Common Sense, Grammar, and Original Intent

April 8, 2013 | By | 1 Reply More

According to recent polls, a growing number of Americans believe that the Second Amendment was put in the Bill of Rights in order to guarantee that our government will not impose any kind of tyranny upon us.  That an armed populace is a bulwark against government oppression.

As far as it goes, there should be no argument over this.  Especially at the time it was adopted.  It was a statement that declared that the authority for military action, domestically, resided with the People.  Even then, however, a group of citizens was not much of a match for a well-trained and equipped military force, and anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of the revolutionary war should be aware that the biggest problem Washington et al had was equipage and training.  The famous instance of the Prussian drill master Baron von Steuben, while part of American myth, nevertheless points up a real problem of the Continental Army—the men didn’t know how to fight.  Washington’s army, to put it mildly, fared poorly in just about every engagement with the British it had.  Just having guns made little difference.

Fast forward to today and the problem is multiplied.  To imagine a gaggle of weekend warriors mounting a successful resistance to a modern military force is absurd.

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Image by Erich Vieth

However, this is becoming mainstream opinion, that because so many Americans have firearms in their possession our government will not engage in dictatorial practices.  It enjoys a certain logic and in the past this has been a not altogether fallacious argument.

Taking this as a basis for rejecting any kind of control over the manufacture and dissemination of firearms for the purposes of community safety is taking original intent out of context and ignoring basic realities.  This isn’t a frontier nation anymore and the phrasing of the Second Amendment itself suggests it was never intended as a guarantee that John Q. Smith, esquire, would be absolutely free of constraint.

We have no rules that absolutely free us of constraints of one kind or another.

My own personal pick for absolutist appraisal is the First Amendment, but we have many rules regarding use of language and freedom of speech.  (I would hazard a guess that many of the same people arguing for complete freedom from even the hint of constraint on their Second Amendment rights have no problem with constraints on Speech, as indicated by support of various forms of censorship from pornography to flag burning.  Cherry picking “rights” is a great American tradition.)  We have such rules in order to maintain a civil society, a goal the Founders fully endorsed.  Barring the capacity of individuals to self-police personal conduct, we have laws to control misuses.  We get along quite well (usually) with said laws and in some instances wish these laws were stronger, all in the name of maintaining the kind of society with the types of security we wish to enjoy.

I personally have mixed feelings about all possession laws.  Telling people it is a crime to simply possess something, to my mind, is a pernicious act of intrusiveness that is fraught with the potential for abuse.  Just having something it is against the law to have invites fraud, entrapment, and a loss of other freedoms.  I can well understand the civic interest in not allowing individuals to have something, but beyond removing it once found, criminalizing possession is a road to hell many people who have been set up on false drug possession charges know all about.  It ceases then to be about public safety and becomes a contest of will between people and authority.  It’s fair to say that the Drug War has become less about drugs than about the power of agencies to enforce their will.  The purpose of the original laws is lost in the subsequent political and legal struggles between two ideologically opposed factions.  (If it weren’t, then spending money on treatment would not be in the least controversial.  At its simplest, this is about conformity, not safety.)  I also have little optimism that any kind of confiscatory rules would do anything other than create another drug war type conflict and again, safety would take a back seat to ideology.

As it is anyway.

For the record, I do not own a gun.  Not because I am opposed to them, but because I believe one should not own something one is not prepared to treat with diligence and respect by taking proper training, keeping responsible track of it, and maintaining it properly.  No one should treat a firearm like the old clunker that keeps failing inspection but gets driven anyway. I have neither the time nor inclination just now to qualify at a range and stay qualified.  Furthermore, I do not live in such a way that it would be useful to me.  That could change, I admit.  As a child, I grew up with firearms.  Hunting with my dad was a regular thing, something we gave up when apparently part of the necessary equipment among far too many hunters became a cooler chest loaded with beer.  Safety, dammit!

That said, there are a couple of items both sides should be more aware of in this, because the debate is heading toward another national deadlock, and just now we don’t need another divisive issue based on nonsense.

Deaths by firearms are decreasing.  Have been for some time.  You can check the FBI crime stats for this.  A growing fraction of gun deaths is suicide.  It may well be argued that if these people did not have ready access to a firearm, their self-inflicted deaths might be delayed or prevented.  The salient factor here is mental health, something we as a nation seem loathe to address.  There is a stigma attached to mental health problems which we stupidly maintain and people who need help fail to get it, often with calamitous results.  PTSD among returning veterans has been shining a light on this, but the fact is it remains a problem for the general population, one which for whatever reason we want to deny.  (Of course, we also don’t want to spend any more money on health care, which is another matter.)

The dramatic, Rambo-esque shootings that have spotlighted gun violence in the last several years are exceptions.  Tragic as they are, they do not represent the vast majority of either gun deaths or American gun owners.  In almost all of these instances, other factors have been primary in the incidents, involving mental health issues.  In a way, such events are like earthquakes.  Unpredictable, horrible, lamentable.  Unlike earthquakes, we have the tools to do something about them before they happen, but again this involves attitudes about mental health, and since the rhetoric surrounding this issue has acquired as part of its machinery a rejection of government intrusion into our personal lives, we are stuck in a quandary.

