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.


Knee Jerks

It was interesting to read the comments made by several conservative politicians after the shootings in Newtown insisting that we should avoid “knee jerk” reactions to the terrible events of that day — (trans: don’t pass anti-gun legislation). These comments were in line with the NRA hardliners who fear that there might actually be tougher restrictions about buying automatic weapons and hand guns after the latest terrible shooting event. The NRA, of course, has a vested interest in fighting off the restrictions since it is funded in large measure by the people who make the guns. (That seldom gets mentioned, strange to say — even though we are told repeatedly that the media lean precariously to the left.)

It’s not as though the shootings in Newtown are an isolated incident in this country, though. In fact, America has nearly twenty times the number of mass shootings as any other “developed” country in the world. There have been 31 school shootings in this country since Columbine in 1999 — mostly in high schools. But the Newtown shooting targeted very young children and this seems to have finally soaked into the brains of many who like to waive the second amendment in the faces of those who would cry “enough”! Many, but not all.

Reportedly gun sales were off the charts right after the shootings in Newtown when people rushed to stores like Walmart to buy weapons and gobs of ammunition — as we are told in this story in The Los Angles Times:

Calls for stricter weapons laws after the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school have gun enthusiasts scrambling to buy firearms before they’re restricted or banned outright.

Brownells Inc., which claims to be the world’s largest supplier of firearms accessories and gunsmithing tools, said it has sold 3 1/2 years worth of ammunition magazines in three days.

It’s quite possible that those sales resulted not from opportunism but from the fear running through the population as part of the aftershock from  the latest in a series of mass killings that seems finally to have gotten the attention even of the Congress — several members have come out against the continued sales of weapons that are not legal for hunting. A couple of those who spoke out are card-carrying members of the NRA! I dare say their membership will be revoked: members really aren’t allowed to make public comments suggesting that the purchase of automatic weapons may be an incredibly stupid idea.

I tend to lean toward the second explanation of the spike in the sale of guns and ammunition: I think it is fear. This is not the first time that fear has proven to be a powerful motivator. Conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich have used it as an effective motivator for years. And the liberal political fund-raisers are starting to use it as well. It works! In this case it may have resulted in another “knee-jerk” reaction, namely, the rush to buy automatic weapons — presumably to defend oneself against all the other maniacs out there who have rushed out to buy automatic weapons. It really is madness multiplied.

Speaking of knee jerks, it is heartening to read that Smith and Wesson’s stocks recently plummeted in the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown. Apparently investors see the handwriting on the wall: there may be tougher restrictions after all. We can only hope. But if there are tougher restrictions against the purchase of automatic weapons, hand guns, and/or ammunition clips that hold more than ten bullets that will be a very good thing — as long as the restrictions are accompanied by a buy-back of some (if not all) of the weapons already out there, not to mention the 3 1/2 year supply of ammunition that was sold three days. (It does boggle the mind.)

But after the dust settles, we really need to address the larger question: why is this culture so in love with violence? and why do we think that violence is the best way to address our problems — as individuals and as a nation?