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Justice, Quick Takes

“The Right To Bear Arms” – What Kind of Right Is It, Really?

The Second Amendment should not become just one more issue of irreconcilable hyperpartisanship.  Whether one finds themselves on the political right or the political left, one should realize that the question of gun violence ultimately comes down to the health of the polis.

In this era of volatile, emotional, polarized, bitter and increasingly vapid American politics, the recent “March for Our Lives” by activists against gun violence had authentic idealism and real substance.   According to some estimates, at least one million people marched in various cities around the United States with the largest event taking place in the nation’s capitol.

Galvanized and initially precipitated by savvy organizing and public relations efforts on the part of the survivors of the mass shooting this past February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the march drew together a vast variety of demonstrators and can be considered one of the largest protests of young people since the Vietnam War.

The marches were not just confined to the United States.  In advance of the planned Saturday event the British newspaper The Guardian estimated that protests were also planned in at least 800 places around the world, including Tokyo and London.

The primary agenda of so many of the marchers was legislative action on the part of the U.S. Congress (which polls show the majority of American voters actually favor and some which the Trump administration has even gone on record as supporting) – more rigorous background checks for gun purchases, banning of “bump stocks” that turn single-fire weapons into machine guns, a boost in the age for legal fire arms ownership and statutes restricting their possession by those known to be mentally ill, and severe curtailment (if not prohibition) of the acquisition of assault weapons.

But there was also an undertone in many of the headlines and speeches of the kind of uncompromising utopian wool-gathering that reminded this erstwhile anti-Vietnam activist that ultimately undermined the peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“The Movement”, as it came to be called, was quite politically astute up until the March on Washington in the fall of 1969, but which after that kind of theatrical success slowly came unglued and was eventually shattered by the tragedy of students killed by National Guard gunfire in the spring of 1970 and the overwhelming, thoroughly disheartening, and totally unanticipated re-election of Richard Nixon by a landslide over the progressive candidate George McGovern in 1972.

Hundreds of thousands demand end to gun violence,” blared another headline in The Guardian.  I recall how an “end to the Vietnam war” after 1969 suddenly morphed into an “end to all war”, which became one of the repeated “progressive” (we didn’t really use the term back then) mantras in the early Seventies.

At the same time, during the speeches at the Washington gathering the crowd applauded uproariously when Yolanda Renee King, 9-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. did a charming riff on her grandfather’s famous “I have a dream speech” with the following quip: ““I have a dream that enough is enough and that this should be a gun-free world. Period!”

Although the sentiment is uplifting, a gun-free world is probably even less likely than a nuke-free one that has eluded statesmen even with the end of the Cold War.  So one has to ask in pursuit of political sobriety: what exactly is going on here? 

As Pew itself pointed out in 2015 – and the statistics have not changed very much since then – mass shootings in public places (a tiny fraction of all harm inflicted with lethal weapons) have been on the uptick in recent years, while gun violence has been steadily on the decline over the last twenty years, even after the loosening of certain firearms restrictions such as the ban on assault weapons during the same period.

Compounding the confusion was an op-ed piece by retired Supreme Court chief justice John Paul Stevens in the New York Times arguing that the best way for youthful gun control advocates to succeed in the long run would be to repeal the Second Amendment.  Suddenly, what had been dismissed as a paranoid fantasy among extreme right-wingers, insofar as it presumed a hidden agenda on the part of those touting “common sense” gun control measures, seemed more plausible to many in the political center.

Elizabeth Wydra, writing in Slate, called Stevens’ remarks, which had less audible echoes of assent among some commentators such as former CNN commentator Larry King , “catastrophic,” because such discourse “sets back this burgeoning movement by emboldening and energizing gun extremists.”

As historian Saul Cornell shows in his masterful study of the evolving understanding of the Second Amendment, both gun-ownership abolitionists and the NRA-style gun rights absolutists miss the entire point of the Constitutional guarantee of the “right to bear arms.”  The framers of the Constitution wanted guns to be “regulated” in the sense that they aimed for every citizen to be equipped with weapons for the collective defense.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison among others were afraid of standing armies, or a national police force, as a grave threat to the people’s “inalienable rights.”  They viewed local militias, which people either volunteered for or were conscripted into joining, as the strongest safeguard against centralized tyranny.  It was this manner of construing the Second Amendment that comprised the essential rationale for implementation of the military draft, starting with the Civil War, in times of national emergency.

The founders never envisioned people having the right to owning an unlimited amount of guns, according to Cornell.  But they also presupposed that individual gun ownership by its very nature should be a basic right, insofar as it enabled one to perform their civic duty to participate in the defense of the republic.  James Madison made this clear in The Federalist Papers when he wrote:

Ironically, the kind of vision Cornell attributes to Jefferson, Madison, and the other founders has already been instantiated to a large degree not in the United States, but in Switzerland. Krishnadev Calamur, writing in The Atlantic, profiles how the Swiss have routinely rejected severe gun control legislation, yet still have a relatively low level of gun violence.

“Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of…”

The Swiss basically look upon gun ownership not as a “natural” but a “civic” right, as Cornell dubs it.  In other words, the vast majority of Swiss own guns because they are adamant about defending as citizens their historic form of democracy, which traces back to the late Middle Ages, against any form of overreach by a centralized state.

The Swiss experience during World War II, when they shared a tense border with the might of Nazi Germany, was a landmark teachable moment for their entire society.  Calamur concludes: “So it’s possible to have widespread gun ownership without so frequently seeing the kinds of incidents that the U.S. saw on Wednesday, when a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Florida.”

Switzerland, of course, is a culturally and ethnically homogeneous nation and has been notoriously resistant to the kinds of multi-national and multi-cultural pluralism that has been the watermark of American idealism since the nineteenth century.  But the case of Switzerland highlights how the question of gun violence and gun regulation is as much a political issue of the degree to which the majority of a country’s citizens trust the state to look out for its interests.

In an era of hyperpartisanship and rabid political polarization, the half of the electorate that manipulates the levers of state power is ipso facto not only distrusted, but demonized by the other half.  That political fact in itself makes the prospects for “common sense” gun control improbable.

The Founding Fathers did not trust the state at all, which is why we have the Second Amendment in the first place.  Interestingly, the Black Power movement of the 1960s, where its leaders paraded in public view with ostentatious display of fearsome weaponry, was derived from the very thinking of the white founders of America themselves.

The Black Panthers were quite aware of the fact that gun control had been used flagrantly in segregationist America to deny black people their right of self-defense against white vigilantism. In consequence, Adam Winkler in The Atlantic has described the Black Panthers as “the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement.”

The Second Amendment should not become just one more issue of irreconcilable hyperpartisanship.  Whether one finds themselves on the political right or the political left, one should realize that the question of gun violence ultimately comes down to the health of the polis.

And the polis is very sick right now.  We may not need to appropriate Martin Heidegger and quip that “only a political theology can save us,” but when it comes to guns, perhaps that sentiment is not too far-fetched.

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