I attended the “March for Our Lives” rally in Washington, DC this weekend with my daughter, Nicole (15), who quickly eluded my parental supervision and wriggled her way to the front of the stage. I hung back a couple of blocks but was well able to see and hear everything, thanks to the excellent sound speakers and video screens provided. What I heard and saw was extremely impressive and touched my heart to the core.
The event was led and controlled by the teenagers from Parkland, FL, whose school had been shot up about six weeks ago. They accepted money and organizing help from experienced adults, but insisted on running the event themselves and providing the speakers. What they said was heartfelt, urgent and compelling. There’s something touching about hearing young people who don’t know what they can’t do and don’t cynically accept the mantra of “that’s the way things have always been done; there’s nothing you can do about it.” Remember when we were them?
They called for gun control, pure and simple. They called for universal background checks for gun purchases (which 90+% of Americans support), for a ban to the sale of assault weapons (whose only purpose is to kill & maim people), to raise the age of purchase to 21 and limit sales to the mentally ill, domestic violence purveyors and other dangerous groups. It all seemed to make eminent sense and made you wonder, in the words of that old 10,000 Maniacs song, “Hey, what’s the matter here?”
Well, what’s the matter, of course, is the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the religious devotion it’s inspired around the 2nd Amendment, which it considers more of a Commandment, handed down from on high. They seem to have persuaded the majority of the Republican party and many rural voters, including Democrats, that this amendment, unlike any other laws or rights, is absolute and unconditional, detached from context or common sense. The First Amendment, the crown jewel of the Bill of Rights, guarantees freedom of speech (but you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater); of religion (but you can’t engage in human or animal sacrifice); of press (but no nudity or profanity); of assembly and petition (but you have to get a permit to march or rally).
The Second Amendment, in fact, is the only one premised on a conditional clause: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state...” The Colonial militia is now the National Guard, so why is the right “to keep and bear arms” still so sacrosanct? Well, the Supreme Court in the Heller case recognized, somewhat twistedly, the right to self defense as falling under the “militia” umbrella – even though guns in the home are far more likely to be used against family and friends than intruders, including suicides by owners. Yet does anyone need an AR-15 to protect their home or stand their ground? The argument is ridiculous on its face.
The real problem is the failure of democracy in our political system. Democracy, defined as political equality (one person/vote) and majority rule (with minority rights) has little influence in the actual making of public policy. This is dominated by well organized and funded special interests with a deep intensity preference for policies often at odds with the general welfare. Marches, rallies and grassroots groups are necessary and helpful, but are often like the depiction of Washington’s army at the battle of New York in the musical Hamilton: “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, out planned!” At the end of the day we go home and the interests remain. We have other things to do; this is all they do.
So I applaud the students and hope they ignite a movement, but it has to go beyond gun control to the reform of our entire political system. Reversing the Citizens United decision and enacting strict campaign finance laws is a necessary start; publicly funded campaigns would be better. Eliminating gerrymandering by allowing non partisan commissions to draw legislative districts would allow voters to pick their candidates, rather than the other way around. Reversing the grotesque concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few through a wealth tax and income supports would make us more equal and willing to cooperate for the common good. We need a new social movement to restore democracy and majority rule. Are we up for the challenge?