The guns of January

>> Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ten days ago, a guy walks up to his Congresswoman's local meet-and-greet and he shoots her in the head, and he shoots nineteen more people, and six of them die. And then today, three people get shot up in a high school in L.A. Only in America. No, seriously, only in America, because the only other places I can think of with as many people getting shot in the streets are places where they don't have high schools and/or local politicians are thuggish warlords whose idea of a public appearance is roaring down a street in their armed personnel characters.

But don't fret, this isn't a call for gun control. Or gun restrictions. Or making it harder for mentally ill people to get guns. Or making it harder for little kids to get guns. Or restricting the availability of magazines for firearms (not "clips", I was recently corrected) that hold more bullets than anyone could ever use for self-defense unless they were in the midst of some Georgesque (Miller or Romero, take your pick) future. This isn't a call for anything approaching sanity, because Tuscon brought me to a stunning realization about gun control issues:


I don't care anymore.


That's not quite right. But it's close. Let me put it another way that might be more accurate:



My side lost. I'm over it.


I've never favored an outright ban on firearms. I have too many family members and friends who hunt, and some of them have needed to hunt to survive, really. And there's nothing quite as educational as seeing how a historic firearm was used; seeing how a gun was loaded and operated during, say, the American Civil War, provides some real insight into why battles went the way they did and what they must have been like for the participants.

But my honest opinion is that owning a gun for self defense is pretty fucking stupid. There, I said it. I'm sorry, but that is how I feel about it, and maybe you didn't want to know my opinion or you still don't care, but that's how it is.

And then there are "sporting" uses for firearms, which is fine, I don't have a problem with someone going down to the range and squeezing off a few hundred rounds or whatever, but it still remains a little puzzling as to why someone who wants to do that needs "cop killer" bullets or extra-capacity magazines or an assault rifle or whatever. That is, the National Rifle Association takes the position that there's no such thing as a reasonable restriction on what kind of firearms somebody might own, frequently followed by contentions that if someone wants to go skeet shooting with their M61 Vulcan firing depleted uranium armor-piercing rounds, by God, that's what being an American is all about. Which, I'm sorry, I think is pretty stupid. But what do I know, I'm one of those latte-sipping, bleeding heart city-slickers.

Which means--the "city slicker" part, I mean, not the whole effete pinko commie gun-banning commie part of it--that most of the people in my neighborhood walking the streets with guns probably aren't carrying for sport or game, but so they can put it in someone's face and demand their wallet. But, you know, again, we city people aren't actually Americans or whatever, so forget it.

Look, a gun is a tool that was designed to kill living creatures. Some of those tools were designed very specifically to kill human beings, and some of them were designed to kill other animals, but a gun is a killing device. Unlike a car or a pencil. And a gun is a very well-made and efficient killing device, one that requires minimal skill to be effective (it can kill very easily by accident, and many do so each year), which actually sets guns apart from other killing machines like the longbow or the broadsword, which require quite a lot of physical effort and perhaps even some level of skill or training; yes, yes, I know that guns have recoil and if you want to use one well, you should practice, but the gun is the original point-and-click killing device. If you want to kill someone with a bow, you have to pull the string, and hold it, and take aim, and adjust for environmental conditions, and--have you ever done this? It's hard. Killing someone with a gun is so easy an eight-year-old can do it.

I point this out because sane societies regulate other lethal items, even items whose primary purpose isn't lethal at all. Your car, if you have one, may be the most-regulated personal possession you have: it was required to meet federal environmental and safety regulations before it even left the factory floor, is inspected every year to see that it still meets various state requirements, and your privilege to operate it is dependent not only on your age but on your physical fitness to do so--most, if not all, states will restrict your driving based on your vision or susceptibility to seizures. And the state can detain you, impose civil and/or criminal penalties on you, even incarcerate you if you drive around with a taillight out or ragingly drunk or commit some other violation, major or otherwise. Guns, not so much, because you don't have a Constitutional right to drive.

