Did You See This?!

Just stumbled upon this piece in today’s NY Times.  Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens advocates repeal of the Second Amendment – strange days indeed!  Now, this obviously won’t happen anytime soon, or probably ever, but the boldness and simplicity of the argument is compelling.

According to Justice Stevens, who should know something about this, the Second Amendment was originally adopted to allow states to defend their sovereignty v. a standing national army, a threat that never materialized.  By embedding “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” within the context of “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state” (emphases added), it clearly indicated an individual freedom for collective purposes, the common good taking precedence over personal selfishness.  

For over 200 years state and federal courts viewed the Second Amendment in those limited terms.  The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Congress’s right to ban sawed off shotguns in 1939 because they had no reasonable relation to “a well regulated militia.”  The NRA actually styled itself as an apolitical, sportsmen’s organization for most of the 20th century, before taking a hard right turn in the late 1970s and began hotly contesting every federal and state gun regulation as a violation of some God given Commandment.  At the time, Chief Justice Warren Burger characterized their position as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have seen in my lifetime.”

It wasn’t until 2008, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, that the Supreme Court, divided 5-4, formally recognized an individual right to gun ownership, justified by historical practice, not explicit constitutional guarantees.  This, according to Stevens, “has provided the NRA with a propaganda weapon of immense power.”  Truth be told, however, it only strengthened the fanatical, absolutist position they had adopted for decades.  Their real weapons are a boatload of campaign cash, unleashed by the Citizens United decision of 2011, and the threat to ruin the political careers of any politician who doesn’t tow their line by supporting more conservative challengers in primaries.

While the thought of repealing the 2nd Amendment is enticing, I don’t believe it’s practical or necessary.  The federal and state governments already possess all the legal and constitutional power they need to well regulate, as the 2nd Amendment provides, firearms.  They could ban semi-automatic weapons and high caliber magazines, raise the minimum age for gun purchases, impose comprehensive background checks on all purchases, license guns as we do automobiles etc.  What has been missing, until now, is the political will to stand up to a small group of  zealots with a twisted ideology that places an individual’s  “right” to own almost any type of weapon over other’s right to life.  Thanks to the Parkland students and their supporters, we may finally be ready to regain our sanity.


Gun Control: A Problem of Democracy

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?