Secondly, we have already seen that “assault rifle” bans do very little in terms of actual decreases in gun violence.  Most, the vast majority, of shootings are done with handguns.  The “ban” is little more than an æsthetic statement.  High capacity magazines may be another matter, but the fact is we’re talking about banning something because of the way it looks more than anything else.

That said, we really need to stop pretending æsthetics don’t matter.  We know personality changes under certain circumstances, and as ridiculous as it may sound, we also know it is true.  Fashion would not be the industry it is if people did not experience modifications in self-image and, subsequently, behavior by wearing different kinds of clothing.  Consider the changes in demeanor involved with motorcycles.  A person can be one way and then, donning leathers and climbing aboard a Harley, he or she can for a short while be very different.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, these changes are mild, short-lived, and fun, but they are real.  And for a fraction of people, they go beyond manageable.

When you look at the mass shootings and the types of weapons involved, it seems obvious that, within whatever passes for conscious decision-making with these people, they are playing a role, one which involves some sort of para-militarism.  They are assaulting positions, enacting retribution, fighting a war no one else around them seems aware of, and they have equipped themselves accordingly.  While most of us play act from time to time, we keep it within our control and within the bounds of social convention.  Again, we’re talking about people who seem to have a less solid grasp on the reality the rest of us share.

A reality which is getting holes punched in it by the extreme rhetoric of political posturing and the paranoia that emerges out of responding to claims that our rights are under threat.

Two things about that, related to each other.

When President Obama says that talk of government tyranny is absurd, because here we are the government, he is correct at least in an ideal sense.  We The People are supposed to be in charge.  That we don’t seem to be is the direct result of the consistent and traditional lack of involvement in politics by average citizens.

Nevertheless, there is a confusion in this stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of the term The People.

I’ve grown up listening to the dinner table dissections of the Second Amendment and what the Founders meant.  Separating out one clause from another, that “militia” is something distinct from “the people” because of a problematically placed comma.  It took some time before I realized that they were all missing the point.

The Founders, if nothing else, were world class grammarians and rhetoricians.  They knew the meaning of words, the intent of phrases, and used them very precisely.  When they said The People they were not talking about Joe Whatsisname down the block, they were talking about a political aggregate.  The People is us as a polity.

You can tell because when they meant something to apply to individuals, they used Person.  Read the other amendments.  The People was not a catch-all term that stood in for Me and You as isolated individuals.  It meant the community from which government, in this place, derives its authority.

The British were not marching on Lexington and Concord to bust down private doors and confiscate fowling pieces, they were marching to seize the local armory—which was there for the local militia—which was made up of local people, many of whom did not own their own weapons (they were bloody expensive!)

We have separated these things in our communities since WWII, true, so we no longer have the reality of a local militia anymore.  We mistake the National Guard as one, but it’s not, really.  Militias were vital when we as a nation eschewed large standing armies and had to rely on the availability of a ready pool of volunteers who had, presumably, trained through local militia organizations.  We needed them especially when we have a frontier.

But the idea that we have a right to take up arms against the government is false.  This country never allowed for that.  Shays Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War…in each instance, the response has been to put the rebellion down and strengthen the adherence to the federal constitution and government, because what we are building here is not a haven for quasi-libertarian laissez-faire self empowerment at the expense of community.

Rights are not settled outside the idealized confines of academic discourse.  They are living things, constantly tested and argued, limited and expanded, revisited and revised.  My right to swing my arm ends when the end of my arm touches the end of your nose.  Sounds reasonable, but in reality we are always trying to determine both where the end of my arm actually is and how far out you can stick your nose.  The dance of negotiation and compromise is what has built this country, despite the misapprehension that it is absolute individualism that did it.  The community is the seed bed in which the flower of constructive individualism grows.  They need each other, but the relationship is symbiotic.

The rhetoric of armed resistance has one other major shortfall, and it’s fatal.  Power does not work here through the barrel of a gun, it works through the ballot box and the willingness of the population to accept the determination derived from the vote.  We do not collapse into sectarian violence here because we have a long tradition of viewing elections as the final word, at least until the next election.  When it’s done, we go home, we do not tear down city hall.  The day enough people decide they must take up arms to get their way, all that ends, and we will pay dearly to put it back together again.  Likely the thing being defended will be sacrificed in the initial exchange of fire, and for my part I sincerely doubt we have the collective wisdom in sufficient degree to revive the experiment.

Common sense should tell us that there are some people who simply should not have access to firearms.  We have to figure out how to address that reality.  All or nothing approaches which ignore this will end up at best irrelevant and at worst destructive of the nerves that allow us to be a country.

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Category: Aggression and Violence, American Culture, Civil Rights, Community, Culture, Current Events, First Amendment, History, ignorance, Law, law and order, Law Enforcement Abuses, Politics, Propaganda, Psychology Cognition, Violence

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    For me, the most compelling case for stricter gun laws is the fact that the people we *want* to carry firearms — police officers and military soldiers — must go through weeks of gun safety training and and hands-on practice (including extensive instruction about the legalities of gun use) before they are allowed to carry a weapon…and they must also adhere to explicit rules of engagement before they can actually use the weapon they carry. Yet any Joe or Jane Sixpack — even one motivated by fear, rage or mental illness — can walk into a gun show, plop down some cash, and get a weapon. If we require people to get a license to drive a car, to wire a house for electricity, to install plumbing, to cut hair, etc., then why not also one to operate a firearm?

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