Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Amendment You Think You Understand

...but do not.

Not until 2008 did the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS hereinafter) actually rule that the Second Amendment applies to private gun ownership. Even then, the decision was 5-4, with a very compelling dissenting opinion, authored by Justice John Paul Stevens. The case was District of Columbia V. Heller, 2008, in which Stevens argued, rightly I believe, that if the framers had been concerned with individual rights of gun ownership, they would have expressly said so. He was joined in dissent by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Breyer, making it a five to four ruling that the Second Amendment DOES protect a private individual's right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense. 

To hear the leadership of the NRA, etc., tell it, the Second Amendment has always protected the individual's right to own firearms. Not so! This was the FIRST TIME the SCOTUS had decided a case in which this point was argued. It was 5-4, with a strong dissenting opinion. Yes, the gun rights advocates won...barely. This was a case primarily involving handgun ownership, as the law in question severely restricted the ability to own a handgun in DC. It was hardly a mandate for an individual's right to own an assault rifle. It is time to take the Constitution back from these radicals, and time for a shift in the balance of power in our highly dysfunctional Supreme Court.

Here’s the thing…the Second Amendment was not written to protect private gun ownership, far from it. Stop buying the lies of the gun lobby, and read the actual amendment.

As passed by the Congress and ratified by the states, 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."

Where in this amendment does it say anything about the individual? “The people” in constitutional language means the body politic and their dependents...collective rights, not individual rights. This means that a free STATE has the right to maintain a well regulated militia, which can only be done if that militia has arms and ammunition, ergo, the STATE, and, collectively, the people, has the right to keep and bear arms. This means that the federal government cannot willfully disarm any given state and thereby deprive it of it's militia. Why would states be so defensive about this? Tyranny, you say? Yes, but not the tyranny you think. This was, pure and simple, an amendment to protect the interests of slaveholders. It had NOTHING to do with the private individual’s right to own a firearm, in its original context.

I've been writing about this on other peoples' threads for several days. I can only hope that some of you will take note of the sources and help spread the word. Before the United States existed, colonies relied on colonial militias for defense against whatever: Native American uprisings, slave revolts, border incursions by the French or Spanish...whatever. In some communities...Williamsburg, e.g., there was a central arsenal at which muskets, powder and shot were stored for the local militia. The militia would be called out, weapons and ammo issued, and there you go. In other places, the militia was more dispersed, and so it made sense for individuals to "keep and bear" arms...either their own or ones issued them by the colonial government.

As to the role of the militia and firearms position in defending the interests of slaveholders, consider for example that in colonial South Carolina, there was actually a law requiring men to carry their muskets to church! This was because the most likely day for a slave uprising was on Sunday. The colonial militia worked in conjunction with slave patrols to maintain slavery. This is well documented by historian Sally E. Hadden and others. In some colonies and, later, states, the militia and the slave patrols were under the same command structure, in others, separate. This militia-slave patrol dynamic duo would be the model the newly formed states would adopt.

Regarding widespread ownership of guns by private individuals after the Revolution, well, that was more common in the states with large slave populations and in the trans-Appalachian area, particularly Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. Elsewhere, not so much. Consider the case of the famous Daniel Shays of Shays' Rebellion, who actually had to sell a ceremonial sword given him by the Marquis de Lafayette, due to his indebtedness. It is a myth that all those soldier boys went home with their weapons and were intent on keeping them as a defense against tyranny. Firearms simply were not as numerous as people think. Good Pennsylvania rifles were pretty scarce, as they were time-consuming and expensive to manufacture. Military muskets were not all that useful for practical applications such as hunting, shooting wolves, etc., so many veterans sold theirs, dirt cheap, as they needed money more than firearms. They also sold off much of the land granted to them for their service.

The Shaysites, men who were fed up with being in debt, being taxed, etc., went on an anti-debt-collection rampage in New England and New York. They burned court houses and tried to rob an arsenal in Massachusetts. They needed to rob an arsenal, as there were so few guns to be had among them. They were trying to raise an army, but had too few guns and not enough ammo. Most of the weapons in Massachusetts were in state arsenals, not private hands! The Shaysites even threatened to march east and take over the government of Massachusetts, which scared the east coast elites so badly that they formed a well-paid, well-armed private army to defeat the Shaysites.

This situation was unacceptable to coastal elites, and so the call went out for reconsidering the Articles of Confederation. The resultant constitution would establish an executive branch with the power to raise an army for the common defense...something that was sorely lacking during Shays' Rebellion. As for local militias in Massachusetts, some sided with Shays, others fought against him, but there was no federal authority to call out the militias of other states in order to suppress that rebellion. So New England representatives favored federal control of all militias, so that an event such as Shays' Rebellion could quickly be put down.

