Guns

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about guns lately. No surprise. I’m going to round up some of the more interesting stuff I’ve read and look for some common threads.

The Constitution

First is this detailed analysis of the Second Amendment by Gary Wills. He digs deep into the language, history, and politics prevailing at the time it was written. He also demolishes the modern interpretation that it is saying anything at all about gun ownership by individuals, or that it is meant to create an armed populace to guard against tyranny. What it is nominally about is state militia in distinction to a standing army; England didn’t even have a standing army at the time, instead raising an army when the king wanted to start a new military adventure. So the conflict between armies and militias represented the tension between the king, and his ability to tax, and the aristocracy, and their desire not to support a standing army (this also plays into the third amendment). The U.S. Constitution in its body (not the amendments) clearly established both a standing army and militia, and Wills argues that Madison wrote the Second Amendment mostly to placate political opponents, since it doesn’t create, allow, or disallow anything not already in the Constitution. Anyhow, don’t take my word for it. It’s long but worth reading.

The idea that the Second Amendment originally was intended to show support for state militias is echoed in this much shorter article, which makes the point that our modern interpretation that it ensures individual gun ownership stems from the Reconstruction period, when Republicans were suspicious of local militias in the south, and wanted to de-emphasize their rights.

I’m not a constitutional originalist (though I suspect many gun-rights supporters would say that they are). I think the Constitution needs to be interpreted both in the spirit it was intended and against the circumstances of the day. What we’re seeing here is not a reinterpretation, it’s a reinvention.

The gun life

This essay by someone who got a concealed-carry permit was an eye-opener for me. I was already familiar with the argument that gun ownership was patriotic in that it kept the federal government in line. I don’t buy this a bit—I think of this as the “Wolverines Fantasy,” and I don’t believe those fantasists would stand a chance in a fight against the U.S. military.

What I wasn’t familiar with was the notion that carrying a gun around was somehow civic-minded, because you were always on guard and ready to help out your fellow man against bad guys. As the author describes it, being in this on-guard state—”condition yellow” he calls it—seems exhausting and ultimately feeds into a view of humanity too dismal even for a cynic like myself.

This message makes another point: that the nature of gun ownership has changed in the writer’s lifetime. Guns were once mostly for hunting or sport. Now they’re overwhelmingly for “personal protection.” This is corroborated by Nate Silver’s observation that the demographics of gun ownership have changed: 40 years ago, Republicans were a little more likely than Democrats to own guns, but not by a lot. Today, the difference is so great that it’s a more reliable indicator of party identity than just about anything else.

The changes in the nature of gun ownership, and in who owns guns, go hand in hand. As TNH writes:

Americans love owning guns because it lets them pretend their safety isn’t a function of our shared society. They should grow up.

This fits perfectly with Reagan’s aphorism that “government is the problem.”

More guns

Jenny has said that “The solution to free speech [ie, speech you disagree with] is more free speech [ie, you speaking your piece].” And I agree with that.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, a number of people are arguing essentially that “the solution to guns [ie, in the hands of Adam Lanza. Or James Holmes. Or Jared Loughner. You get the idea] is more guns [ie, in the hands of schoolteachers. Or innocent bystanders.].”

I reject that argument.

Arizona has lax gun laws. If you’re in Arizona and you want to carry a gun, the state isn’t going to do much to get in your way. That didn’t help Gabby Giffords or the 17 other people around her who were shot by Jared Loughner. As I understand it, the one person on the scene who did have a concealed-weapon license almost shot a cop instead.

This is generally the case in the USA: there’s only one state, Illinois, that won’t issue any kind of concealed-hangun permit at all. And there’s approximately one gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. In short, if you want a gun, you can have one. Short of mandating gun ownership (which I hope would offend the libertarian sensitivities of many gun-rights advocates), we can’t make them much more accessible. And yet, the rate of gun ownership in this country has generally been declining, even though support for restricting gun rights has also been declining.

Of course, there are some places where you can’t have guns. Like schools. Which is why some people are advocating that we should remove restrictions on where guns can be carried. Again, I reject that argument. Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood—a military base—and killed 13 people. This is a place filled with people who are trained in using guns, are comfortable around guns, and are in possession of guns. But in fact, only MPs are allowed to carry guns around on base. Let’s set aside the caustic effect that an environment with armed teachers might have on schoolchildren. It is ludicrous to suggest that an organization focused on educating children should have looser restrictions on guns within its own facilities than one focused on making war.

More guns didn’t help Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, who had a collection and reportedly was an avid shooter.

I would like to think that a concealed-carry permit brought with it certain responsibilities and would require some training not only in responsible gun ownership but also in conflict de-escalation, that sort of thing. Not in Florida, where, as far as I can tell, there are almost no requirements. If you’re not a felon, the police will issue you a permit, no special training required (then again, judging by the Atlantic article I linked to earlier, what training there is seems to consist mostly of cheerleading for carrying a gun). Which might explain why Michael Dunn, who was carrying with a permit, shot and killed Jordan Davis for playing the radio in his car too loudly. Firing 8 or 9 shots at point-blank range and hitting his target with 2. Not only a completely irresponsible use of a gun, but a lousy shot. This is not the kind of guy I want around doing his “civic duty” to protect me from bad guys. This is just one anecdote, but it serves to illustrate a larger trend: more guns, more violence.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for pointing to the Wills article. This is the only paper I’ve seen that not only breaks down the 2nd Amendment — literally phrase-by-phrase — but also explains the nuance of late 1700s terminology.

    cheers.

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