Violence In America

In some sense, I suppose, this post can be read as a follow-up to my previous one since both seek to explain the same thing.

Numerous theories have been advanced to explain why it is that America is so prone to violence and leads the world in violent deaths by firearms. Perhaps the most popular study was that by Michael Moore in his documentary Bowling for Columbine in which he concluded that the only thing that set America apart from the rest of the world was the violence shown on our news programs. I always thought this a weak conclusion, but I saw the difficulty in finding a key ingredient in the formula to explain America’s past and present tendency toward violence.

Upon reading John Murrin’s essay about the “Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class”  (in his book Rethinking America) it occurred to me that perhaps the answer to the question why America is such a violent country lies in the historical record which shows Americans to have always, from the beginning, insisted on having a firearm ready at hand. To understand this a bit better, it might help to have some background.

Murrin argues that many of the earliest settlers in this country were never from the elite classes in England (in particular) but, rather, “the younger sons of English gentry or merchants.” These men aspired to leadership in the new country and managed to create an appproximation of the English ruling classes, albeit not bound by the same rules that might lead to an aristocracy — though there were some, such as Alexander Hamilton, who would have loved to mimic the English royalty as much as possible. Americans, for the most part, prized their independence and while early on they regarded themselves as English citizens, with all that that entails, they eventually, as we know, threw off the English yoke in order to achieve the independence they had come to value so highly. And they never trusted those who aspired to aristocracy. Hamilton and the Federalists hung on until Jefferson’s presidency, but they then faded into the dust. America’s thirteen colonies  became, in Murrin’s words, a “paradise for the younger sons” who were denied status among the landed gentry in England by laws such as entail and the so-called rights of primogeniture.

More to our present point, early on the colonies had no standing armies — with the exception of New York which had a small one — and the governors, appointed by England for the most part, ruled by deference and the handing out of privileges rather than the use of force. This made America unique among civilized nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, as Mullin points out,

“. . .the absence of a standing army in most colonies for most of the colonial era compelled the government to insist (except in Quaker societies) that the settlers arm themselves. In no American province did the government establish the monopoly of violence that Europe took for  granted by the eighteenth century, and firearms were always and still are more widely available in America than in any other Western countries.” [Italics added]

This helps explain the insistence in our Bill of Rights upon the “right” of the militia to bear arms — the Second Amendment that is so very controversial today. That Amendment, please note, guarantees every male citizen the right to bear arms because he is expected to defend his colony against any presumed outside threat to peace and order; like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome he was a citizen-soldier. In the end, of course, the militia was called upon to free the colonies from English rule, which provided George Washington with his greatest challenge, constantly frustrated by his inability to mold such a diverse group of volunteers, who deserted in appalling numbers, into a disciplined army.

In any event, the notion was with us from the very start that all men were expected to bear arms because of the lack of a standing army; the possession and use of firearms has always been a characteristic of the American male (at least). It’s in our blood, so to speak. And as we fought to protect ourselves from the English, the French, and even the Spanish — not to mention to remove the Native people from the land we wanted for ourselves — we became a violent nation, a nation that not only insisted that we be allowed to possess arms but to use them to get what we wanted.

I am not sure this will pass as a complete explanation as to why we are such a violent nation (causal connections are notoriously difficult to make, as I noted in my previous post) but it certainly helps us to understand why we might share a deep sense of this so-called “right” to arm ourselves and resort to violence whenever opposed by the will of another. I seriously doubt whether it explains why demented young men force their way into our schools and shoot unarmed teachers and children, which I sought to understand in my previous post.  But it helps us to understand the prevalence of firearm in our homes and makes it easier to see why those who own them might be more inclined to use them if harried or thwarted in their desire to have their way. As I say, it’s in our blood — or so the historical record would suggest.

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The Second Amendment

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution in close association with his friend Thomas Jefferson, did not think a Bill of Rights was necessary. Alexander Hamilton agreed and said in a lengthy discussion of a possible Bill of Rights in Federalist Papers #84,  “The Constitution is its own Bill of Rights.” These men worried that if a list of such rights was drawn up something would be left out or, worse yet, folks would think those were the only rights that citizens have. Indeed, Hamilton went on to note that a Bill of Rights is both “dangerous” and “unnecessary,” since he thought such rights are clearly implied in the Constitution itself and need not be specified or if specified could be circumvented by devious minds. Hamilton assures his readers that “Here in strictness people surrender nothing [by not having their rights specified]; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations. . . . [the Constitution] contains all which in relation to their objects, is reasonably desired.” Further, the men thought that citizens’ rights were self-evident, a favorite concept of Enlightenment thinkers.

But since several states were reluctant to ratify the Constitution without a specified Bill of Rights, Madison eventually drew up a list of twelve such rights that were soon pared down to ten. The one that is most talked about these days is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, the Second Amendment. This right was specified because the Founders regarded militias, raised by the states and paid by the states as the need arose, as essential to the freedom of the American people. Their model, in all likelihood, was Cincinnatus, the citizen/farmer in the early days of Rome, who fought when the need arose and then went back to his farm when the danger had passed. The founders were known to have greatly admired the Roman Republic, using it as a model for their own government. And given their experience with the constant presence of the red-coated British, they were very concerned about the possibility of a standing army — even their own army — that would strengthen the government and weaken the people’s freedom.  Indeed, when they were considering ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton had to assure his New York readers, in Federalist #24, that they need not fear the presence during peace time of a standing army: it simply wouldn’t happen.  The states would retain the power to raise militias when necessary and disband them when the danger had passed: they would be “well regulated.” Thus, in order to avoid a standing army, state militias were essential. Not only had the conjoined militias won the Revolution after all, but, during Washington’s presidency, a collection of several state militias amounting to 17,000 men was quickly rounded up and, led by the President himself, headed West to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. The word got out that the militia was headed their way and the Rebellion broke up. At that time it was determined that the militias could safely protect the citizens of the new nation.

The point of this little history lesson is to show that the Second Amendment was less about the right to keep and bear arms than it was about the need for armed militia. Indeed, when, much later, in 1934, the Congress passed the National Firearms Act to keep such things as sawed-off shotguns out of the hands of gangsters, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court whose decision clearly centered around the Founders’ express need for a militia. In their decision, they reasoned that “The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.” Might not the very same thing be said of today’s automatic weapons?

In fact, if you read the Second Amendment carefully, you will see that it presents us with a compound statement in which two clauses are interdependent. It 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.” In other words it states that since a militia is necessary to defend freedom, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The statement is quite precise: one thing necessitates the other. If there were no need for a militia — as, say, if there were a standing army, navy, marine corps, air force, and national guard — then there would be no grounds for the so-called “right” to keep and bear arms. And, conversely, the right to keep and bear arms need not be recognized when the need for a militia disappears — because of the presence of a standing army, for example.

The relentless attempts by the arms manufacturers — for the most part — to bully this Congress and the Supreme Court into allowing any and all weapons in the hands of any and all citizens, regardless of age, flies in the face of the Second Amendment as it was written and understood for many years. The arguments by groups such as the NRA tend to focus exclusively on the “right” itself, and ignore the explicit concern for militias. But, assuredly, the fact that state militias are a thing of that past implies that the right to keep and bear arms can no longer be said to be protected by this Amendment. Perhaps in the end Hamilton was right — certainly with respect to the Second Amendment: it has proven to be “dangerous.”