What is there left to say about the madness of guns in America that hasn’t already been said? Probably nothing, for all the good it has done. It has gotten to the point where just hearing it all again is a kind of nauseating kabuki, a macabre version of Groundhog Day in which our noses are rubbed in our refusal to do the common sense thing, even at the price of the blood of our children.
But in the endless, grim parade of firearm-driven mass murders, this latest massacre in Parkland, FL seems to offer a glimmer of hope that this time it might be different…..that just maybe we have reached the proverbial tipping point and might at last see real reform that will stop this insanity. To that end, let me offer what I hope is a slightly fresh perspective, one that draws on my history as an infantry and intelligence officer.
I have plenty of experience with firearms. My father taught me to shoot as a boy and my military instructors taught me a lot more. I know what these weapons can do to a human body. My father was shot up with an assault rifle in Vietnam — an AK-47 — and would certainly have died if not for the heroism of the medics and combat surgeons who saved his life. Fifty-three years later his body still bears the wounds; it looks like he was bitten by a great white shark.
No sane person — even those who are staunch defenders of the Second Amendment — can plausibly argue that there is a compelling reason why such weapons belong in the hands of ordinary citizens on the streets of America. Polling reveals that a strong majority in this country agrees. I would like to believe we are now at a critical moment when we can take this most basic and obvious step toward simple reason.
So why haven’t we?
HAPPINESS IS A WARM….YOU KNOW
We begin with what are, apparently, the most incomprehensible words in the entire United States Constitution: “well regulated militia.” As in, “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.”
The obvious interpretation is that the Founders were talking about a military force under the control of the state at a time when the very idea of maintaining a standing army was controversial. But beginning in the 1970s, the so-called “individual right” interpretation began to gain support in right wing circles, so much so that by 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court affirmed the bizarre contention of gun activists that this phrase somehow enshrines the right of private individuals to own firearms.
Far be it from me to say that the esteemed jurists of the Supreme Court were flat wrong, but then again, that same institution also gave us Plessy v. Ferguson, Dred Scott, and Citizens United. Even before that decision, former Chief Justice Warren Burger described that interpretation of the Second Amendment as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
This sub-topic is a bottomless well of debate in its own right, so let’s leave it to the side and just deal with the situation with which we’re faced, in which private possession of firearms is constitutionally protected. The question then becomes: what, if any, limits should there be on such ownership?
The position of hardcore NRA types is: none.
Their reasoning is chilling.
Many gun enthusiasts argue that the Second Amendment was deliberately intended to ensure that the general public is equipped to mount an armed insurrection should the government become tyrannical. (Tyrannical by whose measure is left ambiguous, which is a pretty slippery goddam slope.) This interpretation too has been a matter of contentious debate. (What isn’t, it seems, when it comes to guns?)
For starters, once again, it’s not at all clear what that language in the Second Amendment means. The 18th Century context of the term “bear arms” is in dispute, and not necessarily synonymous with “own firearms” as we understand it today. Similarly,
“The security of a free State” logically refers to defense against threats from without, not from the state itself, as it’s unlikely that the founders of the United States would have built in a mechanism for its self-destruction. In his seminal 1995 essay on the matter, “To Keep and Bear Arms,” Garry Wills writes:
Only madmen, one would think, can suppose that militias have a constitutional right to levy war against the United States, which is treason by constitutional definition. Yet the body of writers who proclaim themselves at the scholarly center of the Second Amendment’s interpretation say that a well-regulated body authorized by the government is intended to train itself for action against the government.
But others contend that that is precisely the sort of thing those men — who had just overthrown British rule — would do, citing Jefferson’s famous line that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” a slogan popular on t-shirts that also feature the Confederate battle flag.
The insurrectionist argument plays into the rugged individualism of the foundational American myth with which many Americans flatter themselves, especially in conservative circles. So again, if only for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that it is correct.
By that logic, private citizens should have access to all the weapons needed to engage in sustained combat with the United States military, the most powerful and technologically advanced armed force in human history.
So why can’t I own an M-1 tank?
If your argument for private ownership of firearms is the capability to overthrow the government, that capability ought to include not only semiautomatic assault weapons like the AR-15, but also fully automatic ones like the M-4A1 carbine, belt-fed crew-served weapons like the M-60 machine gun, 20mm Vulcan anti-aircraft gun, TOW anti-tank missile systems, and 155mm howitzers.
