The Fallacy of Second Amendment Absolutism

There has been another shooting…

The names and locales and exact number of victims begin to intermingle and fade into each other over time as a wearying sequence of outrage, grief and calls to do something give way to a series of volleys that see the left and right political flanks in our country dig deeper into their respective trenches of outrage tinged with near despair on the left and dismissive, gun rights absolutism on the right.

“When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness!’? Too many have died. We should say to ourselves, ‘Not one more!’”

That’s Richard Martinez, father of one of the six victims left dead at only the most recent carnage last weekend at UC Santa Barbara.

“As harsh as this sounds—your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

That’s “Joe the Plumber,” a supposed American “everyman” who catapulted into the media spotlight when he took on then-candidate Obama at a 2008 campaign stop, parlaying that encounter into a subsequent book, a (losing) run for Congress in 2012, and renewed attention from media two days ago in what he dubbed an “Open Letter to the Parents of the Victims Murdered By Elliott Rodger.”

“Your dead kids.”

I suppose Joe, aka Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, ardent defender of his interpretation of the Second Amendment, should get some credit for at least anticipating how “harsh” his words would sound, but then it begs the question: Why not soften your tone so as not to add any more pain to these emotionally devastated parents?

If you, as you say in your own words, “cannot begin to imagine the pain” these parents are going through, then might you, as at least one token gesture of trying to imagine it, show some deference and kindness by deliberately not sounding “harsh?”

 

Biblical? You mean that ‘Prince of Peace’ fellow who washed sinners’ feet, entered Jerusalem on a donkey while promising to transform the world, and willingly submitted to a horrific death without raising even a finger in resistance?

But this bellicose, grenades-from-the-trenches tone has increasingly become what passes for dialogue in today’s cultural, political and religious landscape. And as much as one is tempted to tune out extremists on all sides and grope toward some kind of common core, some table where reason, sanity and actual listening might prevail, this Second Amendment issue has clearly gone off the rails on the far right.

Today, among what can only be described as gun militants, there is insistence that even the tiniest bit of retrenchment from the National Rifle Association’s not-one-bit-of-compromise stance is out of the question, off the table, an outrageous infringement of a cherished constitutional principle that is unto a religion on much of the right.

Notable here is that the website where Wurzelbacher’s letter appeared bills itself as Politics & Culture / News & Opinion From a Decidedly Biblical Worldview.”

“Biblical?”

You mean that “Prince of Peace” fellow who washed sinners’ feet, entered Jerusalem on a donkey while promising to transform the world, and willingly submitted to a horrific death without raising even a finger in resistance?

That savior of the world, ready to die for…your unrestricted right to bear assault rifles in the 21st century?

 

 

Memo to all gun-defending, no-compromise NRA supporters, quite apart from who you vote for or where you worship: Nobody, including me, Richard Martinez, President Obama, the Newtown parents or Barney Fife, wants to confiscate your guns and hereby declare martial law and a permanent socialist police state.

Nobody.

Nobody wants to prevent your hunting and target practice and ability to protect yourself against violent criminals. So can we kindly talk about what we might reasonably hope to achieve together in addressing the resounding grief caused by gun violence in this country, which leads the developed world at nearly three times more deaths per 100,000 people than its nearest competitor?

We are awash in guns and gun deaths, and the more—and more lethal—guns we acquire, the higher the death toll goes. The statistics are there, in black and white. And the answer to this is: even more guns, in even more hands, at ever more lethal caliber?

Can we maybe talk about at least limiting, even if it turns out to be only a symbolic gesture, the nearly unfettered ability to legally purchase weapons of unlimited caliber and capacity for carnage? Maybe add reasonable waiting periods and background checks onto that, along with some renewed teeth in mental health services and regulations that can more readily identify and assist powder kegs such as Elliott Rodger?

According to never-compromise NRA arguments, the Second Amendment is sacrosanct and absolute, without room for nuance, interpretation or application to changing historical circumstance.

The right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.

That’s so you can fight back when the federal agents come barreling onto your property to confiscate the guns you keep to “protect your family.”

