Wednesday, January 23, 2013

understanding the history of the 2nd amendment

Discussions of guns, gun control, and gun violence are everywhere (as they should be) in these weeks following the massacre at Newtown. The NRA has tried to derail the conversation by suggesting that posting armed security officers in every school is the best way to address these school shootings and if you watch the talking heads on TV what you hear is a lot of discussion about regulating the access of the mentally ill to different kinds of firearms, as if the mentally ill are the only ones doing the killing and are thus the ones who most need their gun rights to be regulated. (Neither of the shooters in Newtown or the Colorado movie theater would have been prevented from purchasing the guns since their illness, in the one case, only emerged after the shooting and in the other the shooter used his mother's weapons.)  What these discussions forget or avoid--conveniently through misdirection as seems to be the NRA's strategy--is a thorough examination of the historical context of the right to "keep and bear arms" that the Second Amendment enumerates. 

If you want to learn what the role of insurrection, the controlling of potential slave rebellions, and what "keeping arms" meant to the authors of the Bill of Rights and how they shaped the writing of the Second Amendment, you should take a look at the multipart discussion of this history--and how it is abused in current debates--that the Thoughtful Bastard has posted over on his blog. 

Here's the link to part 1: and from it you can follow on to the links to the second, third, and fourth parts. I highly recommend taking a look at it. The history detailed there is interesting, surprising, and informative. I think it casts new perspectives on the debate for most of us.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link! I feel that I have a much better grasp on what the 2nd Amendment actually means having read it.

    As to the specific relevance of the 2nd Amendment to the Newtown tragedy, I would be very surprised if the US Congress passed any legislation that went beyond a surface-level, lip-service solution to the problem of gun violence.

    Part of the reason for this is that the NRA interpretation of the 2nd Amendment has become a litmus test for the Republican Party. Republican members of Congress are expected to oppose meaningful modifications to gun laws (unless, of course, it is to make guns more accessible). By contrast, I don't believe there is much of a litmus test in reverse for members of the Democratic party - plenty of conservative Democrats from conservative states freely endorse the NRA position on gun laws as well.

    Another reason is that members of Congress - in particular, members in the House of Representatives - do not feel the need to educate themselves on issues such as these. Many states (such as but not limited to: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York) experienced embarrassing gerrymandering at the hands of one-party rule in these states. The net result was that Democratic candidates, while receiving a slim majority of House votes overall, found themselves in a comfortable minority in the House as a result of the district maps. Representatives in gerrymandered districts only fear primary challenges - with a very low turnout of very partisan people. Why should they take the moral high ground and learn about issues, when their issues are already dictated to them by partisan donors such as the NRA?

    We as individuals can do our best educate ourselves and others, but it's hard to know where, exactly, we should devote our energy. Should we push for specific issues, such as gun legislation? Should we push for non-partisan redistricting? Should we be working on a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United?

    Now to my next point: a broader issue that this article raises is to what extent we should be beholden to a strict interpretation of the Constitution as it existed in the minds of the authors.

    First of all, I have to say that I have a lot of problems with "strict constructionism." The reason that I have a problem with this, mostly, is because people who claim to be "strict constructionist" are not actually "strict constructionists". The 2nd Amendment is a great example of this. As the article you link pointed out, what people have come to believe is the meaning of the 2nd Amendment is not even the actual meaning of the 2nd Amendment. If your strict interpretation is not actually correct, what is the point of dogmatically clinging to it? Next, I think that strict constructionism implies that the Euro-American, male, upper-class of 1789 was the pinnacle of U.S. society. Really? I think that as a society we should feel more open about making logical changes in interpretation to the Constitution as our society changes.

    Now, the flip side of that issue is that if we allow looser interpretation of the Constitution (and we certainly do, even when we claim that we don't), it puts us at the mercy of the Supreme Court's competence. Based on the Supreme Court decisions in that article alone, one can only conclude that the Supreme Court is at best self-contradictory, and at worst makes decisions solely based on the whims of any five justices who can agree on something.

    You would think that people as elevated within the government as Supreme Court justices would feel obligated to educate themselves on the U.S. Constitution, but I believe that many of these justices see themselves not as learners but as teachers with the power to decide what version of the Constitution is "taught".