Friday, January 14, 2011

Gun Rights and Gun Control

Wingnuts often like to claim that the real purpose for the second amendment is so that we the people will have the potential to overthrow our own government "just in case" it becomes a nightmarish, tyrannical dystopia. But if the reason for the second amendment is that we should be able overthrow the government, then our citizenry would need to have enough weaponry to defeat the U.S. military or there's no point. As Rachel Maddow quite reasonably pointed out, that would include everything up to and including a massive nuclear arsenal.

Mind you, the people pushing this idea should recognize that they're talking about literally doing battle with the U.S. armed forces. Which would be fine, if they weren't also the same ones most often idolizing our servicemembers in the U.S. armed forces. Either our "troops" are your heroes or they're potential enemies that you're willing to kill. They can't be both at the same time, at least not if you're not full-on crazy. Furthermore, if you believe it is important to be able to defeat the U.S. military in battle, then you should support decreases in military spending, rather than wanting to keep it at a high level. If you believe that our military budget should be sacrosanct, then you don't believe that you should be able to defeat them (unless you have a tremendous amount of nukes hidden away somewhere).

Upshot: either you believe in your right to potentially overthrow the U.S. government or you respect our troops and want to keep a strong military budget. You can't have both.

As Trent Franks (R-AZ) said in response to the latest violenct incident, "I wish there had been one more gun there that day in the hands of a responsible person." Quick question: can you use a gun to shoot somebody else's bullets out of the air? Do modern firearms come with anti-bullet force fields? How do more gunshots make less gunshots? Right-wingers often enjoy saying that if there were more guns there would be less gun violence from criminals and crazies. It seems to me that if someone goes on a spree killing and more people have guns, then more people might get shot, and not just the spree killer. After all, you don't know whether one of the many armed people in your vicinity is unhinged until they unload on the populace. That is unless you try to proactively guess which one of them that might be, in which case you end up going down in history as the unhinged one. "The guy I shot was obviously about to start shooting other people" won't go over very well either a court of law or of public opinion.

As an American citizen myself, I don't want to have to participate in gun violence in order to be protected from gun violence. That is my right. If I have the right to bear arms, then I should also have the implicit right not to have to bear arms. If you want to create a situation where the only way I can defend myself against gun violence is to carry a gun, then you're violating my right not to carry a gun. I pay taxes to pay police to take care of that for me. A world where only the toughest get to survive is the opposite of civilized society. It is in fact a functional definition of barbarism.

In any case, the second amendment is actually quite incredibly clear about its reasoning. In fact, it is literally the only one of our 27 constitutional amendments that gives its own reasoning in its own text: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." So it's remarkable that the only amendment that actally bothers to explain itself ends up so consistently misunderstood in the modern age.

The founding fathers were quite clear on what they meant by the second amendment's reasoning in other aspects as well. Quite simply, the U.S.A. did not at that time have a standing army. According to the second amendment, a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. Which is to say, they needed a militia to defend the nation, and they reserved the right to regulate it. Back during the founding of the U.S.A, the idea was that we could run any necessary wars on a "bring your own gun" basis. Such a policy, if maintained, certainly would have prevented (or at least mitigated) the kinds of military adventurism around the globe that we've seen since. But this also meant that everybody had to have their own gun to bring. Hence the Militia Act of 1792, which mandated that each adult male must "provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges..." (Hellooo, constitutionality of the individual mandate!)

But what they did not foresee was the military-industrial complex that grew out of the aftermath of WWII, creating a standing army with capabilities far beyond those that any citizen "militiaman" could hope to bring to a conflict. For better or worse, the defense of the United States is in the hands of an entity that in no way resembles a rag-tag drummed up militia mustered from their own homes with whatever they happened to have at hand. And certainly not one which could be overthrown by a small-arms insurgency, as most recently demonstrated in Iraq.

In the 1780's, Shay's Rebellion sought to overthrow our new government, in which most if not all of our "founding fathers" were still participating. Did those founding fathers then bow down, give up and let themselves be overthrown? No, they did not. They fought in defense of the government they had created to put the rebellion down violently. Therefore, through their own actions, it is quite clear that they did not support the overthrow of the government that they had worked so hard to establish (which would have been a ridiculous proposition even if they didn't have to prove it to you by shedding blood). Also, being questioned about Shay's rebellion while in France is the source of Jefferson's oft-quoted phrase "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Clearly he wasn't terribly concerned about Shay's rebellion winning, but was willing to maintain that the occasional outbreak of violence was a natural and healthy way to maintain the spirit of democracy. Mind you, he was also defending his own country to the French press when he said it, so it's entirely in the nature of spin to make foundling America's problems look like a good thing rather than a bad thing. And Jefferson's job at that point was to represent America as a politician. The only other interpretation (the one that the right-wingers who quote him must be implying) would be to claim that Jefferson was a Shay supporter, and therefore a traitor to the United States of America.

