Solving the US firearms conundrum: An Immodest Proposal
In contemplating the tragedy in Las Vegas, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the power of gun ownership in America – and offers a plan to seize the initiative from the gun lobby.
Nearly three centuries ago, English author Jonathan Swift wrote his infamous “Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick”. In his bitter satiric essay, Swift had proposed a solution to alleviate the chronic food shortages, seeming over-population, and growing poverty in Ireland under English rule.
To cope with this array of challenges, Swift argued, Irish families could solve all these challenges simultaneously simply by allowing them to fatten up and then sell off their excess children as a nutritious food source for the dining pleasure of rich Englishmen. Bitter satire? Yes, of course, but his point was that British rule and the failure to recognise those dreadful policies had led to the crisis in Ireland.
And so it is on to Las Vegas last Sunday. The latest mass shooting outrage in America – this time in Las Vegas at the site of an outdoor Country & Western concert – was carried out by a man with an arsenal sufficient for a small country facing an invasion. He was ensconced in a 32nd floor hotel suite, supplied courtesy of the casino because of his high roller gambler history. When it came time to start his killing spree, Stephen Paddock, the shooter, had a clear line of fire at the vast crowd beneath him and killed nearly 60 men, women and children, and wounded hundreds more.
As a result of Paddock’s actions, the fighting over proposals to somehow rein in the carnage wrought by killers with firearms will heat up all over again. There will be those who insist on some tougher restrictions on firearms ownership and the type of weapons that are legal, in the wake of this latest atrocity with all those casualties and fatalities. But there will also be, arrayed in steadfast opposition, numerous politicians, those odious National Rifle Association lobbyists, and a host of those professionally paranoid survivalists and similarly confused citizens. Of those opposed to any further gun control, they will wrap themselves in the wording (and presumed meaning) of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment as their ultimate protection against the leviathan state’s presumed depredations upon the liberties of ordinary citizens.
That particular bit of stylish, albeit slightly confusing, 18th century government prose reads, in full, “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.” Now, a good high school English teacher might well have suggested a slightly less tangled sentence (and crisper meaning) with the shift towards the end for that initial clause and the addition of seven words, thus becoming: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed when they are part of a well regulated militia that is necessary to the security of a free state.”
If one reads this sentence just after all those rights to free speech, religion, assembly and so forth that are enumerated in the US constitution’s first amendment, this business about firearms would have been rather easily recognisable as a narrowly defined right of citizens to participate in the nation’s defence when necessary, but a right that also came equipped with the balancing obligation of their participation in that well-regulated militia stipulated right there in the amendment. In fact, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens made a similar proposal, recommending a slightly reworded second amendment to read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”
This second amendment, along with the other nine that comprise the Bill of Rights, was adopted as part of the constitution, once it was approved by the newly convened Congress on 25 September 1789, in a nod towards protections of civil rights as one of many compromises that were crucial to the adoption of the constitution. Once passed by the several states, this 10-part Bill of Rights became part of the basic governing document on 15 December 1791.
The philosophical origins of the second amendment actually reach back through English history to the 17th and 18th centuries, protecting the rights of ordinary yeomen to defend themselves against the likely depredations of a royal army at the hands of an autocrat or rampaging general. However, one of the more immediate reasons for it being proposed to the states and then quickly adopted was the after-effect of Shay’s Rebellion. Taking place largely in western Massachusetts, Shay’s Rebellion was an armed protest by hard-pressed farmers against a period of growing economic hardship that threatened the state government’s hold on authority. The rebellion was eventually suppressed, but only after the Massachusetts militia had been summoned to put down the rising.
The difficulty in dealing with that revolt had pointed out the failure of a very modest national army comprising a few hundred soldiers to be in a position to end such rebellions. That the new nation might well be beset by yet other challenges helped make the case for state militias (later to become the Army National Guard), with an explicit right to join to be held by citizens and that this right could not be withdrawn should some form of new tyranny arise, down the road.
Over the years, this constitutional provision has been the subject of a number of Supreme Court decisions in respect of (mostly) local and state laws. These have usually been about the extent to which this amendment supersedes any legislative restrictions over the type of weaponry citizens might own – or who might legally own them. Despite claims by some that this amendment offers an absolute right, no challenges have ever been brought successfully against laws that prevent ordinary citizens from legally owning things like working tanks and howitzers, and fully functioning jet fighter planes, or, more improbably, aircraft carriers or nuclear-tipped missiles.
However, most of these gun laws – including the need for police clearances, limitations on the types of weapons available for purchase, exemptions from such regulations for gun show sales, online sales, licences to carry weapons, whether weapons can be concealed on one’s person, and so forth – are state rather than national, a legacy of the wide-ranging federal structure of the country’s government. As a result, people can rather easily make their purchases in states with less rigorous controls, and then bring their lethal hardware back to a different state with harsher restrictions on guns.
