Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chernow's "George Washington" on gun control

Ron Chernow's biography on our first president, George Washington : A Life, may not visit the topic of gun control specifically, but in at least two chapters Chernow does (perhaps inadvertently) give readers a glimpse of how Washington thought about the constitution, the bill of rights, and the rights all are "endowed by their creator" with.

In Chapter 45, Mounting the Seat, Chernow writes:
As a stalwart realist, [Washington] thought it dangerous to demand perfection from any human production and questioned the propriety of preventing men from doing good because their is a possibility of their doing evil.
In the author's opinion, Washington might have thought it beyond the scope of government to pass laws restricting a right to carry guns into a church or school by peaceful, law-abiding citizens because of the fear of what one lunatic may do.  In other words, the government has neither the omniscience or the ability to pass laws restricting the freedoms of the many out of paranoia of what the few may do.

Or put in another context, should the state hasten to remove children from their parents merely by circumstance of their births into poverty, or must we restrain ourselves from premature actions based merely on probabilities and deny each family to make of their lives what they will regardless their circumstances?

A common misunderstanding of the Bill of Rights is that it alone protects citizens' rights to bear arms.  Imagine that the first ten amendments didn't exist, would citizens still have a right to free speech, assembly, petition and redress, self defense, due process, etc.?

At the time of the convention and even knowing what the Bill of Rights would contain, Washing still thought the amendments unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

In chapter 49 Chernow writes,
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Washington deemed a bill of rights superfluous on the grounds that American citizens would retain all rights that they did not expressly renounce in the document.  During the ratifying conventions, he worried that opponents would seek to subvert the new political system by attempting premature amendments.  One surviving fragment of the undelivered [inauguration] speech says: "I will barely suggest whether it would not be the part of prudent men to observe [the Constitution] fully in movement before they undertook to make such alterations as might prevent a fair experiment of its effects."
One of the words in that paragraph that stands out is superfluous.  In Washington's (and the 9th amendment's) opinion, what became known as the Bill of Rights did not grant new rights to citizens because the people already possessed these rights inherently.  Furthermore, delegates to the constitutional convention believed government did not (or should not) have the power to revoke rights given citizens by their creator.

He didn't object to their content or words, but the premise that they were needed at all, or that some may misconstrue them as grants of rights rather than simply redundancies.

Given that background, one can imagine that Washington himself may have had some input on the 9th Amendment, and perhaps he did.  Credit is given, however, to his close political confident James Madison who proposed what later became the 9th Amendment.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Over 200 years ago, at a time of with fewer luxuries, a higher mortality rate, a frontier beset with conflicts between settlers and Indians, and on the heels of both the French and Indian war and the Revolutionary war, Washington was more prepared to trust in the decency and civility of Americans than we are today.

Has America really become less decent and civil, or have its citizens merely become more timid and fearful?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Are we the problem?

Last December a man is pushed onto subway tracks and dies trying to escape while none of the bystanders tried to help--but a photographer is lucky to get off some shots.

Closer to home, a grandmother is attacked on a bus with riders she knows, and after being hit on the head looks around asks, "Is no one going to help me?"

The struggle continues outside the bus. As the robber is escaping with her purse she fires 11 shots with her 9mm. The suspect escapes (unlike the subway victim) and her purse is later recovered with the wallet missing.

According to the Channel 4 reporter, the grandmother was "tired of being a victim."

The immediate utility of a gun may not be the same in Rochester, Ferndale, and Mt. Clemens as it is in Detroit, but who of us wants to disarm grandmothers and tell them 10 rounds of ammunition is enough. Which of us would have come to her defense?

On that bus, chivalry and compassion are dead. And outside the bus, people want to disarm their fellow citizens or limit the number of rounds they may defend themselves with.

In these two examples at least, we've lost a lot more than respect for each other.  I'm not sure what it's been replaced with, but whatever it is, it neither stands up for victims or their rights.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bigotry and Gun Control

It takes a person of peculiar constitution and firm commitment to encourage their fellow citizens to exercise all their rights, and not just those they favor.