 

Two slightly different versions of the following were in my e-mailbox this morning—perhaps in yours, too, from a sender called “Patriot Survival Plan”:

Just found out something crucial and rushed to let you know.
Martial law has gotten dangerously close.
Right now, we’re literally one step from having feds knock down our doors.
Almost all the steps leading to martial law are now completed… all it takes is one more spark to ignite the disaster.
And the match has just been lit.

I didn’t click on the link to find out what that “match” is—maybe Richard Martinez’s cry for some mercy and sanity in the far right wing’s obsession with gun rights?

Taking Second Amendment “absolutists” at their literal word (even though no other amendment, e.g. free speech, is ever absolute, in any sense), there should be no stopping at assault rifles for those who want to ensure maximum protection. In order to defend themselves when government troops come knocking, shouldn’t absolutists, in the interest of creating a level playing field to fend them off, also have access to the same nuclear weapons as the government does? Otherwise, mere assault rifles will look rather limp, won’t they?

The idea, after all (“from a decidedly Biblical worldview?”), is to respond decisively, in a hurry, with maximum deadly force.

And that right shall not be infringed.

 

Dear conservatives with a conscience, who are rational beings: I understand conservative principles. Seeking to “conserve” the best of our traditions; measured, carefully calibrated openness to change; general wariness toward utopian social engineering; an emphasis on self-responsibility and hard work.

All well and good, all necessary elements for a stable society. Count me in.

But nothing in that, and nothing in the religion of Jesus or anyone else, calls for an unfettered Second Amendment. We are far past time for a serious, rational discussion on basic regulations—you know, the kind we insist on for driver’s licenses and loans and marriages—that can begin to take at least one step, however tiny, however inconsequential it may ultimately be, in preventing more of the senseless slaughter that continues to pile up bodies in this country day after day.

All of us, including Joe the Plumber, owe that to Richard Martinez and the parents of Newtown, Columbine, Virginia Tech, et al.

And to all their “dead kids.”
***

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A beautiful rendition of this old spiritual by the BYU Singers.

My thanks to the photographers:

Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Columbine flower photo near top of page by Don Sutherland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/67832671@N00/

“Non-Violence” (a.k.a. “The Knotted Gun”) photo by Alan English, Scottsdale, Arizona, of a sculpture by Fredrik Reuterswärd, a gift from the government of Luxembourg to the United Nations.  Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alanenglish/

Dandelion photo by Psycho Delia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/24557420@N05/

13 comments to The Fallacy of Second Amendment Absolutism

  • Fred G  says:

    Andrew:

    Thank you for articulating this important message. My daughter Mia went to UCSB and lived in Isla Vista 2 years ago. I saw a friend today whose son lives on Del Playa. Neither he or his friends were hurt, but he heard the shots and the screaming, and will never forget the horror. I will forward your article to all that I can.

  • wmckeown  says:

    All I can say is that I fully agree. How to get this acceptance of barbarity out of our people, I don’t know. I suspect it will be a long process on the generational level. One step that would help would be to fully illuminate the Congressmen blocking legislation and who also receive NRA funding. I suppose that’s been done, though….

  • candied  says:

    Well said, Andrew. This issue makes me so crazy, I have no hope in articulating my message with anything close to grace or clarity as this level-headed essay. I did hear there was some movement on background checks over the weekend. Let’s all hope it moves quickly to the presidents desk. Just take a breath…baby steps.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Walt, the NRA’s power-via-campaign-contribution remains a huge deterrent to anyone in a swing district who dares to oppose them; they have a great track record in defeating those they get after, and congressmembers notice those things. And when the Supreme Court rules that money is a form of speech, all bets are off for truly representative democracy.

    Candi, you’re right: baby steps. That’s how most change actually happens, except in revolutions, and those can just as easily end up taking huge steps BACKWARDS…

  • kfeldman2013  says:

    Nicely put Drew – it is amazing that polls show 80-90% of Americans want some form of background checks, waiting period etc yet the power of the NRA & our woefully corrupted politics leaves us stuck in the body counts with no sane policies – heard a report on NPR yesterday about gun rights groups in Texas (figures) going into Starbucks, Chipotle & other chains opening carrying their assault rifles etc in protest – which the NRA initially rebuked (too far out for even the NRA!), but then relented and supported this insanity… It feels like this can’t really be a rational discussion – we are dealing with symbolic meanings that are confounded with identity/fear/ & all kinds of other beneath the surface stuff… Candi is clearly correct – boy to we need those baby steps… how to access that 80+%??