I’m sure there are some Second Amendment extremists that would be cool with that. Most Americans, however, recognize the downside of turning the United States into a free fire zone where every citizen, every family, every business is a private mercenary army ready to shoot first and ask questions later. To my knowledge, not even the NRA advocates private ownership of attack helicopters, bomber planes, and nuclear weapons. If we recognize that it is unsafe, unworkable, and undesirable for private citizens to have military-grade weaponry, why does that preclude an M-1 tank but allow for an AR-15? So — lunatic fringe excepted — if we all agree that there should be some reasonable limits on ownership of weapons, the next question is: what should those limits be?
ANNIE GET YOUR AR-15
The ArmaLite rifle we’re talking about is a combat weapon designed and intended to do one thing and one thing only: kill enemy soldiers on the battlefield as efficiently as possible. No federal court has ever interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting the right of private individuals to own that sort of combat weapon. For a ten-year period, 1994 to 2004, there was a federal ban on them that was subsequently allowed to lapse. Even now they are illegal in many states. But in the states where they are not illegal, Americans — many of them children — have paid a heavy price.
There is no credible hunting application for a weapon like this. The recreational value of sport and target shooting with an assault rifle can’t begin to outweigh the proven dangers of their ready availability in the general population. (Alternatively, stringent regulations, licensing, registration, and training could be put in place for sport shooters wishing to own this kind of firearm, as they already are in some places. Tragically, not in Florida, though.)
Few people in the United States live in such dire conditions that they can plausibly claim self-defense as a reason for needing an assault rifle, and as it happens, few of the people who legally own these weapons live in those places. Even then, there are other weapons — shotguns, pistols, bolt action rifles — sufficient for self-defense that don’t present the public safety problems that AR-15s, AKs, and Uzis do. (The resort to frontier-style self-defense and the rejection of reliance on professional law enforcement is another aspect of all this — more on that in a bit).
But self-defense is not really the argument assault rifle fans make for ownership of their weapons. Their case is the standard NRA opposition to any restriction on firearms. They like guns. They want to own combat weapons. They don’t care about the carnage they cause to innocent people. And here’s the kicker:
Powerful political forces in this country have leveraged that venal, pathological fanaticism and — if you’ll pardon the expression — weaponized it to create a lethal tandem in which American citizens routinely get murdered in order to perpetuate an anti-democratic stranglehold on power. It is a vicious symbiosis unlike anything I can think of in American history.
GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE, BULLETS DO
I’ve had a few arguments with some of these gun nuts, and they usually come at it with an extremely patronizing, self-flattering attitude in which they are the hardnosed realists — the “sheepdogs.” It’s not unlike the mentality many of these same people have when it comes to foreign policy. And as with foreign policy, their arguments are usually full of shit, light on logic, and heavy on their image of themselves as macho tough guys to whom the rest of us weak-kneed bleeding hearts are insufficiently grateful. I think they’ve seen A Few Good Men a few too many times, yet never quite grasped that Jack Nicholson was the bad guy.
There are plenty of simple, common sense things that we could do to stop these horrific killings, none of which would infringe on the right of any law-abiding citizen to own a firearm. You may have noticed, however, that our elected officials are reluctant to institute even the most mild of these measures.
In refusing to act, these politicians — overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, Republican, and supported by arguably the most politically powerful lobby in the country, the NRA — make a variety of arguments, but let’s start with their leadoff hitter: the insistence that prevalence of guns is the not the problem.
This is the biggest, most disgusting lie in the entire gun violence debate, and the one from which all the other toxic arguments flow. The United States is the only industrialized country on Earth where mass murders like this happen with such sickening regularity, and the outrageous ubiquity of firearms in the US — alone among First World countries — is the only distinguishing factor that could possibly make it so.
The NRA and its amen corner in the GOP — or is it the other way around? — would have us believe that mental health is the problem. What an absolutely despicable, dishonest canard. Other countries have mental health issues but don’t regularly have these massacres because there’s one thing we have in shocking abundance that they don’t. Three guesses what it is.
Jill Lepore of the New Yorker, who has written more eloquently on this topic than anyone I can think of, writes: “The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the US.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more.”
(For my money, the best single survey of the entire history of guns in America and our current state of affairs remains Lepore’s 2012 New Yorker article “Battleground America,” from which that quote is taken.)
Statistically, mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators of it. Even if mental illness were the main factor — or to the extent that it legitimately factors into this debate at all — does it make sense to address only that aspect of the problem, and not anything else? Of course not. Even Republicans don’t really seem to believe that mental health is the problem, since Donald Trump rescinded the Obama-era restriction limiting the ability of people who have been diagnosed with mental illness to purchase firearms.
Let’s go over that again.
Trump made it easier for mentally ill people to buy guns.
So much for Republican credibility — and sanctimony — on that point.
The other arguments of the NRA and GOP (can we just refer to them as one giant poisonous organism, the NRAGOP?) are just as uniformly absurd.