Next in the 1790's, the Whiskey Rebellion sought to overthrow the new government again, this time over a whiskey excise tax. Again, they were violently put down. By the way, George Washington was still in office at this time. So by now he had put down, count 'em, two armed challenges to the U.S. fledgeling government. Based on these events and the response of our founding fathers to them, it's pretty easy to predict what their opinion would be regarding further armed challenges to the U.S. government. That would be the same government established by the constitution that these "gun nut" revolutionaries pretend to revere so much, and which the people who put down these rebellions actually had a hand in writing.

Now, being of a generally liberal bent, I used to consider the possibility that if we merely banned all guns from private ownership it would lead to a peaceful society. No guns = no gunshots, right? Unlikely. It seems reasonable to consider that the right to bear arms has become an integral part of the American character over the past two centuries. Perhaps this is because I'm from the West, but it just seems to me that an America where you can't own a gun isn't really America, culturally speaking. Guns have been or become such a part of the American cultural fabric for so long that banning them could lead to a "prohibition" situation. It doesn't matter whether your or I like guns, we still have to recognize the fact that a whole lot of people in America like them a lot. Whenever you outlaw something which has such strong demand, you only serve to create a thriving black market for it. This removes any opportunities to regulate it by driving it underground. So if there's any way to allow people to legally have common firearms while also maximizing public safety then we should do everything we can to find it. If we're going to have guns, how should we go about it?

The most obvious analogy that comes to my mind is automobiles. Virtually any adult gets to drive an automobile in any state. It's not framed in the Constitution, but it is a right that we do in fact happen to enjoy. Automobiles are devices which are incredibly dangerous. Anybody in control of an automobile could potentially murder any number of people, should they choose to do so; from pulling into the wrong lane on the highway, through running red lights, to driving on the sidewalk to crashing your car into a house, there are a variety of ways that a creatively murderous individual could use an automobile to instantly execute a significant number of victims.

In this light, the NRA's blanket opposition to any firearms regulations whatsoever is very much like saying that there should be no traffic laws whatsoever.

Handling gun laws the same way that we handle automotive laws makes sense in a variety of ways. Firstly, owners/carryers/users should be licensed. In order to get that license, you should have to pass a specific test demonstrating your knowledge and ability of how to use the tool properly. The tool in question should be registered, and its registration tied to a specific licensed owner. Some sort of insurance should be involved in case an (*ahem*) accident occurs. As far as it goes, this analogy is perfectly reasonable across the board. An person who wants to own and operate a deadly device of any sort should be subject to no fewer rules than these.

At present, many states have some parts of this but not others. There are such things as gun carry licenses, gun registration, etc. But it's spotty, only applying some rules in some places to some types of guns. If cars were handled this way, you might find yourself in a demolition derby or not depending on which city, county or state you were driving through at the time.

A key question that arises is, why would responsible gun owners want to subject themselves to such a system? Put another way, why would they want to be provided with the ability to prove that they're really responsible gun owners, rather than allow themselves to be lumped in with criminals and crazies? Why would they want a system in place that separates them from common criminals, and protects them from being grouped with any criticism of the same? Which creates some distance between their rights and any political discussions regarding how to keep guns out of the hands of psychos? Frankly, such questions answer themselves. The greatest boon to responsible gun owners would be to have exactly such a regulatory system in place that firmly insulates their rights from any response to irresponsible gun violence. To go back to my analogy, traffic accidents don't cause the public to think about taking away everybody's (or anybody's) right to a car. Because there are sufficient rules in place that serve to separate the responsible from the irresponsible, the discussion automatically gravitates to whether and how they are being enforced. Not whether the laws should be changed, and certainly not whether or not people should be allowed to have cars at all.

As a final point: the NRA, which currently opposes even the most reasonable and slight restrictions regarding gun ownership, currently runs the "Eddie Eagle safety program," as well as other gun safety programs for adults. If we did have a national system in place requiring a test for gun licensing, then the NRA are best positioned of all organizations to make quite a bit of money teaching classes to prepare for that test. Mind you, they wouldn't make a huge amount of money from it, but it would be a revenue stream that made them part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Of course, if they're making more money in donations from firearms companies who are in turn making their profit margins through unregulated gun trading funneled to criminal gangs in America as well as Mexican gun cartels, then that would be the only explanation I could think of for why they could still oppose it. I'm not going to go out on a limb and accuse them of that. I'll just patiently await their support of reasonable gun regulation to prove it wrong.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fighting Words and Crazy People

So the Jared Loughner thing has everybody up in arms on both sides. The moment that Sheriff Dupnik suggested that bigotry and political calls for violence might have had something to do with the violence that actually occurred, the right wing immediately circled their wagons, got up in arms, and started returning fire. Rhetorically speaking, of course.

Even though Dupnik named no political side, party, movement or person, everybody immediately knew who he was talking about when he said "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous." The fact that the extremist right wing that controls the overall conservative movement immediately took offense at this, obviously amounts to an admission of guilt. They knew he was talking about them - we all did - even though he didn't mention them in any way. That's a pretty telling point by itself.

