I’m writing this in the evening following the San Bernardino mass shooting, for context to future readers who may run across this post. My guess is that the San Bernardino mass shooting doesn’t ring a bell with you, because it set no kind of record to distinguish itself from the handful of mass shootings that you do, at this point, remember. It was not a trend-setter like Columbine, it did not open new horrors of venue like Aurora, of high-profile target like Tucson, or of low-age targets like Sandy Hook. It probably has not been memorialized in a permanently posted Onion article like UCSB, nor was it the first big one at a college like Virginia Tech.
I could go on, as the shootings have and will. Odds are you don’t even remember all the names dropped up there, despite the captivity on imagination that they all have at this point in our nation’s history. Tonight, the media belongs to San Bernardino as everyone gets used to that second, silent R and trots out the same sad outrage that nothing is being done to prevent this near daily occurrence in our allegedly civil society.
There are many things one could focus on, and there’s a blog post for all of them, or thousands. They’ve been written before and linked before and gone viral before. Hooray. Tonight, I’m focusing on the second amendment. Because that, more than anything, is the chapter and verse that sanctifies gun ownership in this country. And gun ownership, no matter how it is checked or extolled, limited or promoted, is the root cause of gun violence. Without guns, there could not be gun violence. There could be violence, yes, but not gun violence. There could be stabbings and rock-throwings and poisonings. There is a reason that there are almost no mass stabbings, mass rock-throwings, and mass poisonings in our society. These are difficult, tiring, and inefficient ways to kill people. If you want to do a lot of damage and you aren’t a government, you use guns. Very occasionally explosives, but mostly guns.
So let’s look at why we have the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. It’s for terrorism. No, my right-wing friends, not to prevent terrorism. To guarantee the right to commit terrorism. Yeah, I’m gonna go to the actual text on this one:
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.
In the context of the militia that fought the American Revolution and inspired this little devastating snippet of our highest code of laws, there are basically two ways to read this. The way it was probably intended involves the lack of standing army and the militia being the only way the US could imagine repelling invading forces that were sure to come from Europe or elsewhere. The militia was the army of the people, by the people, and for the people, so everyone needed a musket at home in case the militia had to be rounded up at dawn to fight off the reconquering British. It would be really inefficient to keep all the muskets in the federal armory and send out Revere and friends to throw everyone a gun when the alarm was sounded. Plus, the American Revolution was a guerrilla war and the Americans assumed future wars on US soil would follow suit, thus decentralization of armaments would be key.
However, this clause of the Constitution has gotten reinterpreted to be a right to violent self-defense, not for the government, but from the government. And it could be argued that this was (at least some of) the framers’ intent as well, what with Jefferson and the bloody trees of liberty from time to time and all that. So if we’re all going to hold hands and collectively pretend that the militia bit isn’t there at all, or that the words “well regulated militia” actually mean “guy in a basement”, then it’s a right to take up arms against the state. Er, State. On behalf, presumably, of the People.
Well, folks, that’s terrorism. The right to violently check your own government in small but hurtful ways that deter government overriding your liberty or will? That’s what we’re calling terrorism these days. The second amendment is a little provision in our Constitution that says citizens are permitted to commit terrorism. Nay, that the right to commit terrorism shall not be infringed.
I mean, sure. Maybe it doesn’t have to come to actually firing the guns. Maybe the point is that the guns, merely as possessions, will be sufficient to deter government action. But the government currently has tanks and stealth bombers and nuclear weapons. And while “arms” does not, strictly speaking, mean guns, the NNWA (National Nuclear Weapon Association) has failed to gain sufficient lobbying power to reinterpret that word in this amendment to ensure that we all have a right to our own household mini-nuke. Though, really, if the framers’ intent was to guarantee that we could deter the government, then that’s what we deserve. Not that anyone currently shooting up the place would possibly misuse a household mini-nuke.
The point is that the argument for individual ownership of guns in a truly private setting requires the belief that people should be able to bear (and presumably fire) guns at the government to prevent their liberty from being infringed. It is strange that so many die-hard second amendment advocates, or at least those who claim to advocate the amendment, the NRA, and its ilk, are simultaneously so angry at Edward Snowden. He merely fired information at the government in order to defend his liberty. Despite repeated claims that someone, somewhere, would die for his actions, no humans were killed in the making of his leak. And yet the amendment so vaunted should actually have given him the right to shoot up the NSA had they tried to stop him.
I know the tone of this post is glib in places, which you’d be within your rights to find inappropriate in the wake of the latest* shooting in San Bernardino. At least 14 people are dead by the volitional acts of their countrymen. But make no mistake, this is serious business: it is incoherent to simultaneously defend the second amendment and decry terrorism. Not just because one tends to lead to the other, but because one literally authorizes the other.
*I hope. I haven’t checked the news in the hour or so it’s taken to write this post.
My only explanation of how this country can continue to cling to this fatally flawed amendment in the wake of the cascading reality of mass-shooting culture is that we are so pridefully obsessed with our self-image as a country that we are categorically incapable of admitting mistakes. It’s how a nation can continue to not apologize for genocide, slavery, internment camps, and bombing the civilians of nearly every other country on the planet. It’s how a nation can continue to demand that all of its leaders believe and regularly proclaim that the country itself is the epitome of human perfection. It’s how a nation can continue to make the same mistakes over and over and over, at home and abroad, for a willful refusal to even try to learn.
Look, the amendments aren’t ironclad. We outlawed slavery at some point with a new amendment. We even undid an amendment with a later amendment! We didn’t always have this infallible notion of ourselves. The framers whose intent we care so much about were a band of unruly, arguing misfits with no governmental experience. They would probably have been delighted to hear that we’d make it past 200 years, but equally horrified that we were carting around their precise verbiage like holy relics. Think about how much Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin cared for the traditional order of their time. Then think about San Bernardino.
I said San Bernardino.
It was the one after the Planned Parenthood Clinic but before the other… oh, never mind.