Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Debate We'll Never Have

I wrote about the language of murder in this space a few days ago. Since the mass murder that took place in Virginia Beach last week, we have deployed the usual thoughts and prayers, built the usual makeshift memorials, and wrung our collective hands in anguish. And, of course, done nothing that will substantively address the problem of mass murder by firearms in this country.

I exchanged comments on the Facebook page of Senator Mark Warner with people who deployed the usual arguments that arise after each mass murder. Here is a distillation of my comments, for what they're worth* ...

We will never cure the plague of mass murder by firearms in this county. "The right to keep and bear arms" was written into the Constitution and baked into the national DNA to address the original need of a small, largely rural nation with many enemies and a suspicion of strong central government to maintain a "well-regulated militia" for both external defense and for protection of the citizens against a future government** that might choose to deny the rights for which the Revolution was fought. Over the years, the courts have morphed the interpretation of this right from a right to keep guns for membership in a formal militia or as a safeguard against government tyranny*** to the unquestioned right to maintain what are essentially weapons of war for defense of house and home. In the overheated arguments on this topic, the right to unlimited ownership of deadly weapons (as guaranteed by the Constitution and interpreted by the courts) is equated to the right to worship (or not), speak freely, allow scrutiny of the government by a free press, and vote for our own representatives.

Those who strongly support the Second Amendment often accuse their opponents of being people who "don't believe in rights, liberties, or decentralized power" - a contention that is, in my opinion, foolish. All Americans believe (loudly and strongly) in their rights; the problem is that one of those rights poses an actual, immediate physical danger, but we have never found the wisdom to figure out how to balance my neighbor's right to own a personal arsenal with my right to be able to go to work, shop, enter a club, go to church, or send my children to school without worrying about the danger posed by that arsenal in the hands of someone incapable of handling it. The bottom line is that we as a people have a strong sense of rights divorced from a sense of responsibility for the exercise thereof.

Let us be honest with each other. People have been killing each other since Cain slew Abel, but Cain didn't have the ability to kill Abel and dozens of other people around him in a matter of seconds. Murder will always be with us ... but is it wrong to try to limit the ability of murderers to slay large numbers of people in short periods of time?

Apparently so.

Another argument made after each mass murder is that nothing could have prevented it. This is, again in my opinion, utterly ridiculous. It implies that mass murder is an act of God that is beyond anyone's ability to prevent ... like a tornado, hurricane, or tsunami. The implication is, nothing could have prevented this, therefore there is nothing we can or should do. Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, but we recognize needs for limits on its exercise - the classic example being that it's illegal to yell "fire!" in a crowded theater or incite a crowd to riot. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment, but many people believe their freedom of religion is abridged when they have to acknowledge the rights of people who observe religions other than their own. Freedom of assembly is also guaranteed by the First Amendment, but it's already limited in the original text ... because the guaranteed right is to assemble peaceably ... not to create howling mobs bent on destruction.

My point is that we shouldn't consider any right to be absolute. While we cherish individual liberty, we must recognize that we are individuals who are part of a larger community with diverse interests and worries. We can, if we are willing to do so in good faith, find compromises that will save lives.

Unfortunately, good faith and common sense have long since departed our national discourse.

Have a good day. Keep your head down.

More thoughts coming.


* Not much.

** Here's how one ardent Second Amendment supporter interpreted the right to bear arms in his response to my comment on Senator Warner's page: "... it’s not the guns that we love it’s what the guns prevent which is what we love, our guns prevent our government from becoming Venezuela, North Korea, Germany prior to WW2, former Soviet Russia, every single Muslim country. We love our guns because our guns ensure our government won’t cross a certain line against its people. That is the only reason our founding fathers created the second amendment. Without guns there is nothing to stop our government from becoming a communist, tyrannical, oppressor if it’s [sic] people." Note: the example of "Germany prior to WW2" is often cited by gun rights advocates, but the truth is - as you might suspect - a bit more nuanced. A good summary of the development of gun control laws in Germany, with extensive footnotes, can be found in this article in the Library of Congress Law Library. You can find copies of many of the original German laws online ... if you read German and can deal with the old Fraktur lettering style, they're very informative.

*** And who defines what constitutes "tyranny?" There are a lot of people out there wearing camouflage and running in the woods who think "tyranny" means having to pay grazing fees for the use of federal land, or paying taxes, or having to show any sort of ID, or ... the list is endless.

1 comment:

Mike said...

"...a strong sense of rights divorced from a sense of responsibility..."

That pretty much covers the problem with the right wing nut jobs.