On Second Thought...

Rethinking the Purpose of the Second Amendment

In the heat of the gun control debate following the Newtown shootings, I have asked a number of my well-meaning friends who favor prohibitions against what are termed "assault weapons" to do a little thought experiment.

Play along with me. It will only take a moment.

Imagine, as horrible as it may be to do so, that you are a person who is willing to take a weapon and step into a public place and begin to shoot your fellow humans. Choose whatever gun you will. Now, imagine the way the bullet leaves your gun and rips into the flesh of your fleeing victims. See the scattering mayhem around you. Hear the panicked cries of the crowd. Imagine the devastation you visit upon those hapless few who happen to be in your midst.

Now' tell me: Where do you get those images?

My point in asking this is to suggest that it seems reasonable to think that the plethora of violent images we see in Hollywood films and video games plays at least some role in the decision-making of those who commit mass murders. At a minimum, it calls into question the legitimacy of Hollywood actors who tell us to demand action now, while rushing to the bank to cash the checks they have received from their latest shoot'em up. (A question that was raised poignantly by a recent viral video parodying such a concern, seen here)

It seems reasonable to argue, that is, that if Hollywood were to act more responsibly (the word of the moment among those who call for Congress to act against guns), we could perhaps reduce our incidents of violent killings. Taking an argument that President Obama has used to justify his call for tighter restrictions on access to guns ' "if it saves just one life'" ' might we ponder the benefit of regulating the way gun violence is portrayed in the entertainment industry that so colors our thought processes?

No. Of course, not. Because the research suggests that there is very little link between the display of images in the media and the decision to kill other people. This is what we are told. (Despite other research that suggests the opposite.) And so we must accept it.

Oh. And also because of a thing called the First Amendment.


So what of the Second Amendment? Is it, too, (near) absolute?

First, let's stop acting as if order makes any difference. (After all, can anyone recall the Third Amendment?) I mean, seriously, no one really believes that the founders of our nation, fresh off the development of the document guiding our government's structure, would have resorted to anything like a list of priorities when they set out to write the Bill of Rights. Right?

But, wait! Not so fast. How valuable is a right to free speech when the soldiers show up at your door? If we learned anything from Tiananmen Square, it is that facing down tanks with a grocery bag in your hands makes for good photos, but it does little to increase your chances of survival.

And that, folks, is the reason for the Amendment. You know, to ensure that "we the people" never fall into the hands of tyranny, again. Including, unfortunately, the (potential) tyranny of those whom we elect, be they Democrat or Republican.

This is not my argument, by the way. It comes from Sanford Levinson, a self-described card-carrying member of the ACLU, in a 1989 essay in the Yale Law Journal (found here, among other places). In his much-cited article, Levinson discusses the historical and legal roots of the "embarrassing" Second Amendment ' embarrassing because it flies in the face of those who attempt to take rights seriously but still want to look past what gun ownership means to the American concept of freedom.

In the essay, the constitutional scholar from the University of Texas argues that gun ownership is not just a relic of by-gone days, when the frontier did not have an adequate police force, but a kind of ongoing protection against overreaching government. In that way, it works in the same way that the other amendments are designed to work, to limit government. He writes that "just as ordinary citizens should participate actively in governmental decision-making, through offering their own deliberative insights, rather than be confined to casting ballots once every two or four years for those very few individuals who will actually make the decisions, so should ordinary citizens participate in the process of law enforcement and defense of liberty rather than rely on professionalized peacekeepers, whether we call them standing armies or police."

Levinson points out that, in the only major gun control decision of the Twentieth Century by the Supreme Court, the Court ruled that a man didn't have a right to a sawed-off shotgun because such a weapon was not typically used in battle. Thereby suggesting, you know, that the reason for the amendment was to allow the people to arm themselves against those who would rule them. (A point raised at the time of Tiananmen Square: Would the government have acted as it did if it had found a million people standing in the square with guns?) This calls into question the argument often used by gun control advocates, that citizens do not have a right to an automatic weapon or a grenade launcher so they should not have access to "assault weapons." In fact, according to hints found in Levinson's argument and the Supreme Court case, perhaps the issue cuts the other way. Perhaps citizens have more rights to semi-automatic weapons (and grenade launchers) than they do to handguns.

Which raises another question. Why are gun control advocates only exorcised by the use of semi-automatic weapons to kill white children in Newtown, and not by the use of handguns to kill black children in Chicago? Are gun control advocates racists? I wouldn't dare to pursue that inquiry further, nor would I question whether those who fear their government have reason to do so. But I would point out that it is curious that the highest percentage of gun ownership tends to be in those states where hunting is a way of life' and in those that experienced (figuratively speaking) Sherman's march to the sea.

Perhaps in the way of full disclosure, I should point out here that I do not own a gun and I do not like them. Still, I am uncomfortable with the ease with which some people slide into willingness to control the citizenry's ability to defend itself. I am perhaps swayed in this by my basic mistrust of government, coming from rural West Texas where the political culture is (often) at odds with the current (or any) administration. I am also perhaps moved by arguments I have recently had with a friend of mine from high school, a fellow with whom I have recently written a series of novels about the end of the world (with a survivalist take). I entered that project largely as a writing exercise and was taken aback initially by his ready acceptance of gunplay (since my friend is, by profession, a preacher and, by appearance, Amish-like.) But as we got into constructing the make-believe world in which things fall apart, I came to believe with more certainty than I had expected that, when the end-times come, the wisdom of Mao's argument that truth lies in the barrel of a gun is likely to be a powerful argument. Therefore, whether I trust my government or not (I mostly do), and whether I agree with its policies or not (I sometimes do not), I have come to believe that it makes sense to think that the Second Amendment is closely tied to the First in ways that make treading upon either a very serious matter.

Which raises another issue. It's odd, the timing of this argument by the government that a citizen does not have a right to an assault weapon. This in the same week that the government emphasizes its right (under certain circumstances) to kill citizens without a trial and without review. I know. I know. I make too much of it. But still, at a minimum, it gives you pause.

Those drones you hear flying over your head? Oh, don't worry about them. Now' we're just here to collect your weapons.


You may find Wick, the book I co-authored with Michael Bunker, about a guy who walks out of Brooklyn in the wake of superstorm Sandy and stumbles into a revolution that changes everything, on Amazon, here.

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Updated Jun 20, 2018 4:17 PM UTC | More details


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