US shooting: The unbearable legacy of the Second Amendment

Thinking about the latest mass killing spree in America, this time in a cinema at the showing of a new Batman film, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates what it all means and just how difficult it is to stop the monster.

About 40 years ago, I had my first experience with firearms  in “this man’s army”. Handed an M-16, I was taught to disassemble and reassemble it until I could do it in my sleep. That was the easy part. At the rifle range, I had my first experiences with firing live ammunition at a target – any target. A city kid, I had never hunted. Not a rich kid, I had never done any fancy target shooting either. Not a criminal, I had never held up a convenience store. In fact, prior to that moment in the army, I had never held a firearm before. 

There must be millions of Americans, like me, with no organic connection to firearms. Regardless, there are an estimated 300 million such things in private hands. Some of those private hands clearly hold many more than just one weapon, and some of those private hands obviously have a lot more firepower at their disposal than just a pistol or two. Some, certainly, own veritable armouries in their homes – complete with semi-automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of live ammunition. Just in case. 

Just in case of what? For many such people, it is in case of anything and everything. Maybe the only common thread among such people is a fear of forces beyond their control. Holders of those arsenals in America take heart from the language of the second amendment to the American constitution that reads, in its entirety: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

Passed by Congress and ratified in 1791 by the 13 states, just a few years after the original constitution took effect, together with nine other amendments, called the “Bill of Rights”, these amendments guaranteed such things as free speech, freedom of religion and assembly, the right to a speedy trial and the absolute right to petition for redress of grievances against the possible depredations of a tyrannical government. 

This one phrase was a reach-back to the then very recent past in which the British colonial administrations and the Redcoat army had attempted to disarm the colonists’ militias as part of British efforts to re-impose colonial order on recalcitrant settler populations. That “well-ordered militia” – and the right of citizens to join them freely – was seen as crucial for the survival of a free nation. This was the view of those supremely rational politicians of the 18th century enlightenment: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. 

The problem now is that this notion of the right to be part of a “well-ordered militia” as civic duty has been reshaped into a hardcore, irreducible political posture over the past half century or so by rightwing ideologues – especially those within or associated with the National Rifle Association – into an absolute right by anyone to own pretty much whichever weapons they want to have, despite libraries of legal and historical reasoning that denies the founding fathers were intent on creating an every-man-for-himself-free-fire-zone. 

Given the virtual absence of meaningful federal restrictions on gun ownership as a result of this interpretation of the Second Amendment, most gun laws come at the whim of the individual 50 states. And states usually wilt in the face of organised pressures to keep those limits down to the barest minimum possible. Well, okay, private citizens are enjoined from operating bomb-equipped B-29s or owning working howitzers and tanks, but not a pistol or two or three or four. Or 200.

Any attempt to limit such an absolute right – or even establish broad national licensing rules and requirements for convicted criminals, the obviously psychologically damaged or even children – has been recast as the machinations of a radical leftist and wily authoritarian government to render a country’s hardy citizens defenceless against such onslaughts. Rather than the thoughtful, rational enlightenment universe that was represented by America’s founding fathers and their balancing of powers and forces, rights and responsibilities, this absolutist view is a Hobbesian universe where a brave citizen’s ownership of his own arsenal of lethal force is the only thing keeping that nasty, brutish and short existence away from his home, hearth and family. 

For many such Americans, this exotic constitutional interpretation marries up with yet another myth – the solitary yet hearty pioneer family dependent on its own resources, fighting off rattlesnakes, black bears, cougars and timber wolves, as well as marauding Native Americans, outlaws and leering Mexican bandits. The famous Pennsylvania long rifle gives way to the Remington repeating rifle and the Colt .45 six-shooter, but the same imagery remains. 

James Fennimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, the novel and film Shane, Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, Gunsmoke’s marshal Matt Dillon, the Lone Ranger, John Wayne and Jeff Bridges’ character in the two versions of True Grit and Gary Cooper’s implacable sheriff in High Noon conjure up and populate this mythic landscape. But there is also the deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, threading his unsteady way through a near-apocalyptic 1970s New York City that is a stand-in for the old, imagined “wild west”. 

So what do these shooters at Aurora, Columbine, Fort Hood, the Virginia Technological University and the bomber of Oklahoma City’s federal building or the Unabomber all have in common? At the minimum, in the course of adopting their plans, the perpetrators seem to have slipped ever further from normal, everyday interactions in society. Their inner gyroscope seems out of control and they have found solace – and then inspiration – in their strange mélanges of elements plucked from the detritus of popular culture, miscellaneous religious ideas, and increasingly fringe political notions – all embedded and entangled in eschatological mindsets that urge their holders onward to set things right by their own direct, violent action. 