Nor a Constitutional right to own radioactive materials, rat poison, fireworks, or over-the-counter cough medication. Or any number of things, some of which are reasonably banned or unreasonably restricted. (Making it harder to buy cough syrup will eradicate meth labs? Really? Let me know how that works out for you.)

But last year, the United States Supreme Court curiously interpreted the Second Amendment to protect an individual right to gun ownership, not a state's right to maintain a militia. Being someone who isn't a strict constructionist and who believes in a flexible, living Constitution, I can accept that a Supreme Court Justice can read such a right to gun ownership into the Constitution even though the Second Amendment pretty clearly talks about well-ordered state militias and was written in an era when the subject of whether or not the United States should have a professional standing army was a matter of fierce debate. (Related: several of our Founding Fathers--including Jefferson and Madison--would have looked at our professional, volunteer Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and seen their mere existence as being de facto evidence that the United States had devolved into tyranny.) No, I'm one of those "penumbra of rights" liberals, which is why I'm a little boggled that Antonin "Strict Constructionist" Scalia is the one who wrote the five-four opinion stating that the text of the Second Amendment means lots of stuff the Second Amendment doesn't say.

But here's where I'm different from most conservative pundits: I respect our laws and traditions. The United States Supreme Court says gun control is unconstitutional, well... well, I think that's pretty fucking stupid, actually. But that's the law. Until the Court revisits the subject and reverses itself, which I don't really expect them to during my lifetime, that's the law of the land and I bow down to its authority. Dumb or not, that's all she wrote.

The other gun thing that happened this year, you may have seen, was that a jury acquitted the guy who made it possible for that eight-year-old I mentioned earlier to shoot himself. I don't suppose it would be wise for me to speculate as to their reasoning; maybe the Commonwealth just didn't make their case beyond a reasonable doubt. But in my heart it's hard not to look at that case in much the same way I look at last year's Supreme Court decision: well, there it is, then. That's the kind of country we live in. Oh well. I guess we're unstoppable.

Gun control is a dead issue. Like I said, my side lost. I hope I don't sound bitter over it; I mean, okay, I guess I probably can't help being a little bitter. If I say that now I just hope they make gun ownership even easier so we can all just shoot each other and get it over with, already, well--I hope it doesn't sound mean-spirited.

And this certainly isn't meant to disparage my friends and family who own guns lawfully, and use them safely, and even have good reasons to own and use them. There are things that need to be killed, or at least ought to be, and I can accept that.

But if the consequence of deregulating guns for the sake of Constitutional freedom is that kids and judges die, some by their own hands and some by the hands of maniacs, well, y'know, I guess I just need to take it in stride, right? No sense in getting angry about it, because (a) if it's a bad thing, it's not going to change (and give me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to tell the shit apart, right?), and (b) it's not really a bad thing. I mean, what's more important, that Jared Loughner murdered a nine-year-old girl or that nothing prevented a crazy guy from getting an extra-capacity magazine at Wal-Mart or wherever the hell he bought it from? In the big picture, there will be more nine-year-old girls, but once a God-given right is infringed upon, it's hard to wrest back from the tyrants we choose to lead us.

So, it's cool. I'm not expecting nor asking for anybody to do anything reasonable about firearms. Twenty... hell, ten, maybe even five years ago, I'm sure I would have pulled my hair and gnashed my teeth over it. But The People have spoken, directly and indirectly, too, through their democratic institutions. Given a choice between making it harder for an eight-year-old to blow the top of his head off and making sure that every yokel in the country has the pleasure of firing a submachinegun at least once in his life, the American majority has expressed a preference time and time again. More guns and more bullets equals more freedom, and anything less than unrestricted access to deadly force is the lace touch of tyranny trying to get into our pants to grab us by the short hairs.

Well, okay. No sense in me preaching or getting mad about it. Like the man said, give the people what they want.

Casualties.