However, the allure of gun ownership in the US depends on much more than a legal reading of the constitution’s second amendment. There is still the potent tug of the myth of the frontier in all its incarnations that helps animate this for many. The logic of it is along the lines of: a man’s home is his castle. It is his task is to be prepared to defend it and his family against all those potential marauding savages, those bandits and outlaws and even the occasional out-of-control, rogue army riding down from the distant hills in order to destroy the civilisation that has been so painfully achieved. And hunting was obviously an essential part of putting a venison roast on the dinner table as well, or fending off the wolves or mountain lions eager to kill one’s cattle or sheep. This myth is still strong, as myths tend to be, even if most Americans no longer live near the settlement frontier or have to cope with Butch Cassidy and Sundance, grizzly bears or mountain lions in the course of their daily life.
Moreover, the duly constituted government will never arrive in time and so a citizen must do whatever is necessary, as in Gary Cooper-style in High Noon, or Alan Ladd in Shane. In spite of the consistent decline in most crime categories in the US for the past several decades, some gun owners continue to insist their firearms are still virtually the only things that prevent death and destruction by rampaging criminals in the country’s cities, as in their overheated slogan that argues: once there is real gun control, only criminals will still have guns.
Now, that ideological bent has also become intertwined with the ideas of those who figure – in a kind of inversion of that “well regulated” bit in the second amendment – that almost any gun control regimen, no matter how rational or sensible, would somehow lay honest folks open to the worst possible depredations from their government, now bending inevitably towards dictatorship or worse. Such a sensibility has grown increasingly powerful on the part of some in the aftermath of a deliberate decay of governmental truth-telling during the Vietnam conflict, the various government scandals that have subsequently proved the government is always up to no good, and a low-level but persistent, sustained resistance to government on the part of some in the western states because of the federal government’s management of large swathes of western land, the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion.
Then, of course, there has been a toxic mix of the National Rifle Association (NRA), its donors, members and friends, and a wide swathe of the country’s elected officials. The NRA started out as an association largely dedicated to firearms safety and the servicing of gun clubs. That was probably rather boring and in the years after the Second World War, it embraced a new purpose – a broad-based political defence of the second amendment and thus equally fervent support (including generous campaign contributions) of like-minded politicians and tough campaigns against anyone disagreeing with them. In this way, the NRA became one of the great lobbying powerhouses of Washington.
As the NRA’s own history from its website says,
“Dismayed by the lack of marksmanship shown by their troops, Union veterans Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate formed the National Rifle Association in 1871. The primary goal of the association would be to ‘promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis,’ according to a magazine editorial written by Church….
“Meanwhile, the NRA continued its commitment to training, education and marksmanship. During World War II, the association offered its ranges to the government, developed training materials, encouraged members to serve as plant and home guard members, and developed training materials for industrial security. NRA members even reloaded ammunition for those guarding war plants. Incidentally, the NRA’s call to help arm Britain in 1940 resulted in the collection of more than 7,000 firearms for Britain’s defense against potential invasion by Germany (Britain had virtually disarmed itself with a series of gun-control laws enacted between World War I and World War II)….
“Through the association’s magazine, The American Rifleman, members were kept abreast of new firearms bills, although the lag time in publishing often prevented the necessary information from going out quickly. In response to repeated attacks on the Second Amendment rights, NRA formed the Legislative Affairs Division in 1934. While NRA did not lobby directly at this time, it did mail out legislative facts and analyses to members, whereby they could take action on their own. In 1975, recognising the critical need for political defense of the Second Amendment, NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action, or ILA. [Italics added]
“After the war, the NRA concentrated its efforts on another much-needed arena for education and training: the hunting community. In 1949, the NRA, in conjunction with the state of New York, established the first hunter education programme. Hunter Education courses are now taught by state fish and game departments across the country and Canada and have helped make hunting one of the safest sports in existence. Due to increasing interest in hunting, NRA launched a new magazine in 1973, The American Hunter, dedicated solely to hunting issues year-round. NRA continues its leadership role in hunting today with the Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC), a programme that allows youngsters to build on the skills they learned in basic hunter education courses. YHECs are now held in 43 states and three Canadian provinces, involving an estimated 40,000 young hunters….
“While widely recognised today as a major political force and as America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, the NRA has, since its inception, been the premier firearms education organisation in the world. But our successes would not be possible without the tireless efforts and countless hours of service our nearly five million members have given to champion Second Amendment rights and support NRA programmes. As former Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said, ‘Let me make one small vote for the NRA. They’re good citizens. They call their congressmen. They write. They vote. They contribute. And they get what they want over time.’ ” [Italics added]
Presumably the NRA’s website manager is not much of a student of the ironic tone or voice.
