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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Brilliant Idea!

An acquaintance of mine recently urged one of my best friends in the very small rural town in which I live to get a permit and buy himself a weapon. “Everyone is doing it,” he said, including himself and his daughter. I suppose he feels it necessary to be armed to protect himself against would-be terrorists invading rural Minnesota — or, perhaps marauding Vikings. Whatever. Poor, frightened little man. I feel sorry for him. But his kind is becoming increasingly common in this country, as we all know. And these folks feel they have a “right” to carry a weapon because the Constitution tells them so. As I have noted in previous blogs, this “right” is predicated on the necessity of an armed militia to protect home and hearth against attacks from England — or wherever. But only those who actually read the Second Amendment would know that. The framers worried more about a standing army that would threaten states’ rights then they did an armed citizenry.

Indeed, it is the fact that the supposed “right” to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution is predicated on the necessity to have a well-armed militia that is ignored in the frenzy to simply own and be prepared to use the latest assault weapon to protect ourselves against whatever ghosts and goblins might be out there wanting to get us. Americans, more and more of them each day, simply want to own and carry weapons because they are fearful. But in a brilliant chapter in his latest book, Six Amendments: How And Why We Should Change The Constitution, retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens has suggested a re-write of the Second Amendment that would restore it to its original meaning and undermine the terribly weak argument we hear almost daily about the right to bear arms. His re-wording would place the emphasis of the Amendment where it belongs: on the need to have an armed militia, not the supposed right of every Tom, Dick, and Sally to pack heat. In making his case, Stevens notes that “For over two hundred years following the adoption of that amendment federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text. . . applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes.”  That lengthy period was followed by an extensive campaign by the NRA to help the gun manufacturers sell weapons, and this altered the game radically.

The Amendment, as the framers wrote it, states that “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.” Stevens suggests a five word insert that would clarify the meaning:” 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.” Positively brilliant.

What this means is that those who have been designated as protectors of the nation, say the National Guard, have a Constitutional right to keep and bear arms — others do not. This is clearly what the founders intended and the way it was understood for 200 years, and if it were written in this fashion it would undermine the arguments of the nutters today who are responsible for approximately eighty-eight firearms deaths every day in this country (30,000 each year) and might possibly open the door to a debate at the highest levels about whether or not there ought to be some sort of restrictions on the sale and use of such things as automatic weapons that are clearly designed to kill people, not wild game. As Judge Stevens points out:

“Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands. Those emotional arguments would be nullified by the adoption of my proposed amendment. The amendment certainly  would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument.”

Organizations like the National Rifle Association would continue to argue for the “right” of everyone and his dog to own guns of every possible variety, but on this re-write of the Second Amendment they would have to base that supposed “right” on something other than the Second Amendment which, as Stevens argues, never did support such license. What the grounds for that supposed “right” might be in the absence of a misreading of the U.S. Constitution one can only imagine; but one can bet guns would continue to be sold to frightened people who really don’t need to pretend they have any sound reasons for simply wanting to own a gun.

Gun Control

One of the truly hot topics in America for years now is the issue of gun control. I never really understood why the topic produces so much heat. After all, it’s not about gun elimination, it’s about gun control at a time when we desperately need a bit of restraint, as recent events have shown. The favorite mantra of the N.R.A. and those who want no controls on the use of guns is the chant “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This is one of those half-truths that saturates our thinking and keeps us away from the whole truth — so far as we can ever grasp that.

The second amendment to the Constitution was written in 1789 and adopted in 1791 and it reads in its entirety “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.” It was written by James Madison, and please note the careful wording. The statement begins with what logicians call the antecedent “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State….” The remainder of the statement is the consequent. In effect, it reads “Because we need an armed militia, we must protect the right to bear arms.” The two sections of the statement must be taken together.

The Bill of Rights was passed as a rider after the Constitution was adopted in order to persuade still reluctant individuals to come on board. As Madison said at the time, “I believe that the great mass of the people who opposed [the Constitution], disliked it because it did not contain effectual provision against encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercised the sovereign power: nor ought we to consider them safe, while a great number of our fellow citizens think these securities necessary.” Initially it was felt that the Bill was unnecessary because no civilized country should need to spell out the rights of the citizens. Further, if they were spelled out there might be others, not mentioned, that would therefore be ignored. But these arguments were eventually dismissed and the Bill became part of the Constitution of these United States. At that time, there was considerable concern over an armed force on the continent — given the fact that the Colonies had been an occupied country for many years. In a word, the Founders didn’t trust armies. But, as was the case during the recent Revolution, men with weapons in their homes (muskets, of course) who could be called upon to defend their country was the acceptable alternative.

Thus, the reason the second amendment was adopted was to persuade those who were still reluctant to accept a constitution they thought would deprive them of states’ rights, but with the understanding that none of those supporting the document wanted a standing army. The “right to bear arms” was specified because it was believed that the country was better off being defended by men who were, in effect, defending their homes.

So much has changed since that time, needless to say. We now have one of the largest armed forces on earth and the need for an armed Militia no longer exists. Further, the Founders never envisioned hand guns and automatic weapons that could kill large numbers of people in a matter of seconds. It is true that someone must be holding a weapon for it to kill someone else (or the holder himself). But it is also the case that when these weapons are so deadly and so many people might die in such a short time, the likelihood increases that someone will die when the guns are fired. It’s a matter of simple probabilities. In a word, if there were no guns, no one could be killed by the accidental or intentional discharge of a gun. So, people kill people, but with fewer guns fewer would die or be maimed.

It’s impossible to read the minds of those who wrote the Constitution, though reading the Federalist Papers takes us back to the period and lets us see what sorts of things those people were thinking at a time when states’ rights were the central issue. One thing comes clear, and that is that these people lived in much simpler times and though they were just like us in so many ways, their technology was in kindergarten compared with ours. It is hard to imagine that they would have written and adopted an amendment like the second amendment given today’s conditions — the large stranding army and the advanced weaponry.

In any event, when the N.R.A. or others of their ilk defend the “right to bear arms,” they should also at the same time argue for the dismantling of the standing army. The two conditions go hand-in-hand.