Read the Constitution: it specifically grants extraordinary power to the Chief Executive in the event of a rebellion. George Washington established the precedent for calling out the militia during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, and Abraham Lincoln followed that example at the beginning of the Civil War. Upon reading the wording of the proposed constitution, Patrick Henry and others were most appalled. Yes, this kind of central authority was needed for common defense, clearly, but it COULD be used for other purposes. For example, since the slaveholding states (I mean the ones with large, concentrated slave populations) relied on the militia and slave patrols to maintain their peculiar institution, they would be particularly vulnerable if the federal government decided to disarm or disband the militias.

And so Henry, along with the large-scale Virginia slaveholder George Mason and others, lobbied for an amendment to protect the interests of Virginia and other large-scale slaveholding states. "The people" according to this amendment have the right to keep and bear arms, in order to maintain a well-ordered militia at the STATE level. It says nothing about private individuals. Here is a reasonable summation of the argument I have just presented, with quotes in support of this argument:

So believe what you will, but I am a professional historian, a published and well regarded scholar, and I get paid (a meager salary) to teach history to your teenagers, and it is my strong belief that the Second Amendment, based on the INTENT of the framers (a term people LOVE to bandy about), had nothing to do with the rights of private individuals to own firearms. If they were concerned about this right to own weapons for hunting, self-defense, etc., they would have followed the lead of existing state constitutions that specifically protected those rights! At least four Supreme Court Justices agreed with me in 2008 that gun ownership is a collective, not individual right, and that municipalities and states have the authority to restrict gun ownership. As for the other Justices, well, look at the interests they consistently serve. Ugh.

Basics of the Heller ruling:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Start of a Vital Conversation

Good for you, Mr. President! You are doing the right thing. No, not all of these recommendations will become policies and laws, but yes, the fight over them will clearly expose the difference between those of us who are responsible gun owners and the raving lunatics that have become the mouthpieces for the pro-gun lobbies. As a life-long gun owner and former member of the NRA, I share your righteous indignation.

I have spent a lot of time with responsible gun owners in my life. I've known a few who owned civilian versions of AKs, FN-FALs, etc. None of them NEEDED those weapons for self-defense. They owned them because they could, period. But I've always questioned why such weapons were on the civilian market. If you want to defend your home, buy a good shotgun and the appropriate home defense ammo. If you want to shoot coyotes, buy the appropriate sporting rifle for coyotes. No, these guns sell because they are, in many cases, just so much machismo in hand.

I've seen it happen over and over and over. You start thinking, you know, I don't really feel safe, and so you start thinking about a firearm. Maybe you buy a handgun, and you practice a bit, and you start feeling safer, but what you also start doing is talking to other gun owners, reading publications about guns, obsessing about stopping power, firepower, etc., etc. Next thing you know, you've talked yourself into the false belief that you MUST HAVE an FN-FAL! Trust me...I've been there.

All of these things USED to be on the fringe of gun-owning discourse. Sure, a few WWII vets in our area came home with weapons, but they were usually trophies, not things to keep loaded for protection. When my father talked about guns, he talked about the right gun for rabbit hunting, which was a 20 guage, in his opinion...too much power, not enough rabbit left to cook. Maybe he kept a shotgun somewhere just for home defense, with a few shells up high so we couldn't get to them. Occasionally he talked about something that might be a collector's item. That was the norm among the people I knew. I was well-taught not to mess with his weapons, btw, until I was old enough to learn to clean them. Eventually, I was allowed to load and fire weapons on my own, and I confess to having a taste for it.

My father owned shotguns for rabbit and bird hunting, .22 rifles for plinking and squirrels and such, and he had a .35 Marlin for hunting white tails in NC and SC...that's all he needed. Some of his buddies were still hunting with .30-30s, and there are plenty of dead deer to testify to their effectiveness. Not until he started going out west to hunt elk (which he never bagged...I'm pretty sure he just loved the road trip, scenery, etc., and so he went when his friends asked) did he buy a more powerful rifle, a Remington .30.06 auto-loader. He also had his service revolver, which was always loaded. That's it. He always said that if somebody attacked him that could take six rounds of .357 and keep coming, then it was time to I still live by that code.

As I began to get interested in firearms, and particularly the technical details of reloading ammo for my Dad, I discovered the growing body of literature that was obsessed with aspects of gun ownership my father hadn't really warned me about. For him, in most cases, brandishing a gun only makes a given situation worse. That's a career law enforcement officer talking. Yes, he has always loved guns. Yes, he has from time to time owned weapons that would be banned under the President's recommendations. But he owned them, as have I, because he COULD own them, not because he NEEDED them nor because he thought they were essential to survival!