16 comments:

Random Michelle K Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 5:49:00 PM EST  

Two points:

1) All the conservative nutbags wanting a "2nd Amendment solution."

2) Zombies.

That's why we need guns. And flame throwers.

OK. Sorry.

But I'm actually kinda serious about number 1. During the last administration, I had fears that my constitutional rights were going to continue to be eroded until they started rounding up us liberals and shipping us off to Cuba.

On the other hand, if it comes to that, I don't want a handgun. Hell, I don't want a handgun for the zombie apocalypse either.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 5:51:00 PM EST  

On the third hand, my libertarian tendencies don't think the actions of law-abiding individuals should be constrained, even if those actions are stupid. So if I want to own a handgun or take LSD, it should be my right to do so.

But I wouldn't particularly suggest combining those two.

Seth Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 6:03:00 PM EST  

I hear you.

I suppose some idealistic part of me still hopes that the Supreme Court's decision will actually open the door, over time, to some healthy discussions about sensible regulation, in the same way that understanding freedom of speech or freedom of religion as an absolute right gives us the space to talk about reasonable exceptions like libel.

Also, there are hundreds of millions of guns, and there's simply no way to vacuum them all back up and get rid of them. Which means that, to paraphrase the NRA, if guns are criminalized, only right-wing reactionary Bircher gun nuts will have guns. Which would kind of scare the shit out of me....

So... I don't know. We're stuck with it. I like to go to the range and pop off a few myself, so I don't think I'd necessarily want guns to disappear. But I have no problem with licensing and regulation.

I also think it might be a good idea for us to rewrite the Second Amendment so that it makes sense now that there are no "well-regulated militias," and maybe have a serious conversation about the way that a massive standing army and federal security complex make us less free -- which is what the the Second Amendment is really about. But that is a conversation we will never have as long as morons like Rick Perry and Sharron Angle keep treating the people's right to resist tyranny as a trivial thing, to be freely exercised whenever someone passes a bill you don't like or raises your taxes.

MWT Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 8:19:00 PM EST  

Going way off on a tangent here, but I just wanted to point out that not every state requires annual car inspections like North Carolina does. Some states don't bother with it at all (and you can tell by the number of crappy cars on the road), and others only inspect in certain areas (Georgia did inspections in Atlanta but not Savannah).

Not that that has anything to do with guns but oh well? ;) Nice rant.

Megan Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 10:13:00 PM EST  

Well, the right to bear arms doesn't mean that the use of guns can't be regulated, does it?

David Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 10:24:00 PM EST  

On the one hand, I agree with this wholeheartedly. My side lost. I should get over it.

On the other hand, I don't see that spirit coming from the other side on issues where my side won.

It does give me pause.

Eric Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 7:57:00 AM EST  

Megan: in a sane society, one might balance the need of some citizens to bear arms with a regulatory scheme. In the U.S., we're hampered by a certain degree of craziness combined with a Constitutional provision that was obsolete less than a century into the Republic (not the only one, to be sure). Many of the Founders associated standing armies with despots, and unrealistically thought the Republic would be defended by state militias mustered in times of need. But military technology was already evolving past the ability of small landowners to maintain the equipment and operational training for contemporary war by, oh, the 1840s or so, if not at the turn of the 19th Century and the Napoleonic era. Volunteer state regiments were mustered for the American Civil War in the 1860s and quickly proved inadequate.

MWT: I didn't know that, thanks! O'course, I also omitted that most states require you to pass tests before you can legally operate a vehicle and (maybe most important in the context of the post) many require drivers to maintain insurance in case they do, you know, hurt or kill somebody or damage their stuff.

Warner (aka ntsc) Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 8:22:00 AM EST  

The revolutionary war was not won by militias, which were usually quickly beaten, but by a professional trained army. The blue coats. Trained by a Frenchman and a Pole, a fact usually omits from Patriotic screed.

