right to open carry.
The Amendment reads:
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 might wonder, then, how much training we require for gun ownership, given that training would seem to be a basic tenet for a “well regulated Militia.” The answer is none. We largely can’t even agree on whether the amendment provides for a collective right – the right for states to arm its militias – or an individual right – the right for individuals to own guns. We’ve more or less opted for the latter, but it remains a hotly debated issue in scholarly works.
(I should note that we do indeed train our militia members quite extensively, but that has nothing to do with owning guns; not every National Guard member owns personal weapons.)
Our ultimate authority on the Constitution is our Supreme Court, which is tasked with interpreting the Constitution, and its amendments, for modern times. Back in 1876 and again in 1886, the Court held that gun ownership was not an individual right, and that the amendment only addressed Federal gun regulation, not state regulation. They held that same stance again in 1894.
We didn’t hear from the Court again until 1939, where some yahoo got arrested for carrying a banned sawed-off shotgun across state lines. This is the first time the Court acknowledged any Federal authority over guns, stating that, “in the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length’ at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.” This was also about the last time a “militia” played into the Court’s thinking.
Almost 70 years later, in 2008, the Court took on Number Two again. This is the first time the Court more or less discarded the “well regulated Militia” bit, stating in part that, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” This was a big change, but it really didn’t reflect anything more than common thought at the time. By 2008, we had more guns in private ownership that citizens, and very, very, very few of those gun owners were in the militia.
And that’s more or less where we’re at from a legal perspective.
Guns are scary devices, with good reason, and so terms like “Gun Culture” can evoke some negative feelings. It’s no different than “Car Culture,” though, which sounds much more West Coast-cool, and Gun and Car Cultures have a lot in common.
We don’t have a Constitutional right to keep and drive cars, but if anyone tried to regular their use more than we already do, or God forbid take them away, there’d be a hue and cry like you’d never believe. Cars are a legitimately vital part of many people’s lives, and they play a similar, fundamental role in the American identity as guns. Cars give us personal freedom. They’re one of the first big milestones a young American achieves as they grow into adults. Emotionally, for us, they’re a huge deal. And guns, for many Americans, fall into that same emotional/identity zone. That’s not meant to be a positive or negative statement; it simply “is.” Few Americans need guns to survive; few Americans belong to a militia (which would provide them with guns anyway, these days; the National Guard is not a BYOG club). But, like cars, they’re very much a part of our country’s basic weft and weave.
Notwithstanding former Supreme Court Justice Stevens’ comments recently, changing the Constitution isn’t easy. It’s purposefully difficult, for the same reasons you don’t just go down to the basement and start jackhammering your house’s foundations. The Constitution has far-ranging consequences that are difficult to grasp, and you don’t mess with it lightly. The only enumerated way to change the Constitution is to get two-thirds of both the Senate and the House to agree, and then three-quarters of the states to ratify the change. If this seems impossible, it’s definitely close, which is why we’ve only done it a handful of times in our 200+ year history.
And there’s no guarantee that even a full repeat of Two would matter. 44 states guarantee a right to bear terms in their Constitutions, and absent an explicit Federal override, those state laws would “win.” So we’d need to not only repeal Two, we’d need to add a new amendment to potentially override state laws. Not happening.
Which leads us to the very reasonable question of, “well, what changes could we make short of a Constitutional amendment?” Plenty. It’s questionable how much Federal regulation would be acceptable, given previous Supreme Court opinions, but states could do almost anything they wanted. And that’s likely the best place to regular almost anything in the US, believe it or not. We’re a country of more than 350,000,000 citizens. From a land mass and population perspective, we’re as big as Western Europe, and we have just as much cultural diversity. If you think having the big-bad EU issue Europe-spanning regulations is unpopular over there, well, the Federal government’s edicts are just about as loved over here.
Activists on all sides of any issue try to use the Federal government as a blunt instrument for two reasons. First, it’s perceived to be easier to pass one law on something that to pass fifty. Second, people get really bent out of shape when they see other people doing something they don’t like, even half a continent away. And so the Feds are seen as a way of enforcing one’s will on the masses. It goes over about as well as you might expect, given that the makeup of the US is more like eleven loosely-joined nations. I’m personally a big fan of state-based regulations, because it puts the power and the decision closer to the people it affects. I think the Federal government has its place helping us accomplish the Big Things we couldn’t do on our own, but I’m largely a states-rights fan. I’d personally be squeamish of major Federal regulations on almost anything, because those are so often heavy-handed, badly managed, and overwrought.
But here’s the real difficulty: conspiracy theorists (my phrase, which I understand is a bias on my part) believe that “the liberals” are coming to take our guns; given the resounding lack of factual evidence for that, it’s a theory I can’t even discuss. But basically, pro-gun anti-regulation advocates largely refuse to engage in debate.
After the Parkland massacre, Marco Rubio made a statement, which in part reads:
Protest is good way of making a point, but making a change will require both sides finding common ground
That’s true, and it’s the way any system of democracy is meant to work. The difficulty is that anti-regulation advocates simply refuse to engage in debate, discussion, or search for a common ground. For the most part, they simply insult, bully, and demean anyone taking any view less that total gun ownership freedom without restriction. It’s fine if your stance is that there should be no restrictions, but you should be able to state that, and mount a logical defense to your position that could be used in a debate on the issue.