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I am haunted by events from my adolescence. Thus it should be no surprise that, in my 20s, I became convinced that I would only be safe if I carried a 15-shot 9mm around. Really? What was I thinking? As I began to understand myself and deal with my past, I began to realize I had been suckered in by those living in an alternate vision of that remains at odds with my 53 years' experience of living in this country. I had embraced a FALSE sense of security through that 9mm, not one grounded in a realistic appraisal of who I am, what I have to fear, and what I likely do not have to fear.

Look, if you think owning an AR-15 is essential to your survival in the United States, then you and I apparently live in a different country! My father carried a sidearm for decades in and around what is generally considered a rough city, and he NEVER fired a round in self-defense. Yes, obviously the presence of a badge and a .357 S&W on the hip is a deterrent, but still, that says something about the relative non-violence of everyday life in this country. So I have to ask just what it is that we are supposed to be so afraid of that we think we need high-capacity "black" or "tactical" weapons? Sadly, the Zombie Apocalypse seems to be one of the more reasonable responses.

The point of this is not a rant, but a question. If the average citizen does not NEED these high-capacity weapons, why are they sold? The answer is not because the Second Amendment guarantees corporations the right to profit by selling "black" patently does not guarantee them that right, though they shamelessly hide behind the Second Amendment. It also does not guarantee the right to keep a massive stockpile of weapons and ammo just in case there IS a Zombie Apocalypse. Personally, I have a sword and a bowie knife for that...the ammo always runs out.

The answer is because, in my lifetime, the manufacture and sale of "black" weapons has become a giant moneymaker for these corporations, trickling down to the online gun sellers, gun shops, etc. In order to maximize profits, these corporations have propped up the most radical element of gun owners, the most radical Libertarians, would-be militiamen, etc., etc., etc., in order to combat our efforts to have reasonable gun control measures in place in this country. As a result, we have more guns than people in the United States, more gun stores than Starbucks coffee shops, and, unlike the turbulent 1960s, for example, way too many guns on the market built for the express purpose of inflicting maximum damage on the maximum number of targets in the minimum amount of time.

I've been following the gun market since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and I can tell you that high-capacity weapons have been flying off the shelves, as has ammunition! I just learned today that a pro-gun group down in North Carolina has already raffled off one high-cap assault rifle and is getting ready to raffle off another. Bidding has gone nuts all over the Internet on gun auctions featuring high-cap rifles. Why? So you can say you have one? What the hell for? So you can fight the next American Revolution? You REALLY think your life here is that bad? Wow. I started writing this as a reasoned response, but as this day has unfolded, I have become sick to my stomach over what I am seeing and hearing in this country, so I added to it.

In any event, the challenge I put before you is to answer this question and act on your answer: Do you think the economic impact of the manufacture, distribution, sale, and ownership of high-capacity weapons and certain classes of ammunition such as those delineated by the President is WORTH the price we are paying as a society for the ubiquitousness of these weapons? Is it worth 20 dead schoolchildren, just to begin tallying the cost? I think not, personally, and so I am calling out those who do. In what way is private ownership of high capacity rifles benefiting this country? In what way is this promoting the general welfare?

The President's proposals do not  violate your Second Amendment rights, let us be very clear. Nobody is coming after your shotguns and hunting rifles and revolvers. Some pistols...ones on which restrictions should never have been lifted in the first place...need to go. And for the record, you are protected by a well-ordered's called the National Guard. You are also protected by a more expansive local, state, and federal law enforcement web than the founders could have ever visualized. I believe in the Constitution and will defend it, always. But believe this: we are coming after your hand-held weapons of mass destruction! They are not necessary for the common defense of this country, and they have got to go. This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment, to reiterate, and everything to do with our collective sanity and well-being as a nation. We have lost our way. It's time we had a talk...a very serious one...about gun control. I hope the coming debate will see others from gun-owning families and traditions come to this conclusion.

The mad dogs who run the gun lobbies will try their best to convince you that this is the beginning of the end of America. They are full of excrement. They have had their say for many decades. It is time to consider the possibility that maybe, JUST MAYBE, the proliferation of firearms, especially those with high-capacity magazines, in this country IS A MAJOR PART OF THE PROBLEM OF GUN VIOLENCE!!! The gun lobbies and their corporate backers have sown the wind, and we have reaped the whirlwind, and I am tired of crying over dead kids!