Of course there have been the usual fringe-right claims that Loughner was a "liberal plant," based primarily on the notion that he has smoked marijuana in the past (as if roughly the same proportion of right-wingers as left-wingers don't smoke pot). Then there have been the attempts at false equivalence, with wingnuts poring through old news items looking for a quote from a Democrat that uses firearms-based rhetoric. They managed to find Obama using the old "knife to a gunfight" phrase back when he was just a candidate. So that makes it even, right? When Beck says that your country is being taken away from you by godless communist socialist nazi czars and turned into a death-panel dictatorship, when tea party protestors march en masse with signage talking about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, and "we came unarmed... this time," when elected Republican officials start talking about "second amendment remedies," all that is equivalent to that one almost-forgotten Obama quote, right? Well, only in wingnut-world where Democrats have to have a perfect score or else it's a tie.

Frankly, as an anti-wingnut avowed liberal, I've been having my fun as well picking apart their arguments. The problem is, there is a valid argument to be made in defense of Beck and Palin, but making the argument for them just grates against me, particularly since Beck, Palin and all of their hordes of drooling redneck followers seem incapable of making it so far, and I'm having a hard time feeling charitable for them. Nevertheless, the truth is the truth. So here goes...

This entire "culture of violence" argument, the notion that we should hold people responsible for a causal connection that goes from an individual to society in general to a perpetrator... well, we've seen that form of argumentation before. When Ice-T got blamed for (potential) violence in Los Angeles, when Marilyn Manson got blamed for Columbine, and when Grand Theft Auto and other video games got blamed for general hooliganism in the modern age, it was the same form of argument. Someone put something out into society, and the resulting societal environment then caused (or might cause) an unbalanced individual to commit violent acts.

The fact is, crazy people are going to do what crazy people are going to do. We can't prevent violence from unbalanced individuals by censoring ourselves and walking on eggshells in case some psychopath might misconstrue what we were talking about and take it too far. That holds just as true for Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as it does for Marilyn Manson and Ice-T. If a dangerously unbalanced individual fixates on whatever you were saying and takes it much farther than you ever intended, that's not your fault. Furthermore, even if you had censored yourself, they would have fixated on something else. If Charles Manson could fixate on the White Album as a call for worldwide race war, or if John Hinckley could fixate on Taxi Driver as a reason to shoot President Reagan, then they could have fixated on anything at all to do anything at all.

Discussions about the state of mental health care in America as a preventive measure for such attacks are certainly reasonable. Discussions about the gridlock surrounding the gun control debate as a preventive measure are reasonable as well. But holding one person responsible for the behavior of another - especially with an entire "cloud" of media culture standing between them - is neither effective nor in the long run philosophically desireable.

It's worth noting that the other examples I gave were art forms, whereas this case is a question of political speech. By its very nature, political speech amounts to advocacy: you're exhorting people to do something, whether it's to go out and vote, volunteer, protest or donate. But the primary reason that we protect artistic speech is to draw an even stronger fence around political speech (there's extensive SCOTUS reasoning on this subject). That is to say, we protect speech in general just in case it turns out to be political. And political speech is exactly what we're talking about here. In American democracy, it's the holy of holies. The one true untouchable right. Probably the last one we've got left.

As a side note, I'd like to say that the ChristoFascist arguments regarding "permissive sexuality" (i.e. not criminalizing gayness) and a "culture of death" (i.e. giving women control of their own bodies) follow the same form of causal argumentation: from person to society to horrible consequence, whether real or imagined. And they're equally bunk. We should not be holding individuals responsible for the state of our culture, regardless of the strength of their platform or pulpit. We should only hold those who act as responsible for their own actions. That right there is the essence of the entire notion of free speech. And autonomy in general.

But here's the crux of the argument that conservatives should be making, and would if any of them had the guts to stand up for themselves: America has a long tradition, over two centuries in fact, of using metaphors and analogies related to combat, war, firearms, fisticuffs and all forms of violence in service of political rhetoric. It's quite simply how we talk about politics - how we always have. And as much as liberals might be "up in arms" about the right's rhetorical approach at the moment, it can be instructive to look at some of the literature coming out of the 1800's between political campaigns, at which point one realizes that this kind of talk is something that's simply embedded in the DNA of participatory oppositional democracy. It might not be pretty, but it is a part of the healthy, spirited, (ugly, messy) debate that makes up a passionate democratic system in action.

This liberal fantasy of us all wearing togas and standing among greek columns in a golden light while we calmly and delicately discuss issues of the day in flowery Socratic logic is something that has simply never happened. It's something that can't exist in the real world. In fact, just that fantasy has been what's been causing the Democratic party to roll over and play dead every time a major policy issue gets put before Congress.

If Beck, Palin, et. al, want to reiterate their (presumed) opposition to any form of gun control or public mental health care, then we should definitely call for their heads... figuratively speaking, of course. Otherwise, let 'em reload or shoot for the whites of our eyes or whatever it is they're currently blathering about. And meanwhile let's circle their rear flank and gut them like the filthsome squealing pigs that they are.

Rhetorically speaking, of course.