In fact, the prime role of the NRA now is to gather large amounts of funds from members and friends, to distribute them as campaign contributions to supportive legislators and other elected officials, and to underwrite advertising for opposition to almost every imaginable form of gun control on the grounds that any new bit of regulation sets off down the slippery slope to total disarmament of the citizenry. And that, of course, also takes the shape of strident advertising against politicians supportive of some form of control. They can also, just as Stephanopoulos says, marshal millions to write, call, email or visit their representatives to push their cause – relentlessly. As a result, it takes a rather brave congressman to buck this kind of sustained constituent pressure, especially if they are already tending to lean towards some NRA-style positions in the first place. And all of this has been despite the relentless reports about mass killings by lone gunmen.
But, it is just possible that this most recent incident in Las Vegas has marked a modest turning point in the high tide of massive resistance to any and all gun control measures.
On Wednesday, as the news coverage of the Las Vegas shootings continued relentlessly, it has been reported that top Republican congressional leaders have promised to consider restricting “bump stocks”, the legal accessory the shooter had used to turn his semi-automatic rifles into a passable imitation of a fully automatic machine gun. As The Washington Post was reporting it, “House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), a staunch defender of gun rights, said in an interview: ‘We’re going to look at the issue.’”
And Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, on MSNBC on Thursday, speaking about gun control measures, said of those bump stocks, “Yeah, look, I didn’t even know what they were until this week, and I’m an avid sportsman. So I think we’re quickly coming up to speed with what this is. Fully automatic weapons have been banned for a long time. Apparently this allows you to take a semi-automatic, turn it into a fully automatic, so clearly that’s something we need to look into.”
Well, okay, for gun control proponents, this is hardly the second coming, but it may just possibly speak to some cracks in the solid granite wall of opposition the NRA has been so careful to cultivate with supportive politicians.
Perhaps this is now, finally, the time for greater gun control proponents to build a national coalition in favour of greater sanity, even if Australia-style confiscation of vast numbers of firearms may never be on the cards. In that spirit, let us propose a carefully articulated campaign consisting of several interrelated parts, and insure every group opposed to gun violence joins in pushing these proposals forward. Let this campaign work just as hard as the NRA has done for the past several generations in building a support base for guns. Of course this will be an uphill battle, even if a majority of Americans continue to support stronger gun control measures.
The problem, in part, at least, is that the persistent gerrymandering of congressional districts has made NRA-supporting Republicans more numerous in Congress than their actual voting numbers would otherwise have allowed. Maybe the Supreme Court will actually fix this in the current court calendar and the will of citizens will be more accurately reflected. But that should not mean the greater gun control campaign must wait. (Just ask yourself: how long did it take to end slavery in British territories, or in the US, or in Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch territories. Should William Wilberforce or Frederick Douglass have given up just because their first speeches didn’t achieve the desired result?)
- First, let’s call the whole thing the “Amend the Amendment” campaign, using Justice Stevens’ (or my) rewording to make the meaning clearer and more precise. And it should also remove the idea that there is some enshrined right to own as many weapons as one can afford to purchase and have no citizen obligations over their use.
- Second, push for a uniform, national police clearance system (no felons or those under medical treatment for psychological disorders) and cooling off period of, say, two weeks before a gun can be sold legally. As part of this, one thing that can be outlawed should be those gun shows that skirt the margins of the law in private sales. Sell a gun and the same rules must apply if the seller is a major sporting goods corporation or some guy who lives down the street.
- Third, establish a system of requiring all legal purchasers of a weapon to obtain a licence – state by state, if you must – and undergo a nationally uniform training programme in the safe use, storage and handling of all firearms. It is rather ludicrous that in many states, it is still easier to purchase something whose only real purpose is to kill someone or something violently, than it is to legally drive a motor vehicle, or work as a plumber or an electrician – let alone as a doctor, lawyer or architect.
- Fourth, require the would-be purchaser of any ammunition to furnish that licence (above) to the seller before purchase, and to establish a reasonable limit on the number of rounds allowed to be purchased per a set time period.
- Fifth, make it totally illegal to modify any weapon to increase its firing speed and then to outlaw the manufacture, sale or purchase of such items. No more bump stocks. None.
- Sixth, also make it mandatory that anyone carrying out a violent crime with a firearm is subject to double the prison sentence that would otherwise be imposed, if found guilty.
- Finally, and some people are going to love this, contract the entire licensing process noted in three and four, above, to the National Rifle Association. They obviously have some excellent experience in data capture and tracking, an already vast database, and a very real incentive to ensure that no legal owner is deprived of his/her right bear arms.
And the contract should be juicy enough that they simply can’t turn it down. DM