  • Bob Smith (@BobSmit93518708)  says:

    The second amendment isn’t about the right to hunt or target practice or even the ability to defend self and loved ones against violent criminals. Its about defending against a tyrannical government – and not just now, but all future generations (that’s 100, 500, or 5,000 years from now). You claim that nobody wants to take away our ability to defend against violent criminals. Please explain Diane Fienstein’s ban on handguns. It was handguns that were the problem back then. And it wasn’t just semi-automatic handguns, it was all handguns. To defend against home invasions, you need a handgun. Unless you think its practical or safe to walk around your house with a rifle or shotgun. Now rifles are the problem today. And not just AR-15s. Current proposed bills include all semi-automatic rifles – that includes hunting rifles such as the BAR. So what do think is going to happen when semi-automatic rifles are banned? The sickos will shoot up schools with semi-automatic handguns. And once those are banned, the sickos will use whatever is left (shotguns, revolvers, and lever action rifles) One could carry 2 8-round revolvers, a shotgun, and a lever action rifle and get off 36 rounds without having to reload. That’s a lot of dead children. Or we could just allow those teachers and school administrators who want to protect their students to conceal carry – just as 5 million law biding citizens do every day. There are schools today that already allow this and when the students are asked about it they say they feel protected.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Glad you wrote, Bob, if only to clear up this claim that Diane Feinstein ever wanted to ban handguns. It is demonstrably false; handguns have never been the point, as she has clearly stated, here, among other places. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2017/oct/08/chris-cox/nras-chris-cox-falsely-says-dianne-feinstein-wante/
      I’m curious why you would want to press this false claim a good 20+ years after the comments in question, even though the evidence against it is as close as your Google button.

      That aside: while I appreciate, given human history, the always looming specter of government oppression and the ability/willingness of the people to slip out from under its yoke, the argument that the people should therefore have unfettered access to weapons of mass murder simply doesn’t hold up. The government has machine guns and tanks, flamethrowers and barrel bombs and hand grenades, and “tactical nukes” if things really get out of hand. What will your puny assault rifles do in the face of all that? The only answer then, is to let private citizens arm themselves tank for tank, bomb for bomb, in response, but even you will admit that is absurd, no?

      So we are left with this: OVERWHELMING data, any way you slice and dice it, that U.S. private citizens are already armed to the teeth, with the most lax gun laws in the civilized world, and that our rates of carnage by gun, however “safe” you claim they make us, instead give us Columbine, Newtown, Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston, Las Vegas, Marjory Stoneman Douglas…I could go on and on and on, as you well know. All while the rest of the world, and a majority of this country, too, including active NRA members—recoils in horror and supports rational, sensible gun laws.

  • Bob Smith (@BobSmit93518708)  says:

    In 2005, San Franciso voters approved a gun ban that prohibited the manufacture and sale of all firearms and ammunition in the city, and made it illegal for residents to keep handguns in their homes or businesses. Please link to an article where Diane Fienstein oppossed said bill.

    The 2nd Amendment functions mostly as a deterrent. Do you honestly think the government is going to nuke it’s own people? If nukes and tanks are all that’s needed, why are we still in IRAQ?

    Does the overwhelming data you refer to include all the poeple that died and suffered at the hands of their tyrannical goverments? When Hitler rounded up the Jewish, where was the armed resistance? There was none because folks like you decided it was better for only their goverment to have guns. What would have happened if Germany had a 2nd Amendment? We’ll never know. But it wasn’t just German citizens that suffered from their tyrannical goverment, it was all of the people that died and suffered in WWII because German citizens let their goverment get out of control. North Korean’s also willingly gave up their rights. Does the data include all the North Koreans working in labor camps right now?

    Citizens from all countries have a responsibility to themselves AND to the rest of world to keep their governments in check. Considering how powerful America is, I would agrue that American citizens have an even greater responsibility to protect not just their 2nd Amendment rights, but all of their constitutional rights.

