Guns, Violence, Culture

As we are all aware, our nation is undergoing an epidemic of slaughter by firearms. In the most general sense, this is not new. For many decades, criminal firearm fatalities have been a fact of American life. But this recent use of guns is different. Previously, the fatal attacks, horrendous as they may have been, were purposeful – they grew out of gang warfare, or drug dealing, or personal revenge, for example. They were directed at specific victims, and in most cases, though not all, they were one-on-one assaults. By contrast, the killings we have become so familiar with have no purpose except killing for the sake of killing, and are aimed not at specific individuals but at as many random individuals as possible.

Why is this epidemic taking place? Various answers have been put forth, as we know. The easy availability of guns has been blamed, and to be sure, regulating the sale or transfer of guns would be a partial remedy. But it is not an adequate explanation. Guns, including automatic weapons, were around for a long time before the mass killings began.

Twisted minds are blamed, and again it would help to be more alert for mental sickness. But again, discontented, angry, disturbed young men have always been with us. Furthermore, we can’t say with certainty that all the perpetrators would have been judged clinically pathological.

A third factor is the gun culture that is so prominent inAmerica, especially the expression of that culture in the media. As gun zealots are so eager to point out, gun violence has been part of the cultural landscape since the nation was born. Yet only recently have guns been used for senseless slaughter on a wide scale. (Some forms of gun violence may be new, such as computer games and TV programs, but other forms were just as prominent in the past – remember the romance of the Wild West gunslinger and, somewhat more recently, the gangster movies a la Jimmy Cagney).

Conventional wisdom has it that the gun culture is cause and the success of gun zealots – blocking all attempts to regulate firearms -- is the effect. But there is only one development regarding gun use and gun control that has recently gained prominence, namely, the success of the gun lobby itself, led by he NRA. I would therefore like to suggest a different causal train. I suggest that the success of the gun zealots, rather than being an effect, is the cause of the cultural currents that have led sick minds to commit their atrocities.

It all begins with the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment

We constantly hear the words “I support the Second Amendment” from politicians and others involved with the gun-control controversy. This is said with an air of finality, the implication being that the Second Amendment absolutely prohibits any regulation of firearms. And once that implication is accepted, gun control is seen as unconstitutional, and those who wish to promote gun control come to bat with two strikes against them. They must either present extraordinarily strong arguments to overcome the stigma of constitutional illegitimacy or must find some way to get around the Second Amendment’s supposed prohibition.

I wonder how many people who follow this line of reasoning know what the Second Amendment actually says. If they did, they would begin to see that the supposed absolute prohibition is a myth.

The Second Amendment consists of 27 words divided into two clauses. Here it is 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.”

What does this mean? The first clause, with its reference to a “well-regulated Militia,” seems to assert the right of citizens to form militias like the National Guard. But the second clause asserts the right of “the people.” So the Second Amendment is basically subject to two interpretations: the “collective” or “community” interpretation based on the first clause (asserting the rights of citizens, collectively, to form armed militias) and the “individual-rights” interpretation based on the second clause (asserting the rights of individual citizens to own arms). We can’t affirm either interpretation unless we ignore the other one, and there seems to be no way to reconcile the two. In short, the Second Amendment is absolutely, hopelessly ambiguous.

When a document is ambiguous beyond repair, the reasonable way to decide on its meaning is to ask what purpose it could serve. Will achievement of the purpose(s) work to the betterment of society? If the purpose is based on a factual assumption, is that assumption true or false?

The original purpose, or primary purpose, of the Second Amendment was apparently to guarantee a safeguard against tyrannical government. An additional purpose was perhaps to guard against attack by Indian tribes, who were still within attacking distance at the time the Constitution was written. Neither of these purposes can stand up today. If a tyrannical government takes power in America, the pistols, rifles, or even assault guns of the individual citizens are not going to overthrow it – that can only be accomplished by elements of the armed forces, with their own tanks, artillery and aircraft (in other words, civil war), or else by massive disobedience on the part of the citizenry. And besides, the first clause of the Amendment suggests resistance by organized militia, not by individuals. And as far as attack by Indian tribes – the second purpose -- is concerned, it is highly unlikely in our time that the Indians will pour out of their casinos to assault the rest of the population.