Is such behaviour uniquely American? Of course it isn’t, really. This week alone, after all, also marks the first anniversary of that bombing in Oslo and then the massacre at a Norwegian political summer camp that killed 78 innocent people, mostly children. And the very day this article is being written, about 100 people (different news sources have been giving varying figures so far) have died as a result of a wave of bombings set off in Iraq. All kinds of political and religious persuasions have been used to justify wholesale killing sprees since humans existed to advance racial or ethnic objectives, to even political scores – or just because they could. After all, even male chimpanzees kill other male members of their own species, as we have now learned. 

But America does seem to be particularly susceptible to these kinds of mass killings, carried out by solo or pairs of killers, coming out of the seeming blue. This clearly isn’t helped by those 300 million or so firearms in private hands – and of course that total probably isn’t counting the occasional nutter who has laid in an apocalyptic stock of hand grenades, toxic gases or flame throwers. Even if the country’s political class could come together in the wake of this most recent tragedy and move decisively towards real national gun control – with tough licensing and testing, uniform cooling-off periods before purchases, strict limits on ammunition, 100% effective police background checks to uncover clinical issues and arrest records of would-be purchasers, severe restrictions on Internet sales and at those so-called gun shows that actually function as an unmonitored secondary market for weapons sales – how would such a clawing back from the present situation actually operate? 

Would the FBI and the nation’s hundreds of police forces suddenly be empowered and brought together to seize all the weapons not newly registered? Given the civil rights culture of the US (as well as a fear of and hostility towards authority), any such effort would surely be in the courts for generations before anything practical was achieved. And the intractable problem is that in this most recent case in Aurora at least, the apparent shooter had no police record, not so much as a parking ticket, had not sought psychiatric help, and was a solid, albeit slightly wobbly, citizen working on a PhD in neuroscience research. About the only thing most restrictions even being contemplated would have achieved in his case would have been to limit the expanse of his arsenal, perhaps slow down his kill rate. Or not. 

This reality seems to move us uncomfortably towards the Philip K Dick short story and Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, in which so-called “pre-cog” officers use sophisticated, remote psychometric monitory to search out people who are poised to commit a crime and then to stop them – gently but very, very firmly – before they actually do their violent deed. If such a thing were actually possible, that would do extraordinary violence to the basic legal precept of presumed innocence until proven guilty – even if its scientific principles were within reach. 

Perhaps we are left with the sad truth that, given America’s traditional values and contemporary political culture, there may actually be little reasonable prospect that more comprehensive weapons control is around the corner – even in the face of this most recent tragedy. Politicians will be making poignant speeches about this latest disaster, just as President Barack Obama has just done. Yet another memorial will be constructed and dedicated to the memory of the victims of yet another slaughter of the innocents. But too many politicians, eager to tap into that near-mythic iconography of the stalwart Minuteman defending Lexington and Concord from foreign invaders and the sturdy pioneers holding back the darkness on the frontier, will work to ward off a rollback of the guns already awash in America. 

One of Time magazine’s editors, Jon Meacham, in response to this latest slaughter, wrote in Monday’s electronic edition, “Here we are again, at a tragic impasse, this time in Aurora, Colorado. There is grief and outrage — and no significant movement toward passing common sense, moderate legislation that might disarm those who would take the lives of innocents at a high rate made higher by the kinds of weapons that were once more difficult to obtain in this country….”

“I own guns — shotguns and rifles — and I hunt quail. I don’t want to give up my guns. But I also know this: there isn’t the remotest chance under the sun that I will have to. And I know this, too: the kind of assault rifle used in the Aurora massacre — an AR-15, which is essentially a civilian version of the military’s M-16 — has no sporting purpose whatever save for play-acting that the shooter is in some kind of combat situation. You don’t need an AR-15 to hunt, and you certainly don’t need the high-capacity magazine that was reportedly used even on a range if your interest is target-shooting.” 

But, like too many others, Meacham has almost thrown up his hands over the idea that effective and sensible gun-ownership restrictions will happen in America. And so, we must steel ourselves for the next tragic event – perhaps a copycat killing spree at another theatre, or perhaps somewhere else but set off by the ideas of yet another film, a computer game, or perhaps just a couple of words of graffiti scrawled on a classroom blackboard, triggering anger and hatred in the wrong mind. DM

Read more:

  • Paleface v. Redskin (the literary evocation of the pioneer myth in American literature) in the New York Times
  • Colo. massacre suspect mum as he heads to court at the AP website
  • A Gunowner’s Case Against Assault Weapons (a column by Time editor Jon Meacham, a gun owner and supporter of firearms restrictions) in Time

Photo: Tina Marie Mendieta and her daughter Sofia Mendieta pose for a picture while holding pink handguns during the National Rifle Association’s 139th annual meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina May 15, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Keane


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