  • Bob Smith (@BobSmit93518708)  says:

    So this LA Times article that states that in 1982 “Feinstein signed a local gun-control ordinance that banned most residents from owning pistols” is demostrably false as well? http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-feinstein-gun-control-20180328-story.html

    You claim to be for “common sense” gun control. Does that include the microstamping requirement in California that has effectively banned all new semi-automatic handguns even guns with newer safety features? Please define the line in the sand that you believe to be “common sense” gun control? What are going to do when that line is crossed? Are you going gun rights groups? Please elaborate.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Bob, Feinstein’s 1982 vote on that matter was a few years after she had put her hands into the gaping wounds of Harvey Milk’s neck, trying to feel for a pulse after Dan White had shot him from point blank range, and after White had already finished off Mayor George Moscone down the hall with shots into each earlobe. So maybe we can cut her just a wee bit of slack for that vote, and believe her assertions a decade later and lasting to this day that she no longer supports handgun bans, especially given that they have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

      You float a theory here that all the deaths suffered in WWII might have been avoided if German Jews had weapons and could use them against the Nazis. Ditto for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the war that followed. That’s quite a theory, and I am tempted to just leave my comment at that, but let me add this:

      Two can play the speculation game, and if we play out your scenario of our own government coming to put us all in camps ala the Nazis and North Korea, but our citizenry is properly armed and can engage with government troops, how many deaths might there be from the civil war that would ensue? The history of civil wars in this world and their staggering death tolls, not to mention ruined economies, is not encouraging.

      Questions: How long are you prepared to resist government tanks and bombs with your rifles and handguns? Do you suspect such a scenario might unfold in yours or your heirs’ lifetimes, necessitating you keeping a cache of weapons so you can engage in a fight to the death against government troops? Please forgive my saying that does not sound rational to me.

      You are completely misrepresenting my position in asserting that “folks like you decided it was better for only their government to have guns.” I’m pro Second Amendment. I believe in your right to keep guns, provided you’re not mentally ill, have no violent criminal past, etc. I’m not going to elaborate the basic safeguards that could be put in place in this country to reduce gun deaths. You well know what they are. The point is that the way we regulate guns is clearly not working, is clearly insane. We’re not North Korea or Iraq, Bob. If you want comparison to other countries, look north to Canada, east to Europe, just about anywhere in the modern industrialized world, where our gun deaths and the obsession with virtually unfettered access as espoused by the NRA leadership (not their rank-and-file, as already noted) looks astounding, horrifying and incomprehensible, which it very much is.

      The bodies of all those “dead kids” and so many others slain by military grade weapons that have no use other than to inflict mass carnage isn’t about theories, speculations or fears of a sudden U.S. dictatorship that private citizens must resist by arming themselves to the teeth. Those bodies are real as can be, and we are shirking our responsibility to them, their survivors, and all the others lined up yet to come by not doing far more than we are to regulate—not eliminate—firearms. The idea that the way to reduce our horrific death toll by guns is to have even more guns—teachers, store security guards, movie ushers!—is, simply put, crazy, in too many ways to count. If that were an answer, we would not have suffered the now countless casualties that we have.

      Convinced yet? Didn’t think so… Glad you said your piece, and I mine. Democracy is a fine thing indeed, and I’m happy we are both taking it seriously.

  • Bob Smith (@BobSmit93518708)  says:

