I write Vox Politic for a lot of reasons and high up on the list would be getting people to think and getting people to talk. From all accounts the last edition of the column did just that. While people are interested in Right To Work and The Affordable Healthcare Act, it was guns that got them going the most. And, given that it was announced as I was writing this edition that President Obama has signed executive orders implementing or strengthening a variety of gun controls, my guess is it is going to be a hot topic for a while.
Going Old School, Missing the Obvious
The first thing I need to address on the topic is with respect to numbers in the last column. I used some “statistics” on the increase in UK gun crime that overstated the size the increase. According to reports from The House of Commons, the percentage was considerably less than stated, but still indicative of an increase, which bears the point out. It's a fixable mistake, I think the explanation is pretty reasonable and there is a lesson to be learned in the error.
First, I've kind of been waiting to write a “guns” column for some time. I have an odd habit of collecting newspaper articles and magazines and I've been carrying around folders of source material on topics ranging from sustainable manufacturing to urban redevelopment for years. So, mortified as I was of the handgun ban debacle that occurred while I was in the UK, I have a collection of clippings that documented it while it was happening.
This is where I got myself into trouble. When I went on the road over New Years, I knew I wouldn't have access to the internet, but I did have my collection of stuff. I sifted through this pile, refreshing my memory and revisiting how the matter was reported at the time, using it for the basis of the article. I certainly got too casual when I pulled numbers from various sources to give quantitative support to a qualitative argument. It felt like research, but it wasn't.
Since the last issue I have done the obvious, pulled up Google and taken a better look at the numbers in the UK. The first observation is that they are confusing and sometimes conflicting and, if I was writing the article again today, I would hesitate before trying to summarize the UK gun problem in one or two numbers.
By any measure, it increased at an alarming rate. The most conservative reports, which also have the benefit of time and hindsight, would indicate the gun related crime at least doubled in the period of 1999 - 2004. That's the stat I am going to go forward with when the topic comes up. It's a horrific result and enough to make the point.
The lesson, one I knew and obviously forgot, is that the reporting done in the moment, while generally the most compelling, is often the least accurate. I did 20th Century research on a 21st Century problem. Sorry about that. My mistake.
What Are We Afraid Of?
My personal experiences, all in this country, would suggest that when a gun is suddenly produced, no matter what happens next, everyone is scared. It doesn't matter if you are the one with the gun, whether another gun is ever pulled or if the gun is ever used. People get wide eyed. One reason everyone is scared is that no one knows what is going to happen next. It's random and anyone could lose in these situations. And thankfully, it doesn't happen that often in polite circles. No one likes being scared.
While my family and I avoided it, I knew victims of both street and personal property crimes while I lived in England. From what I gathered from their accounts, there is only one person scared when a gun comes out over there. And that's in the law abiding man who turned his in.
That's what you really need to imagine for a minute. What happened in the UK was a ramp up of violence as, by and large, criminals operated “without fear.” Lethal force was a one sided trump card and the criminal class held it. It wasn't just the numbers, but the ferocity and who they hit. And it was middle and upper class people who experienced the brunt of it, in the form of home invasions.
In America, rich people own guns, too, and you don't know which ones. It's a lethal lottery to start a mini crime wave in any neighborhood. In the UK, everyone was suddenly an easy target, so why not rob rich people? I'm just glad my ex-wife refused to spend more than £900 on a car. It was like having thief repellant parked in our driveway.
It seems a pretty reasonable conclusion that the UK, a country with a lot of demographic similarities to this one, is an awfully good case study for what happens when you start diminishing private access to fire arms. It's simply a lot different decision to carry out risky crimes when you basically take the disincentive of getting shot in the process out of the equation. And crimes involving guns happen a lot now there. England is the most violent country in Europe by many standards. All with the stroke of a pen, signed under the intense pressure to do something - in real time - in the wake of a national tragedy.
The Reset Button
That still brings us to that pesky Amendment and its awkward English. What exactly does it mean?
“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..”
There are a lot of dynamics going on when you try to interpret the written word. Based on a look at the English, its context within the rest of the document, some familiarity with scholarly analysis of the subject, a pretty good understanding of the Supreme Court's decisions and taking into account current public opinion, here's my layman's explanation of the Second Amendment.
As far as the “poor” English, it's actually not that bad. It contains a prefatory clause (“A well regulated militia,…”) and an operative clause (“the right to bear arms shall not be abridged…”) While the prefatory clause announces one purpose, it defers to the operative clause when defining the scope of the sentence. It's actually this construction that has underpinned the basic form of the Supreme Court's opinion on gun rights. Basically they have leaned harder toward “what we mean to do” than “why we are doing this” when giving primacy to the second half of the sentence.
It is also important when I mention that it is “one” purpose. As our Constitution has been interpreted, what it does not say is often as important or takes precedence over what is written. Generally, these are the norms of human behavior so broad at the time of drafting that it wasn't deemed necessary write down, even if we have had occasion to adjudicate them later.
Basically, in English, it's a deal. We get guns and one reason is so they can call up a militia. That doesn't mean it's the only reason or even the best reason. It's just the one that's in the document. The Second Amendment simply presumes gun ownership and the drafters were willing to codify that, even if they didn't mandate it. In return, private gun owners were basically being reminded that they would have to show up, follow instructions and fight if we were ever invaded. It says nothing about the militia being the only reason citizens can have guns.
