Monday, December 17, 2012

Too rich for my blood

I hope I won’t be misunderstood and accused of being flippant when I say the cost of the “freedoms” of the Second Amendment is too rich for my blood. Because I mean blood literally. But I don’t mean just mine.

A friend of mine works in the news industry and he texted me Friday morning with the news about Newtown, Connecticut as soon as it hit the wire. Nothing so awful has ever happened before. And I remember thinking to myself, this is it. This is the make-or-break moment. Either they come to their senses and take the Second Amendment out of the US Constitution, or they finally sell their soul. I mean, if two dozen murdered 6 and 7-year-olds wouldn’t prompt change, what on Earth possibly could?

Now, I'm not blaming the whole United States for what happened Friday. But it's only the whole United States that can do something about it now that it has. And yet, this morning I’m reading articles about bereaved parents not expressing hostility to the gunman. The evaporation of the support for a ban on handguns that existed in the 1970s. The NRA having the ability to determine the make-up of Congress since 1994. The unlikelihood of even measures against assault rifles and high capacity magazines that expired in 2004 coming back. And I’m sitting here thinking, how can this possibly, possibly be, just three days later?

I mean, in reality, it’s bigger than just gun control. Because what in the status quo is ever going to change if something like this can’t budge a nation out of complacency, indifference, and unqualified self-interest? If this can’t generate traction on an issue and prompt real change, whatever could? What can save the United States on things like universal health care, the debt, and the future of medicare if even something like this can’t get people mad on their feet in the streets?


jim said...

Remove the 2nd Amendment? What exactly will that accomplish?

The 2nd Amendment isn't supposed to be about making sure every American can have a gun if he wants. Unfortunately, this is how some read it.

This genie is already out of the bottle. There's no way back. All we can do is figure out how to manage it now that it's out. It's past time to heavily regulate firearms in this country.

barefoot hiker said...

Hi, Jim,

I despair nearly as much as you of the herculean task of soaking up the—what is it? 250 million guns in the US?—too. I'll agree; it can never really be accomplished. But that's not the same as saying it can't be ameliorated.

I agree, too, that simply amending the Second Amendment out of the US Constitution in and of itself won't solve the problem. But it WILL removed the first and most fundamental obstacle to solving the problem. Right now, it's nearly impossible to create any kind of real limit or legislation because of the Second Amendment. People perceive of themselves as vested with the right to own, carry, and even decide to use instruments of deadly force on fellow human beings. That probably shouldn't be an individual right in the modern age; it should be a collective right of a society.

The Second Amendment made some sense when it was written in 1787 or thereabouts, when the future of continent was still very much in play, the cohesion of a new nation was still uncertain, relations with the Natives were shaky, and no one knew for sure that Britain was really reconciled with not meddling. Who knew what France and Spain might pull? It was written for its day; an age when the most devastating force anyone could bring to bear was the smooth-bore musket, something that even in the hands of a master was accurate to about a hundred yards and could be be aimed, fired, and reloaded at best two or three times a minute. In 1787, a madman could probably have killed his mother and one, perhaps two of the children he found when he burst into the one-room schoolhouse, before the rest fled and he was likely overpowered while fiddling with his powder horn. I don't think it was written for an age where a single man can wield force an Old Testament avenging angel with a flaming sword would envy.

The only thing really stopping it, it seems to me, is some ingrained urge to hold at bay all the monsters one assumes one's fellow citizens to be. It's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

BBC World News just wondered out loud, like I did this morning, if this will be the turning point. I wish I could say I thought so. I think it won't be all that long before the next president is making the same canned speech Obama just made that Clinton made.

But there simply can't be real regulation of firearms in the US with the Constitution saying what the courts say it does. That has to change first. I don't think the will exists, though, and it's so depressing.

jim said...