    Diane Fienstein no longer supports handgun bans BECAUSE they were ruled unconstitutional by the courts. If you think she wouldn’t ban ALL guns if she could, you are fooling yourself. Maybe I’m wrong. Who knows. One thing I know for sure is that she does not respect my constitutional rights.
    I would hope that non-Jewish German citizens would have also joined the fight. I’m not Jewish and I certainly would have.
    The answer to your question is simple. I am prepared to fight and die for my freedoms. The only reason why you have your freedoms today is because there were others like me who fought for their freedoms and they were passed on to you. You can take a defeatist approach to tryanny if you like. I’m not giving up my freedoms without a fight.
    We disgree on guns. That’s fine. But here is what you don’t seem to understand. The founders of this country did not trust the majority. We don’t live in a pure democracy. We live in a Democratic Republic. That means that we have certain rights that a simple majority cannot take away from the minority. If 51% of Americans believe that you must be at least 21 years of age to buy a rifle, they can’t do that. If 51% of the Americans believe that the 1st Amendment should only apply to those who are 21 years or older, they can’t do that either. An overwhelming majority is required to remove or alter a constitutional right. The “right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” is a constitutional right. You don’t get to define arms to support what gun control measures you, or even a simple majority support. A simple majority does get to decide what infringements are acceptable for the minority. The only job the Courts have here is to define what arms mean in today’s world and whether or not that right is being infringed upon. Period. Like it or not, semi-automatic rifles and handguns are modern day arms. If you don’t like the way the 2nd Amendment was written, then you need to work to change it. Period. Not try to pass a bunch of laws that you know damn well are are unconstitutional. I probably agree with you on some of them. But what I don’t agree with on is the process. If you and I and 60% of Americans think rifles should only be sold to adults 21 years are older, that doesn’t give us a right to deny someone else their constitutional right. The 2nd Amendment needs to be re-written first and there’s a process to do that and it needs followed.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      But Bob, we restrict, define, elaborate, refine and interpret freedoms written into the Constitution all the time, have since the thing was written. We fought a war with each other over the matter of exactly who was supposed to enjoy those freedoms. None of them have ever been static or absolutist or beyond changing mores and interpretations our founders could not possibly have foreseen. That’s why they left it as elastic as they did.

      I’m back to my question: If we take an absolutist, literal view of “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” then why can’t we buy tanks? You say that >”Like it or not, semi-automatic rifles and handguns are modern day arms. If you and I and 60% of Americans think rifles should only be sold to adults 21 years are older, that doesn’t give us a right to deny someone else their constitutional right.<"

      So does that mean that "someone else" should include 8-year-olds? 6? Is there an age threshold at all, or any kind of other threshold that is not explicitly mentioned in the Second Amendment? Is everything not explicitly prohibited allowed?

  • Bob Smith (@BobSmit93518708)  says:

    Infringment or reinterpretation is a matter of opinion. I never claimed to be a 2nd Amendment Absolutist. My opinion of what Arms means today is simply different than yours. Even left leaning news organizations admit that the data on gun control is complicated and inconclusive. London’s homicide rate just surpassed New York’s. They’re killing each other with knives now instead of guns. You seem like a well-intentioned person, but your idea of more regulation while keeping the 2nd Amendment isn’t going to prevent school shootings. Even if you succeed in banning all semi-automatics (which I assume you support) it’s not going to work. Even if Americans are restricted to owning one revolver and one lever action rifle. That’s still 18 rounds before having to reload and it doesn’t take that long to reload. Both guns have speed loaders. You have to completely repeal the 2nd for that to work (in theory). And in reality, there will be a massive black market for illegal guns. Thats why gang bangers have fully automatics. Australia has more guns now then before the buyback – mostly illegal guns. And they are surrounded by ocean.
    If folks out there want to repeal the 2nd Amendment, that’s fine. There’s a process for doing that. But you have to admit that it’s a long long ways off.
    If you accept that reality, than our best solution right now is to increase the security of our schools and allow those who want to defend our students to do so. Millions of law biding Americans conceal carry every day. Allowing teachers and school administrators to conceal carry at school isn’t going to change the number of guns in this country. It will be a minor blip on the number of concealed carry permits. It will save lives right now. And if you still oppose that, there are special guns that fire only less-lethal rounds. Pepper spray might even slow someone down. Flash bangs are another possibility. A tranquilizer gun might even do the job. The only absolutists out there are the folks who believe that there must be absolutely no means of self defense in our schools. The NRA isn’t full of evil people. Most of them would risk their lives to defend others. Most of them feel it is their personal responsibility to protect themselves, their loved ones, and the freedoms that were handed down to us. For those who want to avoid civil unrest in this country, I suggest urging the Supreme Court to review more gun control cases and to stop demonizing the NRA. That’s all I have to say. Best of luck.

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