Part 2… Part 2

I think it’s safe to say at this point that no one is reading this, so I’ll just continue from where I left off yesterday. If you die of boredom, I promise I’ll bury you when you start to smell.

So. Back to anachronisms.

Despite the common, modern assumption that America has always been crazy about guns (and that the Second Amendment has always allowed people to own whatever guns they want), in the 1870s the US Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment did not grant citizens the right to weaponry at all. Sadly, the case (US vs Cruikshank) was actually about the massacre of 105 black people at the hands of a white mob, and one of the things that the whites were accused of doing was denying the black citizens their right to bear arms in their own defense. Instead, hanging on the first part of that sentence, the court ruled that the amendment only related to the needs of the Federal Government. Militias, remember? Again, it was a hold-over from a time before the US had a standing army (let alone the concept of a police force), so civilians with weapons were necessary to protect the government and the nation’s borders… not to protect themselves from being murdered just because they happened to be black.

The reliance on militias and the lack of a professional army actually helped contribute to American losses during the War of 1812, so the move away from civilian soldiers was probably inevitable. However (again), at the time the US Constitution was written there was still a strong dislike of anything that looked like a powerful, controlling government, so there’s actually no allowance in the Constitution for a professional, federally run army. In that context, it’s easy to see why the 19th Century Supreme Court would determine that the Second Amendment was actually about the military and not about individual rights at all. If it’s not a reference to the military needs of the country, then what other part of the Constitution is?

Things got a great deal murkier in the late 20th Century though, and courts began to question whether the first clause of that important sentence was the only reason for the amendment’s existence. The passage of the Gun Control Act (1968) brought in new licenses for gun dealers and restricted certain types of weapons, but it also galvanised the National Rifle Association and helped transform it from a influential (but generally apolitical) sports body into a powerful Washington lobby group. Although the president of the NRA in the 1930s argued against the idea of carrying weapons around in public places, 40 years later the organisation had effectively flipped around. Was this really a collective right (the right to train with weapons in an army) or an individual right (the right to just have a gun for whatever reason you like)? Is the militia the sole reason for the weapons, or just one of many reasons? Interestingly enough, despite a generation of debate moving in this direction, it wasn’t until 2001 that the Supreme Court effectively reversed its earlier decision about slaughtered black people and ruled that the Second Amendment applied to individual rights. It’s hard to argue that this debate (and move away from the militia model towards the armed loner) hasn’t cost a lot of lives. Most other developed countries have guns, and certain rights for individuals to own guns, but no other nation kills as many people that way…

So. That brings us to this week. One conversation going on about the US President’s right to make up laws and the people’s rights to own guns so they can protect themselves from loonies… even though they themselves may be the loonies. And a second conversation about armed individuals resisting the government by force and trying to steal land from the whole of society so they can use it for private profit. It’s all terribly Constitutional, really. And it reveals some deep schisms in the type of society Americans collectively want to build. Still, the people who want to stage an armed uprising against the government, or simply buy whatever gun they want whenever they want, are a tiny minority in an otherwise sensible and peace-loving population.

To me, the conversations make much more sense when you understand the context in which the Constitution was written. It fit the needs of the time, and has generally served the nation (and the world) very well since then. However, it was never about being a gun nut or resisting the government by force. There was a lot of other rhetoric about tyranny floating around back then, but the US Constitution didn’t advocate rebellion if you didn’t like the government. It advocated voting.

And I guess that’s where the crux of the problem lies. These people are a minority. They may vote and see little change, because democracy is always about the tyranny of the majority. So they arm themselves against the tyranny that is their neighbors and their nation, and yet call themselves patriots. In so many ways it is deeply disrespectful towards the very documents they claim to revere.

 

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