SCOTUS did say you have a right to own a hand gun, they did not say you have an absolute right to own one. DC had banned private ownership for all practical purposes and this was ruled unconstitutional. in NYC it is difficult, you have to show reason, but not impossible. No one has suggested that ruling changes the law in NYC.

I don't happen to own any fire-arms and have not since my 20s. If a bear shows up on the property, one was seen in 95, I'll get a 12 gauge. A fire arm is a tool, one I don't need, if I need it I want to be able to get one.

I've no problem at all with the state requiring a license to own a fire-arm and appropriate training, I'm less comfortable with the state knowing what I own, it makes confiscation easier.

On the shooter in Arizona, I am aware of no reason he should not have been able to buy that hand gun legally. Yes, he looks like a wack-job, but I'm a layman there. No competent authority has ruled he was a wack-job. On the drug use, I would like to see a conviction or at least something more substantive than the Army turned him down because he said he used drugs.

For the record, I do not approve of general concealed carry or that private property owners can not ban fire-arms from their property. And I include as private property some state owned property such as schools.

And nobody has argued that the state (feds in this case) can ban or limit ownership of certain classes of fire arms, such as full automatic.

The only difference between a semi-automatic sporting rifle and a military assault weapon is that the latter takes a bayonet. The round used by the M-16 and the M-16 itself were developed from an existing varmit round.

Warner (aka ntsc) Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 8:23:00 AM EST  

The revolutionary war was not won by militias, which were usually quickly beaten, but by a professional trained army. The blue coats. Trained by a Frenchman and a Pole, a fact usually omits from Patriotic screed.

SCOTUS did say you have a right to own a hand gun, they did not say you have an absolute right to own one. DC had banned private ownership for all practical purposes and this was ruled unconstitutional. in NYC it is difficult, you have to show reason, but not impossible. No one has suggested that ruling changes the law in NYC.

I don't happen to own any fire-arms and have not since my 20s. If a bear shows up on the property, one was seen in 95, I'll get a 12 gauge. A fire arm is a tool, one I don't need, if I need it I want to be able to get one.

I've no problem at all with the state requiring a license to own a fire-arm and appropriate training, I'm less comfortable with the state knowing what I own, it makes confiscation easier.

Warner (aka ntsc) Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 8:23:00 AM EST  

On the shooter in Arizona, I am aware of no reason he should not have been able to buy that hand gun legally. Yes, he looks like a wack-job, but I'm a layman there. No competent authority has ruled he was a wack-job. On the drug use, I would like to see a conviction or at least something more substantive than the Army turned him down because he said he used drugs.

For the record, I do not approve of general concealed carry or that private property owners can not ban fire-arms from their property. And I include as private property some state owned property such as schools.

And nobody has argued that the state (feds in this case) can ban or limit ownership of certain classes of fire arms, such as full automatic.

The only difference between a semi-automatic sporting rifle and a military assault weapon is that the latter takes a bayonet. The round used by the M-16 and the M-16 itself were developed from an existing varmit round.

Megan Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 8:46:00 AM EST  

The Second Amendment has always struck me as odd. Very, very few gun owners consider themselves to be part of a militia. I'll grant that the militias that exist are likely "well regulated" in their own ways, even though they're not regulated by the government. (I'm trying to be really generous.)

Nowadays, no militia could ever defeat the resources of the US government or even a state government. Or, heck, even large city governments.

A militia is only going to cause harm to individual citizens, most likely civilians.

Eric Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 10:09:00 AM EST  

Good points all around, Warner. I will say that while the Court in Heller tried to have it both ways to some extent--saying that they weren't disposing of all regulations of firearms and that the Second Amendment, like the First, didn't represent an unlimited or unconditional right--it's hard to reconcile that claim with the reasoning Scalia used to interpret the Second Amendment as a broad individual right unconnected to military service or an 18th Century notion of states' rights in a federation. It's certainly hard, for instance, to see how the reasoning used to overrule D.C.'s handgun band couldn't also be applied to fully-automatic weapons, notwithstanding the Court's claim that their opinion shouldn't be read to do that.

