History Lesson

In the wake of the most recent spate of killings in a high school in Florida we hear once again the tired mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill  people.” The whole thing is brushed aside as a case of poor mental health. And while there is some truth in this, since anyone who walks into a school and starts shooting innocent teachers and students has to be clinically insane, it remains a fact that guns DO kill people and automatic weapons kill a great number of people in a very short time. Let us now hush the mantra and the mindless dismissal of real causes to consider the fact that there is hard evidence that tougher gun laws do, in fact, reduce the number of gun deaths. This has been shown in the case of both Japan and Australia.

Those who insist that the possession of an automatic weapon is a question of a Constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment need to read that amendment closely and consider the fact it was designed to protect the right of the militia to bear arms and that for two hundred years after the adoption of the Constitution federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by the Second Amendment was limited in these two ways:

“.  . .first, it applied only to the keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of the states or local governments to regulate the ownership of firearms.”

These are the words of retired Supreme Court judge John Paul Stevens who has written a book about the six amendments we need to incorporate into our Constitution. He goes on to point out that it wasn’t until very recently, 2008 in fact, that the tough gun laws that had been passed in this country to deter, for example, the sale of sawed-off shotguns and tommy guns to ordinary citizens were weakened somewhat when the Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four, decided in District of Columbia v.Heller that the second amendment protects a civilian’s right to keep a handgun in his home (not a tommy gun or an automatic weapon) for the purpose of self-protection. Then, as recently as 2010, by another vote of five to four, the Court decided in McDonald v. Chicago that the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limited the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. Stevens was involved in the discussion of both of these cases and he dissented in each case. He notes that

“. . .nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacles to the adoption of preventive measures. . . . the Court had made it clear that even though machine guns were useful in warfare in 1939, they were not among the types of weapons protected by the Second Amendment because that protected class was limited to weapons in common use for lawful purposes like self-defense.”

In a word, Stevens reminds us that the Second Amendment was never designed to protect the presumed rights every Tom, Dick, and Sally to own and use weapons designed for warfare.  Stevens is convinced that the insertion of a brief clause in the wording of the Second Amendment might help clear this up. It would then read:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

That brief clause would make it crystal clear that the Amendment was designed to protect the right of those chosen to defend their country — in our case the National Guard — and not everyone else who now incorrectly makes the demand to own and use automatic weapons. The likelihood that this amendment would pass this Congress is very near to zero — given their obligation to the NRA and the gun manufacturers who got them elected and threaten them with the withdrawal of funding in their next political campaign, coupled with immense support for their opponent. Nonetheless, as Stevens points out, the states could pass tougher laws with no restrictions whatever from either the Constitution itself or possible legal precedents. Moreover, even at the federal level:

“. . . the Congress’ failure to enact laws that would expand the use of background checks and limit the availability of automatic weapons cannot be justified by reference to the Second Amendment or to anything the Supreme Court has said about that amendment.”

It is assuredly the case that the availability of guns does not, in itself, remain the main cause of the insane spate off shootings in this country. Guns alone are not the sufficient condition, as logicians say, of the gun deaths. But they remain the necessary condition in that if there were no guns there could be no gun deaths. And while the right to bear arms for self-defense and the shooting of game might be seen as protected by the Second Amendment of our Constitution, the possession of automatic weapons clearly is not.

It is time, indeed, past time, that we stop all the mindless drivel and pass laws that will take the guns out of the hands of those who are, admittedly, not fully aware of what it is they are doing, by making it impossible for them to purchase automatic weapons at the very least.


Joe The Plumber

If we are interested in such things, we can read in Wikipedia the following text about one of America’s “heroes.”

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known by the nickname “Joe the Plumber“, is an American conservative activist and commentator. He gained national attention during the 2008 U.S. presidential election when, during a videotaped campaign stop in Ohio by then Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, Wurzelbacher asked Obama about his small business tax policy. Obama’s response included the statement, “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Obama’s response was seized upon by conservative media, as well as by Obama’s rival, Republican nominee Senator John McCain, as an indication that Obama was interested in the redistribution of wealth and had a socialist view of the economy. Wurzelbacher is a member of the Republican Party.

Since he expressed to then Senator Obama that he was interested in purchasing a small plumbing business,Wurzelbacher was given the moniker “Joe the Plumber” by the McCain–Palin campaign. The campaign subsequently took him to make several appearances in campaign events in Ohio and McCain often referenced “Joe the Plumber” in campaign speeches and in the final presidential debate, as a metaphor for middle-class Americans.

Wurzelbacher became a conservative activist, commentator, author and motivational speaker. In 2012, he ran on the Republican ticket to represent Ohio’s 9th congressional district in the House of Representatives, losing to Democratic incumbent Marcy Kaptur.

And, so I have heard, he became the darling of Fox News. He’s supposed to represent your typical American as embraced by the Republican Party and represented by ordinary folks like Mitt Romney. The reason one might be interested in recalling this name is because it is again in the news; the man has opened his mouth again and showed us that there is really nothing between his ears. After the shooting deaths of three students and the injuring of thirteen others in a Santa Barbara Community College earlier this month, Joe declared that “As harsh as it sounds — your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” There are two things about this inane comment that are disturbing.