What about a modern purpose? Self-defense against criminals has at least a degree of plausibility, though the experts seem to think that having a gun in the house is more likely to cause a fatality than to prevent one. In any case, this purpose for gun ownership is quite amenable to strict regulation.

But in any case, it is the Supreme Court that decides. The Constitution means what the Supreme says it means, and we must abide by that.

Until recently, the Supreme Court and the court system in general inclined toward the community view, and understood individual gun ownership as a way of supporting militias. The turning-point came, according to legal expert Jeffrey Toobin, in 1977, when ultra-conservatives took over the NRA and began a widespread effort to get the government out of the gun-control business. Their efforts triumphed in the 2008 Supreme Court decision titled District of Columbiav. Heller, in which by a 5-4 majority the Court adopted the individual-rights view. The majority opinion was written by Justice Scalia, one of the five conservatives (including Kennedy) who made up the majority. The most interesting part of that opinion – because it seems to be completely ignored – is this: Although Scalia declared that a total ban on handguns is unconstitutional, he also declared that the government may legitimately limit the right to own guns in the following ways: prohibit concealed weapons; bar possession by felons and the mentally ill; bar firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings; impose conditions on commercial sale of arms; and ban possession of rifles most useful for military purposes, such as “M-16 rifles and the like.”

Which is to say that even the most extreme and decisive ruling against gun control still allows the  regulation of gun ownership and the prohibition of the most dangerous kinds of guns (assault weapons)These are the same types of measures that gun-control advocates are now aiming for!

In short, prohibition of gun control by the Second Amendment is a transparent myth, promoted by the NRA and facilitated by the trusting naïveté  of the American people.. Whatever approach we may take, the Second Amendment clearly does NOT prohibit the regulation of firearms – though as I point out above, there are many who, for whatever reason, have been hoodwinked into believing the opposite. These apparently include our president, who, as a law professor, should know better.

And what effect does this mistaken view of the Second Amendment have on twisted minds who are burning to strike back against society? We can only surmise, but this seems probable to me: Their hearing that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to gun use will bathe their efforts in a patriotic and self-righteous glow because they are supporting the Constitution. It will clothe their gun use in the mantle of moral legitimacy and weaken any moral constraints against their use of guns.

And that is the first step in the psychological journey to the killing field.

Winners and Losers

Consider a deeply discontented, angry, disturbed young man (it’s always a male) as he observes the gun control controversy. He already believes in the righteousness of gun zealots, as I’ve just described. He observes the controversies over gun control and notes that gun zealots, led by the NRA, win every fight and seem to have won the approval of the public. They are powerful and popular and important, and as we have seen, they are seen as righteous. In every way they are winners. Gun ownership (and gun use) is the way to be an effective human being. Such is the effect on the mind of the discontented, angry, disturbed young man.

He has been trampled and ignored enough in his life. He wants to be one of the winners. He wants to feel important; he wants to be somebody. Guns offer him a way.

So when the young man comes to the point where he must gain redress of his grievances, what does he do?

Does he present his complaints in calm and reasoned argument? Hardly.

Does he confront the object of his anger one-to-one? Not likely, because his anger is generally not focused on one person, and even killing one person would hardly be noticed.

Does he stand on a street corner and shout out his grievances? In some cases, yes. We see such performances every so often. But generally it is not the preferred way for the young man to make his grievances known, because NOBODY LISTENS.

Does he, therefore, ally himself (in his mind) with the powerful and righteous by killing – killing indiscriminately, just for the sake of killing – in a way that is sure to be noticed? Yes, yes, all too often.

May I suggest, therefore:

If someone tells you that the Second Amendment prohibits regulation of guns, set them straight. You may help to save lives, including children’s lives.

If gun zealots tell you that gun regulation is the first step toward government confiscation of guns, tell them their belief is a paranoid fantasy. You may help to save lives, including children’s lives.

Whenever possible, lend your voice and your efforts to the cause of sane and effective gun control. Do what you can to reduce the power of the NRA. You may help to save lives, including children’s lives.         

Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 9, Issue 8, Posted 9:37 PM, 04.16.2013