A little over a year and a half ago, when I thought about all of the reasons I was wildly excited about moving back to the United States after years and years of living in France, American gun laws were not among them. I put a list on Facebook of my anticipated American pleasures, and Ar-15s were absent. Didn't even cross my mind. Defense of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, especially coming from a Constitutionalist, was something I was not waiting to listen to. I knew I would be as impatient as myself listening to literal readers of the Bible.
On the other hand, one of the things that guarantees failed persuasion is to be uninformed about the other side’s arguments. My own father was widely recognized in college for his talent in debate. He won national tournaments representing Northwestern University’s School of Speech. What I learned from him, because I would not have learned by watching the televised Presidential “Debates” (for example), is that competitive debate most often involves the preparation of defense of both sides of a proposition so that argumentation either in favor or opposition can be made with more or less equal skill. Competitive debate would not involve blithering on in an ideological way about how ones preferred position is morally correct. So, when I prepared in-class debates for Mr. Bell’s social studies course in high school, I planned arguments for both sides of propositions such as “The United States should increase foreign aid to Asia.” This was in 1978. I sat in the University of Chicago Law Library reading journals called “Foreign Policy” and trying to write telegraphic phrases that could somehow be helpful on little note cards.
I can’t do that any more. I don't even go to the library. Who has the time?
Still, I want to avoid clichés when discussing guns because I think gun control is too important to be the subject of failed debate. For instance, two clichés, “the Wild, Wild West” and “Americans are obsessed with guns,” are not useful when thinking about gun control in the US. First, the “Wild, Wild West” is a part of American history that lasted about 20 years (the 1870s and 1880s), and was itself subject to stereotype and cliché in the US and abroad by the turn of the century. Because my own cousins grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp always seemed to me like distant relatives. Represented by sheriffs with larger than life reputations, it seemed to me as a child that the Wild, Wild West had lasted for centuries. But it didn’t.
“Americans are obsessed with guns,” is a swift way to dismiss discussion of the evolution of the Second Amendment. But it is too lazy and unsubstantiated as an argument. I tried to read through an article called “A Primer on the Constitutional Right to Bear Arms,” , which was quite thorough. I tried to figure out who the author was in terms of his ideology. But his degrees and achievements sort of got in the way ("professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law, coeditor of the Supreme Court Economic Review, advanced degrees in philosophy from the Catholic University of America, in political science from Harvard University, and in law from the University of Chicago; served in the White House as associate counsel to the President; has written on constitutional interpretation, federalism, separation of powers, the Commerce Clause, the Speech or Debate Clause, the Second Amendment, the Uniformity Clause, employment discrimination and civil rights, the legal regulation of medical ethics, and the application of economic analysis to legal institutions," … etc, etc). So, I had a hard time making this assessment.
Anyway, among many other things, the author of the Primer makes two points of note in his analysis of the right to bear arms. The first is a point that we all hear and repeat every day: no one knew we’d eventually fabricate Ar-15s.
Thus, the author writes that,
“First, the ‘arms’ referred to in the Second Amendment probably included only those that a single person could carry and operate (not artillery), and these so-called small arms were fairly primitive in the late eighteenth century. No Stinger missiles. Not even revolvers or other rapid-fire devices, let alone machineguns. Furthermore, the weapons carried by soldiers were no more lethal or subject to abuse than those typically kept by civilians for hunting and self defense.”
I think we can all agree that the Framers of the Constitution didn’t know what they were authorizing Constitutionalists to carry. New to me was the second point:
“Second, and much more important, the Second Amendment (and the rest of the Bill of Rights as well) originally restricted only the federal government, not the state governments. There was little need for the Framers to be concerned about the details of the inevitable tradeoffs between individual freedom and public safety because the Constitution left the states free to balance those competing goals in whatever ways they thought fit. Every state was left free by the federal Bill of Rights to establish an official religion, to require a government license in order to publish a newspaper, or to abolish the right of trial by jury. Similarly, the states were left free to regulate the private possession of weapons in whatever way seemed appropriate to them. The Framers could therefore have reasonably expected that new issues, like those raised by technological developments in weaponry, could and would be addressed by the state governments as they arose.”
I think this is really interesting. If the Framers were worried about making sure to impose little federal government, they were still leaving the States the freedom to do more thinking about this, and perhaps even to impose more control. This is important not because it makes me think differently about arms, but it makes me think differently about obsession with them. It also makes me think (again) that today’s Constitutionalists are not reading anything beyond the Second Amendment as worded.
I talked to a Framer the other day. Not in my dreams, either. My husband and I took our two younger boys to Williamsburg, Virginia, to visit Colonial Williamsburg, a living museum. Actually, I should say that I took my family because my husband is German and had not previously heard of Colonial Williamsburg. While there we had an audience with Thomas Jefferson. I had heard that the actor who embodies the United State’s third President is excellent. He might not be Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, but he is close. He knows his stuff. He walks and talks like Jefferson.
Now if present-day Constitutionalists want to rid history books of Thomas Jefferson, it is precisely because he wasn’t in favor of treating the Constitution or the Bill or Rights the way they, the Constitutionalists, are doing it. In order to be provocative, I asked Jefferson if there was any part of the Constitution or its amendments that he thought was NOT open to discussion and revision. He said no, and he had to say no, because Jefferson thought that every generation should write its own constitution. Did you know that? I didn’t. I only knew that he thought we needed a little revolution now and then.
Colonial Williamsburg reminds you that the people who would become independent Americans were desperate to collect some arms and to have a militia. They were starting a new experiment in democracy for which there was no available model. Their muskets were long and heavy and were designed for hand-to-hand combat. And when I talked to the man who was guarding the Magazine in Colonial Williamsburg, the building designed for storing gunpowder and the storage of some arms, the initial arms “buildup” felt so fragile to me.
Go visit Williamsburg and then go look at Fort McHenry in Baltimore (another place I took my family a couple of weeks ago), the site where the "Star Spangled Banner" was penned. If you are in favor of (increased) gun control, it’ll give you a much bigger and better feel for the solid ground on which your arguments rest. If you are against gun control, I hope you realize what flimsy mastery you have of American history.