Many people will bully or ridicule others to exercise their “right to vote,” but how many will goad their friends and neighbors to carry a concealed weapon?

Ultimately, it is a measure of our times and the ingratitude or complacency for all our rights that we encourage and protect only those rights we are not prejudiced against. Just as we may be bigots toward those that look different than ourselves or share different sexual preferences, so too are many bigoted against any that would exercise their right to own handguns or desire to carry them open or concealed.

It is only after overcoming my own apprehension about these minorities by talking with them, reading, and thinking long and hard about the efficacy and responsibility that attends carrying a handgun have I come to understand, celebrate, and become willing to advocate for their right to keep and bear arms.

Like any other right or minority, they are under attack from an ignorant and biased majority and politicians anxious to exploit a national mood to further erode the free exercise of a right they are born with, as surely as they have a right not be enslaved, to marry whom they wish, be free from police harassment, and not required to sacrifice their health in exchange for a job.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Does the Second Amendment grant a right to bear arms?

The Second Amendment may be the only place in the U.S. Constitution that uses the words "people" and "arms" in the same sentence, but it may actually be the weakest protection for an individual right to keep and bear arms compared to other Constitutional protections to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Since the Newtown Massacre of 20 children and seven adults in December 2012, gun control has become a popular topic to opine about.  Though most discussions drip with irrational statements by both those that would disarm Americans and others that fear disarmament, most seem to believe the right to bear arms is given by the second amendment:
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.
Rather than debate whether that amendment gives or protects the right for individuals to bear arms, or simply own them and keep them in a locker, or whether that right is expressly for the purpose of arming a well regulated militia, let's read another of the original ten--the Ninth Amendment:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
After reading the ninth, does the second have a different meaning, or for the purposes of an individual's right to own or even carry firearms on their person, does the second have less meaning?

But which rights might not have been enumerated?  In addition to those described in Miranda, Gideon, and Roe, they would include natural rights, including those enjoyed by 18th century Americans (that included carrying weapons) and others referenced in the preamble to The Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Some may argue the Declaration isn't law, and they would be both right and wrong.  Though it isn't the letter of the law, as our constitution is, it is included by congress at the beginning of the US Code (of laws) under the heading, "The Organic Laws of the United States of America."

From TheFreeDictionary:
"Despite its secondary authority, many later reform movements have quoted the Declaration in support of their cause, including movements for universal suffrage, Abolition of Slavery, women's rights, and Civil Rights for African Americans. Many have argued that this document influenced the passage and wording of such important developments in U.S. law and government as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which banned slavery and sought to make African Americans equal citizens."
In the years after the Civil War, former slaves (freedmen) were easy targets by many that still thought blacks inferior and responsible for the South's loss.  In many states, blacks weren't allowed to own guns, which made them easy victims for the Ku Klux Klan and other less-organized gangs.

When the NRA was formed after the civil war by ex-Union officers, the saying used to be, "When guns are outlawed, only Klansman will have guns."

A 2011 article in The Atlantic picks-up the story from there.
IN RESPONSE TO the Black Codes and the mounting atrocities against blacks in the former Confederacy, the North sought to reaffirm the freedmen’s constitutional rights, including their right to possess guns. General Daniel E. Sickles ... ordered in January 1866 that “the constitutional rights of all loyal and well-disposed inhabitants to bear arms will not be infringed.” When South Carolinians ignored Sickles’s order and others like it, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of July 1866, which assured ex-slaves the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty … including the constitutional right to bear arms.” 
One prosecutor in [President Andrew Johnson's] impeachment trial, Representative John Bingham of Ohio, thought that the only way to protect the freedmen’s rights was to amend the Constitution. In December of 1865, Bingham had proposed what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Among its provisions was a guarantee that all citizens would be secure in their fundamental rights: 
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Given this background, the impact of the Second Amendment becomes less important regarding the right of American citizens to bear arms than the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.  In fact, after a little bit of reading the decisions in Heller and Moore supporting individual's rights to carry seem more obvious conclusions in retrospect than they were even in argument as both decisions spent more of their time debating the meaning of the Second Amendment than either the Ninth and Fourteenth.