One is that it’s hard to define an “assault weapon” and that banning one model, like the AR-15, will still leave plenty of others on the market.
Uh, so we shouldn’t ban any of them?
It would not be difficult to draw legislation that prohibits weapons and ammunition with certain characteristics, such as high capacity magazines, or cyclic rates or muzzle velocity above a certain threshold. Fully automatic weapons, silencers, and hollow point ammunition are already banned in most places (even as people like Donald Trump, Jr. lobby for those laws to be rescinded). As the gun industry inevitably finds ways around these laws with its usual evil genius — exhibit A: bump stocks — new legislation could be introduced to plug the loopholes. Is that so hard?
We could also make it less criminally easy to buy guns of all kinds, which would no more violate even the broadest interpretation of the Second Amendment than the existence of the DMV violates the privilege of driving a car. We could institute reasonable waiting periods and mandatory background checks; raise minimum age requirements; close the private sale (aka “gun show”) loophole; require stricter (or at least some) registration, licensing, and safety training; restore the aforementioned restrictions on access to firearms for the mentally ill, convicted felons, and others, and so forth and so on. It stands to reason that it should not be easier to get a gun than to scuba dive, but right now not even suspected terrorists on the no-fly list are barred from buying firearms, which is lunacy. In some parts of America even being blind won’t prevent you from buying a gun.
In response, the NRAGOP often says that any kind of gun control legislation is pointless because criminals, by definition, will always go around the law.
By that logic, why have any laws at all? The point of legal restrictions on guns, or anything else dangerous, is to make it harder to commit such heinous acts, not to serve as a panacea. (You thought I was going to say “magic bullet,” didn’t you?) We recognize that laws alone do not make criminal actions impossible. But to throw up our collective hands and say, “Oh well, what can you do?” is ridiculous.
Oh, and by the by, the Parkland shooter didn’t have to go around the laws: he bought his AR-15 perfectly legally. If there had been legal obstacles that made it harder for him to have done so, might he have circumvented them and found another way to get an AR, or to kill in some other way? Maybe. But why should we free him from the need to do even that?
Moreover, even if it were true that stricter gun laws would leave only criminals committing gun crimes, that would itself be a major improvement over the status quo in which an appalling number of Americans are killed by accidents, suicide, and homicide — usually by friends or family members — often in arguments that would have ended much less violently if a gun weren’t handy.
Might those altercations still be deadly, knife to a gunfight-wise? Sure. But would you rather be stabbed or shot? I’ve known a few people who’ve been stabbed: a high school classmate slashed in the neck at the Dairy Queen in Hinesville, Georgia; a college fraternity brother stabbed trying to thwart a burglary; one of my soldiers in Germany who was stabbed in the heart by his wife. All of those people had to be rushed to the hospital for medical care. But all of them lived.
This past Halloween here in New York City, a lone wolf who self-identified with radical Islamism murdered eight people and injured eleven others on the West Side Highway using a rental truck as a weapon, mimicking a technique widely used by terrorists in the Middle East and Europe (and by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville). Following that attack, as if vindicated, gun nuts were quick to chortle, “See? If you take away their guns, they’ll find something else to kill with! Cars or knives or boxcutters!”
Exactly. Please note that the Halloween terrorist used a common rental truck, not an M-1 Abrams main battle tank. If he’d been driving a tank, he undoubtedly would have killed a lot more people. But he could not get a tank. Because that is illegal. Because it would be fucking nuts if we allowed private citizens to own tanks.
That is the precise analogy we are dealing with in terms of firearms. A mentally ill killer wielding a knife or even a pistol — let’s make it a semiautomatic 9mm Glock — would not be able to kill nearly as many human beings as Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, did with his NINETEEN long guns and assault rifles, some outfitted with bump stocks to turn them into fully automatic weapons, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. So, yeah, if we take guns out of the hands of potential killers it won’t stop every mass murder. But it would stop a lot of them and reduce the number and severity of causalities in most others. No one is arguing that the common sense gun control laws currently being debated would put an absolute end to firearms deaths. But they would damn sure help, as they would undeniably make it harder for killers to kill. That should not even be a matter of discussion or disagreement, at least not among people with brainwave activity. Because to do nothing because we can’t do everything is not only stupid and self-destructive but actively dishonest and despicable.
Next week, part two of this essay, in which we discuss the Very Stable Genius’s proposal to arm teachers, the symbiosis between the NRA and the GOP, and the future of the Second Amendment.
@JillLepore, #Parkland, #gunviolence, #NRA, #BoycottNRA, #GarryWills
Battleground America by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
The Lost Amendment by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
To Keep and Bear Arms by Garry Wills, The New York Review of Books