Your perspective on this is clearly Canadian. I don't know how to express how thoroughly freedoms, even ones that can kill us, are deeply, deeply interwoven into the fabric of American life and culture. To this American, repealing the second amendment feels like repealing a part of what it means to be an American -- and I don't own a gun, and can't imagine a circumstance under which I would.

Again, the second amendment is, in my view, widely misunderstood by the average American and usually misapplied by the courts. It is meant to be a check and balance against tyranny. That is all.

barefoot hiker said...

Jim, trust me. I don't live across the Berlin Wall. :) You can't grow up in Canada, watching American TV, American movies, hearing American music, visiting the place with a casual frequency, and not have a grasp of the place firearms have in the mythos of the USA. I do appreciate it's a fundamental. I just question if it should be. It was fundamental to southerners for hundreds of years to own other human beings; they even went to war for it. But it probably never should have been a fundamental virtue of a caring society. And after a long struggle, it isn't. Who in Charleston in 1860 would have believed that could come to pass?

You're someone who's chosen not to arm himself. I know Canadians who have. My dad still owns his own father's Winchester, which was his fathers, and possibly his father's as well, since it bears a stamp from the 1880s. One of my best friends, who served in the militia in his youth, is in the process of acquiring a hand gun for hobby purposes; another moved back from ten years in Florida with several firearms. I think the difference is that it's not seen as a right, but rather as a responsibility to aspire to, like getting driver's license and a car. There's more gravitas to it most other places than the Second Amendment lends to it in the US. It's not as casual. And even then, with that said, Canada has a notably higher gun homicide rate than, say, Britain does. With twice our population, they had 14 gun homicides last year, and we had 144.

I agree that the tyranny aspect was central to the writing of the Second Amendment, but as such, it's pretty clear its day is past. Lincoln said before the Civil War than no country in Europe or Asia would ever succeed in taking a drink from the Ohio River in the trial of a thousand years, and if that were true in the 1850s, it's true squared today. And if the Branch Davidians couldn't hold off with AFT with an arsenal that would make a Central American dictatorship blush, Uncle Joe and his .22 sure aren't going to save democracy.

But I of course concede that only the people of the United States have the right to decide if the Second Amendment's time has past, and long past. Though a permeable 5500-mile-long border makes me feel I have some stake in the outcome.

jim said...

I think there's still a gap between our stances, but let me focus instead on where we share common ground.

Gun ownership as a right still needs to be well regulated and controlled, for the public safety and good.

My 15-year-old son has his driving learner's permit. He will have to undergo more study and practice to drive than he would to buy a pistol. Both items are deadly; the latter should be granted with at least as much care and scrutiny as the former.

Bridgewater said...

It seems to me that a major flaw in the American psyche is the overrated pioneer ideal of rugged individualism. The idea of individual freedoms is not a uniquely American invention, as many believe, but they link this belief with the ridiculous notion of American exceptionalism. Moreover, the cult of the individual takes precedence over the commonweal; it's all me and my rights with these folks. As for the role of guns, talking to people who believe that private gun ownership is enshrined in the Second Amendment is like talking to a Creationist about evolution. It's the same mentality, both aggressive and paranoid, clinging, as Obama accurately said, to guns and Bibles. The obsession with guns is complex, of course, with the powerful Freudian subtext and the primal social construct of the Real Man protecting his family (see Bushmaster ads advising men to get their Man-card reissued--unfettered capitalism also an overrated American value), and with the origins of the country in the pioneer/explorer/conqueror view of life. The first settlers may not have intended to be violent, but they became so; they brought it with them, those pious souls; it was in them, as it is in all human beings--the violence that civilization was designed to suppress. The weapons that were needed for survival in the new land became the means for defense--and violence--on the frontier. And American society has remained violent, incompletely civilized. Two New York Times columns in this regard are of worthy of mention, and the comments thereto: "Looking for America," by Gail Collins, 14 December (, and "On Guns, America Stands Out," by Charles Blow, 19 December ( Blow incudes a graph that is of particular interest. BTW--note the stats on Canada.