Let’s be clear on something: there are millions of responsible, law-abiding, intelligent people in the US who own guns. I own several guns, and most of my friends do. I enjoy shooting targets at the range, and when I’m at my relatively isolated cabin I enjoy the extra peace of mind the shotgun offers against large, hungry predators. I, and most of my gun-owning friends, would be happy to engage in a discussion about how guns might be more intelligently regulated, and we do engage in those debates between ourselves. Some of my friends are members of organizations that advocate against gun regulation, and are a bit weary of those organizations’ hard-line stance against even having a discussion of the issues.
Most of us feel that for the purposes of discussion, anything can and should be on the table. Mandatory training. Bans on certain types of weapons. Limits on ammunition magazine sizes. Hell, someone mentioned mandatory militia service for gun owners, which is at least something we could talk about, you’d think. Some sides routinely fight against even simple things like gun registration, stating that making people register their guns is one step away from the Federal government knowing where all the guns are when it’s time to take them all back, which strikes me as a little paranoid and counterproductive (although I admit it’s a valid position in a debate of the issue). The politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” responses are driven largely by their loyalty to the refusal to even enter into a debate.
And let’s be clear on this, too: most conservative politicians aren’t even offering solutions. Not even bad ideas. The problem gets shoved off to “mental health” in a country that can’t even decide if it wants all of its citizens to even have health insurance, and that’s it. We can’t even get a crappy proposal to start discussing, which is why we can’t get any change.
Gun advocacy groups should have a valuable role to play in a national discussion on gun regulations. Unfortunately, they’re backing themselves into a corner. By refusing to even discuss the situation, and by focusing on a strategy of bullying to silence their opposition, they’re creating a situation where compromise can’t happen. Rather than bringing an opposing voice to the table, pro-gun organizations could eventually find themselves excluded from the table entirely.
The fact that we can’t even get a meaningful, civil debate off the ground in the US is simply inexcusable. That alone represents a bigger failing of basic democracy than the actual underlying political issues.
And Here We Sit
And so that’s more or less the current situation. One “side” is pushing for stronger regulations on at least certain kinds of guns, accessories, and ammunition; the other “side” is calling them names and basically refusing to talk about it. In the middle sits the vast, vast, vast majority of Americans, most of whom wouldn’t find anything at all toxic about a discussion.
Notably uninvited from discussing the issue are the men and women of our militias, who would presumably have some thoughts about the 2nd amendment that ensures they can be armed. Largely uninvited are the vast numbers of men and women in law enforcement, who presumably have some thoughts about gun ownership (many of them own guns privately as well as for work), enforcement, and safety. We’ve yet to hear anything substantive from them except, perhaps, in our own social media channels.
It’d be nice to say that the debate rages on, but it doesn’t. There is no debate, and it’s that singular failing of the entire concept of democracy that’s the most saddening to me personally. Whatever your stance on the issue, I think we as a people should hear it. We should all be able to put our concerns, fears, and desires on the table, and find someplace in the middle where we hit the best possible balance between it all – and then try that for a minute.
I’ve tried not to share my personal stance on the matter of gun regulation, because right now that’s not what should matter. What should matter is that we all get a fair shot to have our opinions represented and heard, and that we can’t is the ultimate problem. I hope that’s something we can get fixed, and soon.
Knowing what a politically fraught topic this is, I hope I’ve managed to keep this fairly neutral on the issue itself, if not around my disrespect for advocacy organizations’ unwillingness to engage on the actual issues. I want to acknowledge that all “sides” of this debate (there are more than two, in my feeling) have made bad calls along the way, but hold firm to my feeling that the one thing we should all agree on is that an actual honest discussion can’t possibly hurt. If you’ve got something to add, please do sound off in the comments.
Please try to avoid pejorative terms like “right-wingers” or “libs” and so on; even when we disagree, we’re all meant to be one nation. We have to acknowledge that when we’re discussing something so embedded in our national fabric, it’s going to be tense. Try to make it not tense.
I’ll offer this, for what little it’s worth. Whenever you’ve a tense issue like this, with tempers running hot on all sides, try to set your own temper aside and create some quiet space. For example, just ask, without judging or arguing, you opponent a few simple questions:
- What are your concerns? What are you trying to fix?
- What is your proposed solution?
If you can do that without name-calling, and get some solid, quiet answers, you can move on.
- Let me tell you what fears your proposal raises in me. You don’t need to agree, but I’d like it if you could just hear me out.
- If we changed __ about your solution, it would help alleviate some of my fears. How would that change it for you, though?
- What if we added ___ – would that help alleviate your remaining concerns to at least some degree?
Try and aim for the smallest possible point of agreement. We don’t need to sole any entire problem in one fell swoop; we can pick away at it until we solve the bits we can solve together. We won’t be able to solve it all, usually, and that’s fine. As tempers and situations change, we can continue to pick away it it.
If we can discuss it.