The point you make about the Revolution being won by a professional army is especially worth being highlighted. In my previous comment, I noted that the Founders' attitude towards a standing military was obsolete probably by the 1830s or '40s, possibly by the Napoleonic era, definitely by the Civil War; but after posting it, it occurred to me that the Founders' attitude towards a standing military was possibly obsolete by 1776, well before 1789.

The fact that the Americans had limited successes and were losing the war prior to establishing a standing Army is one illustration; another is the Founders' conflicted and, when you really get down to it, sort of infantile attitude towards a Navy. Warships of the 18th Century were the acme of military technology of the era, extraordinarily complicated machines that were expensive to build and expensive to maintain, requiring specialized professionals to operate to their fullest potential and access to strong support infrastructures. And how did the Founding farmers mostly treat the establishment of a fleet? They debated whether it was even necessary and were inconsistent in what support they offered. I think it says much about the Founders' ignorance that the Constitution proposes America's naval presence be addressed by authorizing Congress to raise a fleet during wartime and hire mercenaries (i.e., pirates).

All of which seems off-topic, maybe, but it isn't: the point is that if you want to take an originalist approach to the Second Amendment, it's the Constitutional equivalent of a vestigial organ. The Framers didn't thought professional armies and navies were the tools of tyrants, so they set up the Constitution with the assumption that individual states would maintain provisional volunteer armies, to be supplemented by a Federal army on occasion; this despite the fact that even in 1789, individual states were in no financial position to maintain a contemporary, competent national (or, for that matter, state) defense: soldiery and seamanship weren't weekend skills, even then, and no state had the treasury to commission and maintain the fleets that were the acme of national power (indeed, as we all know, the tiny British isles built an empire on the keels of ships).

(A lot of this goes to your comments, as well, Megan!)

Seth Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 12:00:00 PM EST  

Eric -- I've been watching Ken Burns' The Civil War again, and your (and Warner's) comments remind me of Jefferson Davis's complaint that he couldn't get the same war powers Lincoln got, and one historian's opinion that "States' rights lost the war for the Confederacy."

On the other hand, I don't think the Founders were exactly naive about standing armies. They'd lived with one, up close and quartered in people's houses. The Second and Third Amendments taken together, it seems to me, provide good evidence that the Founders were very concerned about, let's say, the misuses of a standing army, and they were trying to come up with more republican solutions.

Maybe they now seem a little utopian in their suggestions, but think about, for example, the number of presidents in the past half-century who've tried (without success) to scale back the intelligence community, and you can see that in some ways we have our own "standing army" problem. I'd say it's not so much that the Founders were wrong as that no one has yet come up with the solution to the very legitimate question they posed: how do you protect a free society without the tools of protection becoming tools of oppression?

Eric Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 1:23:00 PM EST  

Seth, I agree the Founders were utopian and were familiar on a first-hand basis with the potentials for abuse inherent in a standing army, but I think naive is exactly the word for their approach. Another way of putting it would be to point out that they faced the same problem as every revolutionary in history: it's far easier to overthrow a government than it is to govern; often, winning is the very worst thing that can happen to a revolutionary movement.

In a way, I'm not really disagreeing with you, and I suspect you may not be disagreeing so much with me: as you say, how do you protect a free society without the tools you need to use becoming tools of oppression. The problem here is that the Founders, I think out of some amount of inexperience and overconfidence, underestimated what was really necessary to protect (and even expand) territory (without getting into the moral side of territorial expansion, it's enough to observe that our ill-fated attempts to annex Canada illustrate the point).

Part of the point here with regard to the Second Amendment is that militiamen hypothetically could go toe-to-toe with an underpowered Federal Army (unsupported by a Navy) if a President usurped power, but those same militiamen and a weak Federal joint forces were underpowered to go against, say, the British if a rematch occurred (as it did in 1812). In that respect, the Second Amendment was already a short-sighted solution when it was ratified, since in reality it was inevitable that the United States would ultimately have to choose between dissolution, foreign defeat or creating a standing military (one that would be capable of putting down state militias if it was capable of holding off the British, French and/or Spanish).

