On October 24th, 2014, there were at least two shootings in America. One involved high school students in Washington and the other involved police officers in California. Shootings like these have become so common that they don’t even steal the headlines in the news cycle. These two incidents were right alongside stories about the Ebola threat (which is basically non-existent for Americans) and Joe Maddon opting out of his contract with the Rays. While it is still too early to say anything meaningful about these two recent tragedies, they did get me thinking about prior, similar incidents. The three that immediately came to mind were Sandy Hook; Aurora, Colorado; and Tuscon, Arizona and what, if anything, we have learned.
Although it shouldn’t be needed, here is a brief reminder of those incidents. On December 14, 2012 in Newtown, CT, a 20 year old used his mother’s gun collection to murder her and kill 20 children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. On July 20, 2012 in Aurora, CO, a lone gunman opened fire in a movie theater killing 12 and wounding 70. On January 8, 2011 in Tuscon, AZ, 19 people were shot at a constituent meeting for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Six people died, including a Judge and a nine year old girl. Rep. Giffords was badly wounded and has still not fully recovered. In the aftermath of each of those shootings, there were calls for changes. But, little actually changed. In large part the lack of change is due to the NRA and their congressional friends.
My first thought about these incidents is that we have not learned much. Shootings still happen with enough regularity that they don’t even knock reality TV out of the headlines. But, that’s not right. Our failures can teach us a lot.
The first thing I have learned is that anyone who thinks for a second that the 2nd amendment is more important than a human life is a stupid scumbag. These events are horrible and tragic. There is no other way to look at them. The victims are simply victims. It is only natural for the survivors to grieve and to try to make sure that there aren’t future victims. This is noble and good. Survivors of earthquakes push for better building codes. Survivors of disease push for better medicine. To view these efforts by the survivors of gun violence as an attack on the 2nd amendment or people’s rights is selfish beyond description. I want to live in a world where the survivors of tragedies work to prevent future tragedies. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would try to prevent that.
The second thing I have learned is that many, if not most, Americans don’t understand what The Constitution is. It is not a sacred document. It is not perfect. And it was not meant to be either of these things. It is a political document meant to set out the framework and powers of our government. It is full of compromises and mistakes. People have often, correctly, pointed out that the most powerful feature of our Constitution is our ability to change it. This document was written to allow slavery and specifically said that black people are worth, “three fifths of all other Persons.” The 13th and 14th amendments corrected these obvious mistakes (that they were largely ineffective is another matter for another time). This document denied women full citizenship and the right to vote. The 19th amendment corrected this obvious mistake. The Constitution originally had the federal government collect taxes from the states based on the states’ populations. This is outdated and was corrected by the 16th amendment. Yes, the 2nd amendment is a part of the constitution, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck with it. If it turns out to have been a mistake, like slavery or denial of women’s suffrage, or if it has become outdated, like like the original federal tax structure, it can, and should, be changed.
The third thing I have learned is that many Americans fight for their 2nd amendment rights without understanding what rights the 2nd amendment grants. The 2nd amendment says, “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.” The introductory clause, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” is key if one cares about the framers’ intent. If they had wanted people to have the right to bear arms for self-defense or hunting, they would not have narrowed the amendment with the introductory clause. It does not say, “A vibrant editorial page, being necessary to political debate in a democracy, the right of the people to express their opinions shall not be infringed.” That is because they did not want to limit the 1st amendment rights in the same way they wanted to limit the 2nd amendment rights. I know that the Supreme Court has recently expanded the right to bear arms to individuals, but they did not say that there are no limits on the right to bear arms. This is from Wikipedia, but it gets the point right:
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. Pp. 54–56.
All of the people who are “protesting” by carrying their weapons into public places like restaurants and stores are not demonstrating a constitutionally protected right, even with the Supreme Court’s ultra-liberal reading of the amendment.
The fourth thing I’ve learned is that the Supreme Court was obviously wrong in the decision to expand the 2nd amendment to cover individuals. And, they weren’t wrong because they went against the framers’ intent (which they did – even Scalia, the strict constructionist himself). The were wrong because the “security of a free state” is a constitutional issue. Stopping a rapist or burglar is not. Prohibition should never have been a part of the Constitution because that is not what the Constitution is for. The Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage by not accepting appeals, and that was the right decision. It wasn’t right because homosexuals should have all of the same rights and privileges as everyone else (which they should). It was right because the Constitution doesn’t have anything to say about marriage and families. Self protection is a local, criminal matter. I’m not saying that it is unimportant. I’m saying that it is unrelated to the framework and powers of the government.
The fifth thing I’ve learned is that too few people think about the legitimate use of force. One of the foundations of the state, any state, is that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Any other option would result in anarchy. This isn’t the time or place to discuss the problems with the libertarian ideal of anarchy, so I’m going to assume that we are all interested in having a state. In order to have a state, all citizens must agree to grant the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. There are situations where people are allowed to defend themselves, but these exist for strictly pragmatic reasons. If I am being attacked now, I can’t wait for the police to arrive, so I have the right to defend myself. That right extends only so far as it takes to stop the attacker and must be commensurate with the attack. For instance, I cannot stab a person in the neck for trying to pick a rose from my garden. And once I have disarmed or neutralized my attacker or the police arrive, I must stop my use of force. In other words, the right to self defense is limited and should be thought of as a last ditch right anyway. There’s a weird romanticism in the language of gun advocates. “The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But, that’s just not true. The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is to make sure bad guys can’t get guns. If that fails, then the police are the next best defense. Then there are protections like door buzzers, panic rooms, bullet proof glass, etc. If all of that fails, then I’ll grant it would be nice to have a good guy with a gun. Although, only if that good guy with a gun is well trained and actually in a position to help. The last thing I want is a bad guy with a gun and a panicked good guy with a gun making things worse. In other words, despite the propaganda, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force is a good thing.
The sixth thing I’ve learned is that the NRA has become a large collection of douche-bags*. The NRA has, at various times, been tolerable. They supported responsible gun ownership. They were for background checks and waiting periods. Those days are long gone. The NRA says that your first grader would not have been killed if her teacher were packing heat. Talk about blaming the victim. They are keeping our country from having a Surgeon General because the nominee thinks that gun violence is a problem. They spread fear and distrust with statements about the tree of liberty and the blood of tyrants. They intimidate rather than convince to get their way. Look at their scorecard and how it plays out in elections. There is rampant xenophobia and racism in their statements. Just look at their reaction to Obama being elected president. At this point in history, the NRA might as well be the KKK.
While it is still too early to say anything meaningful about the Washington and California shootings, I do know that they should never have happened. I do know that they happened because we have failed to learn the lessons from all of the previous mass shootings. We have failed the victims of prior shootings. I’m not optimistic, but I can only hope that we will not continue in our failures.
*I am using douche-bags here in the technical sense – useless, sexist tools. See https://medium.com/human-parts/douchebag-the-white-racial-slur-weve-all-been-waiting-for-a2323002f85d.