In last week’s New Yorker, the inimitable Jill Lepore lays out the history of gun control legislation from the Constitution onward.
Turns out, and it’s not surprising, that the current civil-rights-based interpretation of the 2nd Amendment was radical when the NRA started floating it in the 70s. For 200 years prior, everyone understood the Constitution to affirm the people’s right to form militias for the good of the commonwealth. The 2nd Amendment goes along with the 3d Amendment, protecting the commonwealth from a military regime (that part about not having to quarter a soldier without your consent).
Li’l militias soon got absorbed into the standing national army, and armories were publicly operated storehouses for the sanctioned army to use. Citizens used guns for hunting and didn’t think of the two as connected.
The right to defend your property from a shady-looking nogoodnik had nothing to do with it. But in the 70s, the NRA formed a lobbying arm. And during the Reagan administration, the NRA lobbyists started to succeed in getting this new, radical, civil rights interpretation placed in legal journals–and in getting it passed into law.
I habitually hunt articles for signs of partisanship. This hunt is often a multi-refracting process of figuring out what the general partisan interpretation of the issue might be, figuring out how an objective journalist might report on it fairly, and then evaluating the article for such fairness. With a New Yorker article written by a Harvard professor, the right’s assumptions of partisanship are going to be so deeply entrenched that it may not matter how factual the reporting is.
When I was teaching units on media studies, for example, university students argued passionately that “fact” doesn’t exist in news media. That political belief so overwhelms the reporting process that news is inherently untrustworthy. Every news outlet (except CNN, hah) has a bias, and the bias is reflected in articles. No matter what.
I was astonished.
Lepore couches her history lesson in dramatic incidents like school shootings and the Trayvon Martin case. I have to say to my rightward readers that you may find this to be a manipulative lefty rhetorical move.
But here’s how she addresses the subject of partisanship:
One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.
Historically, this is true. A primary purpose of civil society is to prevent the need for citizen patrols. For vigilante justice. If people believe that the government cannot protect them from criminals and that they must protect themselves — and decide for themselves who deserves to live and die — then, indeed, civil society has failed. I don’t think this is a partisan interpretation of events. I think this is flat true.
So the debate shouldn’t be about more or less gun control The debate should be about the purpose of government. Should government protect us from vigilantes or protect the vigilantes?
The idea of the failure of government has been central to movement conservatism since Reagan. But conservative legislation since then has increasingly guaranteed the failure of government by depriving it of the tools it needs to do its job. So now we can say look! Government has failed!
But if we all knew more history, then maybe our discussions of public good and the needs of the commonwealth would be more useful.