Anytime I run a “gun story” I get a lot of comment from both hugely polarized Americans, who want to rant for or against guns, and foreign readers, who don’t understand the American “obsession” with arms. I’m going to take a stab at helping foreign readers understand it a bit better. So first, the “gun story” that prompted this essay, from True’s 15 February 2009 issue:
Ready, Fire, Aim
Betsy Ramsdale, a teacher at Beaver Dam (Wisc.) Middle School, had a photo of herself on her personal Facebook page, showing her with a gun. When school officials found out about it, they immediately suspended her. The photo “appears to be poor judgment,” district superintendent Donald Childs told a local TV station, who said the photo was brought to the district’s attention by another employee. Ramsdale immediately removed the photo when she heard the district was concerned. In follow-up interviews, Childs said he thought there was “nothing negative or hostile” in Ramsdale’s motivation, and that she was “a good and capable teacher.” The teachers union refused to comment, but the Wisconsin ACLU is defending Ramsdale. “Absent any evidence that the teacher poses a threat, the district should not overreact to the sight of a gun in one of their employee’s hands,” said an ACLU spokesman. “While school safety is of paramount importance, public school teachers do not lose their right to free expression when they are not working.” After the uproar, the school quietly allowed Ramsdale to return to work. (WKOW Madison, Beaver Dam Daily Citizen) …Let me guess: she teaches American History and the Bill of Rights?
OK, so for (especially) foreign readers, my try at explaining why guns are a part of the American Way. I’m necessarily going to move fast, so don’t skip anything.
Americans grow up learning about how our forefathers were denied religious freedom in their native lands, so in the early 1600s they came to the New World so they could practice religion the way they saw fit.
Then there’s a lot of gray area that’s skimmed over, and in the mid-1700s there’s the American Revolution: the Declaration of Independence (and I’ll bet half of our high school grads wouldn’t be able to tell you from whom: the British), and the brilliantly formed Constitution of the new country based on individual liberty (“We the People” — and never mind that by then, plenty of Americans owned slaves kidnaped from their own lands), which established the “great experiment” of democracy.
Of course, England didn’t just roll over and say “Fine” when we declared our independence: there was this little thing called the Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1783. When that combat was over, that’s when we created our Constitution, and that’s the environment the founders were in: a revolutionary war battleground.
The Constitution was ratified in September 1787, over the objection of many because it didn’t enumerate a number of rights that they thought should be explicitly called out. Others felt that there was no need for such a listing of rights: the Declaration of Independence declared that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, [and] they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In other words, rights are not given to individuals by the government; rather, those rights are endowed unto us all by “their Creator” from the start, and if we’re of a mind to, the people might allow the government to do some things in our name. It was a revolutionary idea indeed.
Still, the Bill of Rights — a collection of ten amendments to that still-new Constitution, was passed by the First U.S. Congress in 1789, and sent to the states for ratification. It took just over two years, but that was completed in 1791.
One hears plenty about the First Amendment, the first set of rights in that Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Many think of those as being THE basis of American rights: the freedom of religion, speech, the press, and the right of people to demand that the government right wrongs.
Then we get to 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.”
And There’s the Issue
It’s that wording that gets Americans gritching at each other. One side points to the “well regulated Militia” wording to say that yes, the government can have guns for the “militia” (which they take as meaning “army”), but certainly not individuals.
The other side points to the words “the people” — clearly and obviously, that means individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court is charged with interpreting those words, looking at what the framers of the Constitution intended (using, for instance, other writings of the times, like those Federalist Papers), looking at the realities of their times, and trying to see how it all fits into a modern world.
So Here’s How in the founding era the “realities of their times” fits in: we were freshly finished with a Revolutionary War — we fought off the British. There was (and there remains) significant distrust in government in the American psyche. Even our own government.
The consensus of Constitutional scholars is that the purpose of the Second Amendment is, in fact, to allow individuals, not just the government, to “keep and bear arms” for a very fundamental purpose. Not just for self defense, but to overthrow the government if it goes too far in restricting the “unalienable Rights” that were “endowed by their Creator.”
So yes, Americans “cling to guns” because they represent their only guarantee of their god-given rights.
I doubt most anti-gun people mean to be unAmerican, despite the feeling from pro-gun people that they are. They’d love it if society was “mature” enough to not need guns — and who wouldn’t?
But a lot of people believe there is evil in the world: it helps to explain why there are so many bad people — people who want to come and hurt us. And when we see planes flying into our buildings, that’s all the proof needed: there certainly are people who want to hurt us! There are even bad people in church (sidebar), not to mention everyday robbers and criminals.
And, of course, if the government gets too cocky, “The People” will fight them, too.
That makes the anti-gun people pretty nervous: they see that there are total whack-jobs out there waving guns around talking about “rights” — and it doesn’t help that a small but vocal minority are just the sort of people who really wished they could still own slaves, that things sure were better in the good ol’ days of segregation and minorities “knowing their place.”
Yep: there are maniacs with guns. The anti-gun people love hearing me say it. They’ll hate this: there are also evil people who want to hurt others, and it has to be a fundamental human right to fight back against them. Not just in one’s home, but out in the real world, too, since that’s where they’re most likely to strike.
So what’s my conclusion?
There are fundamentally sound reasons that our founding fathers thought individuals needed the right to bear arms, and like it or not that’s a fundamental right in America. Society needs to come to grips with that fact, but yes, we also need to come down hard on those who abuse guns — as criminal tools. Those laws are already there, and need strong enforcement.
We can do better to keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable people and criminals, but that doesn’t include taking them away from honest, law-abiding people who indeed have a right to have them to protect themselves, whether from robbers or an out-of-control government.
The real problem, by the way, isn’t guns, it’s violence. But I’ve already argued that point.
And Let’s Be Clear
I fully and readily admit that this particular essay is slanted toward the “pro-gun” side — that’s the nature of the intent of this essay, which was stated at the top: “helping foreign readers understand the American ‘obsession’ with arms.”
Still, I’m sure both sides will be dissatisfied, and accuse me of skipping over some things. Yeah, I did: I covered 300 years of history in less than 2,500 words, including the sidebars! But if both sides are unhappy, I’ll be happy: it means I was pretty darned balanced. Especially considering I started this essay just 90 minutes before my deadline. 🙂
(P.S.: I already hear others asking, regarding the story at the top: “Really, the ACLU? No way!” Yeah, really. This is the second time the ACLU has appeared in True.)
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