To begin with, of course, is the crass self-assertion that rubs salt in the wounds of the parents of those who have lost their children to another senseless shooting in a country where such things are becoming alarmingly commonplace. I couldn’t possibly write a better response than did Erica Lafferty, the daughter of one of the women slain in the Sandy Hook shootings in December of 2012. Her comments can be read in their entirety here. But the second point has to do with this man’s typical misreading of the U.S. Constitution. I have held forth a number of times on this topic and will not repeat here what I have said in previous blog posts, except to say that retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has expounded on a point I have made in those posts, to wit, that the second amendment to the Constitution does not guarantee people like Joe the Plumber’s so-called “rights” to keep and bear arms. It guarantees the rights of members of the militia to keep and bear arms.

This point cannot be made emphatically enough, since the widespread misunderstanding of the Constitution has led to the irrational attempts to justify the presumed rights of every American of every age and political persuasion to own automatic weapons that are designed to kill human beings on the grounds that they have a Constitutional right to own such weapons. The usual argument is that once such weapons are banned then “they” will take away our hunting rifles, though I have never heard anyone claim that hunting weapons should be taken away from people. Those who argue for some sort of calm and reasonable approach to gun control simply want to help remove those automatic weapons that are clearly designed for killing human beings and are readily available from the sporting goods department at Walmart, among other places.

In other words, folks like Joe the plumber who reveal their arrogant self-righteousness about their presumed “rights” and the determination of “liberals” to take away their shotguns and 22’s are guilty of what logicians call a “red herring.” There is no such movement. Second Amendment aside, no one wants to take hunting weapons away from Americans.  But the attempt  by folks on both the political left and right to bring light to an issue where there is at present so much heat  is thwarted at every turn by the immensely powerful gun lobby whose only goal is to keep producing and selling expensive weapons of all descriptions behind their appeal to a Constitutional amendment that was never written to guarantee them such a right in the first place. And the N.R.A. has shown repeatedly that they have enough politicians in their pocket to keep any sort of meaningful gun control issue from even being raised in Congress.

But, that’s the issue, isn’t it? How does one shine a light on such darkness where greed, irrationality, hatred, and fear dominate and reason can find no purchase?


Go Get ‘Em, Harry!

A recent story tells about the attempts by at least one member of the political Establishment to restore this country to the democracy it once was. I am talking about Harry Reid who is nothing if not outspoken and certainly not everyone’s cup of political tea. But he is decidedly a man of courage in a political climate where the very wealthy are on the verge of taking total control of the strings of power. A recent Yahoo news story begins as follows:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid amped up his crusade against the Republican megadonor Koch brothers Thursday,  backing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to undo recent Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance.

In a speech from the Senate floor, Reid said a vote on the amendment would be held sometime in the summer, after the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up the amendment in the coming weeks. Reid also said there would be hearings on the amendment, giving Democrats a chance to elevate the campaign-finance issue to a higher profile in the thick of campaign season.

“Every American should have the same ability to influence our political system,” Reid said Thursday. “One American, one vote. That’s what the Constitution guarantees.  The Constitution does not give corporations a vote, and the Constitution does not give dollar bills a vote.”

The Republicans and others who are in the pockets of the wealthy will fight the attempt to amend the Constitution in the name of “free speech,” and from where I sit an amendment is unlikely, especially if mid-term elections go the way the monied interests want them to go. But it is necessary if the political game is to be changed back to some semblance of what the Founders had in view when they struggled so hard to establish a Republic in the wilds of America. As things now stand, the country has become an oligarchy — as a recent study has attested — and the ability of wealthy folks like the Koch brothers to have things their political way simply proves the point. In a word, they, and others of their ilk, are in the process of spending billions of dollars buying a government that will dance to their tune.

They have received considerable support to this point by a Supreme Court that seems determined to read the constitution with glasses provided by the wealthy and recent decisions have extended the power of corporations and the few very wealthy who can now determine the direction the political winds blow, as the story goes on to point out:

. . . the amendment would reverse some major recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, including  2010’s Citizens United  case and the  recent McCutcheon v. FEC  ruling. Those decisions have eliminated limits on millions of dollars’ worth of donations to political campaigns from corporations, labor unions, and generally wealthy individuals.

A brief look at history will show that people like Madison and Jefferson worried about the effects of wealth on a free government. While they tended to focus attention on the Aristocracy they thoroughly distrusted, they were dimly aware of  rich men who could simply bribe their way to power. If anyone knew about power and its abuses, it was those men who gathered in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, though the document they eventually came up with is flawed in many ways — the most serious omission being any reference to the power of unlimited wealth. It is an oversight that can easily be forgiven in light of the fact that in spite of their awareness of possible abuses of wealth in the future, they couldn’t have been expected to foresee a country in which both wealth and income are super-concentrated in the top 0.1% of the population, which is just one in a thousand.  But it is a flaw that an amendment could eradicate if it is possible to get this Congress to act as it should and not as it almost certainly will.

It is interesting to note in passing that former Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has written a book in which he argues for six amendments to the Constitution. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention an amendment to specifically limit the power of corporations, but he does mention the need to limit campaign spending, the need to prohibit gerrymandering, the need to articulate the principle of sovereign immunity which guarantees each state the right to sue without federal interference, the need to specifically include a prohibition against the death penalty, the need to modify the second amendment allowing for gun control, and what he calls “a supremacy clause,” which determines whether the federal government can compel state officials to enforce federal laws. Whether one agrees with Stevens or not, it is clear that our sacred Constitution is dated and in need of revision.

It remains to be seen if there are enough politicians of conscience to join with Harry Reid to push this particular amendment through. In the meantime we can only hope, though I honestly can’t see this group biting the hand that feeds them.