Why did they assume that “everyone” owned guns? The first two reasons - hunting and personal protection - were obvious back in those days, though they have evolved into hot button issues today. But, like it or not, the joy of the hunt, the responsibility of pest control and the need to “fend off a bandit” have been a big deal in every American era.
One other reasonable interpretation to this Amendment's inclusion is that we preferred an on-call militia over a standing Army. We'd had problems with the way we'd been treated by Kings and Queens. Plus, a standing Army was expensive and representative of a World view they did not have. I just wish that we had more discussion on this portion of the argument than the ownership part. Maybe we will in a minute.
This is where the context of the Amendment within the rest of the document becomes important. The Second Amendment isn't the only place that addresses a “reset” in the power structure between the Government and the individual. The Fourth Amendment, protecting against illegal search and seizure, is another such place. One might argue the whole document is a reaction to “bad stuff” we wanted to prevent under our new regime.
This is another reason that I took some criticism on the first article and that was what I termed “the right to shoot back.” This is probably more a testament to my writing style. Granted, I might try too hard sometimes to turn a phrase. By no means would I wish for Civil War, but I believe that the Founding Fathers were preserving that possibility when they allowed the then “status quo” of broad private ownership of guns take place.
Like I said above, this Constitution was not only a reset of power then, it has reset buttons throughout its course, ready to go off whenever circumstance becomes necessary. This is where I am going to tell you to be careful. There is not a lot of “assault rifle” crime, at least when compared to the sum total of all violent acts in a year. You look up the numbers this time. But, if you buy my assertion at all that the Second Amendment is in small part to act as a functioning “modern” on call Army or that we have the right to some balance to the lethal force employed by our form of government, you might begin to see why sturdier guns aren't a bad thing in private hands.
This brings us to the most under analyzed portion of the Amendment. I lead you to the phrase “the security of a free State.” What exactly is a free State? My assertion would be it is a nation made up of “free men and women.” What exactly does it mean to be “free?” Part of it is personal measure and is probably related to the size of your spirit. Free for a turtle and free for an eagle are equal, but completely different things. But one common thread in most definitions of the term would include the ability to reject unreasonable authority.
I will draw an analogy from the UK experience with gun crime in this case. I have every reason to believe that disarming America is going to make things worse and, by this, I mean more violent. Only it won't always be criminals who are the ones operating without fear. We have an increasingly autocratic, heavily armed government. This is exactly what got the Founders up at arms to begin with. Which leads me to an idea…
Do What I Say, Not What I Do
The question remains: Why are we so violent in America? I mean, we are not as bad as the British, but clearly our sentiment is that violent crime is at an unacceptable level. My guess is it really isn't one thing. We could list stuff like reduced police budgets, video games and technology addictions, failed drug policies, poverty, alcohol abuse and its strong link to violence, bad parenting or lack of mental health resources. Each one of these probably has some impact. I'd like to offer that the biggest factor is something different than that.
The United States is the most heavily armed nation in the world, not because of the weapons held by its citizens, but due to the overwhelming expenditures on the military. In dollar terms, we spend nearly as much on “Defense” as the rest of the world combined. We support hundreds of military outposts all over the world. We assassinate people and, these days, sometimes it's a citizen. You can find too many accounts where children have been killed due to the simple misfortune to have been born in the theatre of our twin debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. We train and ask more young men to kill than any nation in history. By most measures, we have a culture of violence.
My suggestion is we try something I learned as a parent. If my kids were yelling too much, it probably meant I was yelling too much first. I set the tone for the household and they modeled my behavior. More often than not I found that this technique works. On the other hand, most parents know that “Do as I say, not as I do rarely works.”
It's time for the US to put down the sword. It's going to take some guts - a lot more than we have seen from a leader in a long time. But, if we want our people to understand violence is not OK, we have to act like that as a nation. No more War on Terror. No more War on Drugs. Once we ratchet down the sanctioned violence on an international level, we can have a legit discussion about violence here, but from a position of moral authority. My guess is the problem will have already begun to dissipate, as bloated military budgets become diverted into positive social programs and enlightened free markets. I can see it and it looks fantastic, but it probably ain't going to happen. Reality gets in the way of these sorts of fantasies.
Sometimes I wish I was an idealist. In fact, the bulk of my friends probably fall in this category. These are the people that truly believe in mankind and think that we could build a world where there are no guns and everyone gets along. I am not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the line I became a realist and I think Pandora's Box is already open on this one. I wish there was no gun crime, but there is. I wish people wouldn't hurt each other, but they will. I wish crime didn't pay, but too often it does. I wish power didn't corrupt, but it can. I bet Madison and Jefferson and their crew were realistic about these facts, too.
So there you have it. The resident peacenik, author of this column, described by one regular reader as
“Chief Hippie in Charge” of this area, is by most definitions, “pro gun.” I've had it suggested to me that some of my opinions are from the fringes, held only by the NRA or other right wing groups. My belief is the answer to this problem does not exist in the center, unless you are talking about the center of the Amendment. When guys like me start agreeing with Tea Partiers, it might be time to take pause and think for a moment. It's OK if you use your own reset button in the process.