It was a bad call, but hey, it's the law, right?

David Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 11:42:00 AM EST  

I don't think the Founding Fathers were as naive as you suggest regarding professional armies. They had very good reasons to be afraid of them, and very specific situations in which that fear was expressed.

For one thing, they didn't object to the kind of professional armies that fought the Revolution - they created one, after all. What they object to were standing armies in times of peace.

From a military standpoint, this was not far-fetched, given the world of the late 18th century. In a nation 3000 miles from any enemy powerful enough to conquer (vs. harass, annoy or damage) it, and a world where nothing moved faster than 3mph over any distance, a force of local militias could likely suffice until a professional army could be raised and trained, after which it could take over. The experience of the Revolution backed this up.

No, the Revolution was not won by the militias, who were pretty useless over the long haul. But they served their function in a defensive war. (Getting them to execute offensive operations in the War of 1812 was a different problem - they don't do well on offense.)

The reasons for this objection to standing armies in times of peace go back to the classical republican ideology that most of the FFs operated under as late as 1788 (though it largely disappeared after 1820, which is why so much of what the FFs did is puzzling to so many Americans today).

I spend a lot of time on this in my classes, so further details available on request - but the short version is that standing peacetime armies were seen as instruments of tyranny - of the One (what we would call the Executive, close enough) infringing on the rights of the Many and the Few. A standing army was dangerous in peacetime because there was nothing for them to do, and they would be put to some use eventually. That and arbitrary taxes were the key ways to convert a republic into a tyranny.

Armies in wartime were not a problem. The Constitution does authorize the federal government to raise armies.

Eric Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 12:37:00 PM EST  

David: good points, all. And the emphasis on standing armies in peacetime is especially well-taken. I'd still, however, have to say that the Founders' position was naive and short-sighted: not because they were wrong about the potential for abuses, whether against the citizenry or the temptation a standing army in peacetime presents for adventurism (see also: United States, 2001-2008). No, the problem with the Founders' view is that their belief that militias would be sufficient for defense until a wartime army could be raised just wasn't that realistic, even factoring in enemy logistics.

I think this is where the point about a professional navy comes back to the fore as an easy illustration: until the middle of the 19th Century, America's coastal and later naval forces were simply inadequate, notwithstanding several notable victories against pirates and the British. Outfitting a vessel and supplying it with combat-trained sailors was difficult (though not wholly impossible) during hostilities and without the right infrastructure.

But the same principle was increasingly true for ground troops as the new century progressed. The use and role of horses changed as the role of cavalry shifted from scouting to lightning assault. Combat weapons became more sophisticated, improving in range, accuracy and volume of fire. These sorts of things don't merely require willing men, rousted at the onset of hostilities. And it isn't sufficient to have trained men, who have drilled on weekends or in the months after an enemy has landed. What you also have to have, for better or worse, is the industry to produce the materiel and the organizational structure to get it where it needs to be.

My point here isn't that the Founders were wrong about the dangers inherent in making sure that infrastructure is in place and being used by a standing army in peacetime. Actually, they were dead-right. The point is that as a practical matter, their first solution (on the idealistic side) was impractical.

I also have to say it's not bad to remember the idealism: standing armies may be a necessary evil, or at least a necessary risk, but our present society has almost certainly focused on the "necessary" element with little regard for the "risk" part of it. We are, as a consequence, an overtly militaristic culture that is overly credulous and insufficiently skeptical when it comes to our leaders, subject to the evils of patriotism (the first refuge of a scoundrel, as Bierce corrected Johnson) and adventurism. But, sadly, there's also an unsustainable innocence in focusing too much on the "risk" element.

Finally, let me add that I hope everybody else is enjoying the discussion as much as I am! Thank you!

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