MAYBE WE NEED TO RETHINK THIS MARRIAGE
We have a twisted relationship with the 2nd Amendment. The abusive nature of our marriage to the right to bear arms becomes clear as we examine similar assumptions associated with the other amendments.
Rights, in essence, amount to privileges defined as inherent in all individuals that cannot be trespassed against. As such, we as citizens understand that there are certain costs, or inconveniences, associated with a respect for human rights in practice. We have to accept these inconveniences if we want to live in a free society.
On the other hand, all rights carry with them certain responsibilities or reasonable limits that we expect people to exercise. All rights in practice can be deleterious when practiced in the extreme. If a person is not willing to take responsibility or to apply limits, social sanctions are in order.
To have a free society based on rights, in other words, we must balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. Your inconvenience should not limit my exercise of rights, but my exercise of rights should not infringe on your exercise of rights. In most cases, though the nuances are in a constant state of debate and negotiation, these inconveniences and limits are balanced within reasonable and understandable parameters.
This is not true for our discourse on the right to bear arms.
Let me give an example. Take, for instance, the Right to Free Speech. This is probably our most foundational right outside of the Right to Live. Individuals have a right to express what is on their minds. We understand, however, that when others are practicing their right to speak, they may say things that are discomforting to us, that may offend us, challenge us, or even cause us real harm in our relations with others. We have to accept that inconvenience even at our own expense if we are to preserve rights and freedom overall. That’s what it means to live in a society with free speech.
That being said, the right to speak is not absolute. There are limits. If we are to have a right to speak we must be responsible for what we say. We cannot lie or slander someone. We cannot threaten people. A right to free speech does not mean someone can expose children to pornography or brutal violence. One cannot exercise their free speech to incite violence or to lead people to harm–the so called clear and present danger doctrine of yelling fire in a crowded theater. Even the most radical free speech advocates are willing to accept these limitations on our individual “rights” because the violation of these norms denies freedom to others.
The right to speak, in other words, means being responsible with the things I say, but also carries with it the understanding that someone might say something that I don’t want to hear. That’s just the way it is. If we want to have a free society, these are the compromises we must make.
When it comes to gun rights, however, there are few responsibilities. If I want a military style weapon, I can get one with few if any obstacles. That is my right. Yes, I’m expected to exercise this right responsibly, and most gun owners do exactly that. The inconvenience is that with millions of people carrying millions of guns, hundreds of people are going to be shot and killed every day. Occasionally, our children will be slaughtered en masse. That’s just the way it is. If we want to have a free society we just have to live with the periodic massacres that come with freedom–unless, of course, you are one of the people massacred…but, you know.
The right to bear arms is, as it stands, so imbalanced that it contradicts the very function of rights. Rights as a social construct are intended to make us more free. Having a right to arms is intended to empower us to defend ourselves against external threats. Originally, these threats included slave rebellions, native uprisings, foreign invasion, and a tyrannical state. Today, the biggest threat is someone exercising their right to bear arms by sweeping a grocery store with bullets.
With other rights, there is an expectation that individuals will apply reasonable limits to their practice. There is an understanding that the exercise of rights is a “just right” endeavor. As a teacher, I have a right to free speech. When I’m in class, however, I’m expected to moderate my rights in the interest of my students and the responsibilities of my job as a teacher. That’s because the exercise of my rights cannot impinge on the rights of others. Responsibility rests on me to regulate myself. If I do not follow through with this responsibility, sanctions will be applied.
The excesses associated with the right to bear arms, however, are to be mitigated by those who may be victimized. In the interests of the right to bear arms, the rest of us are expected to engage in fortress behavior. We must arm ourselves or accept the intrusion of armed others to protect us. Our schools now have more armed police and security than guidance counselors. We must accept locked doors, metal detectors and body searches. We must accept as a mundane element of our lives the fear that at any given moment we may be shot. Every disagreement may end with gunfire. Every protest may be a combat zone. Every public event may be target for an alienated individual who was able to purchase a gun just as easily as he could purchase a sub sandwich.
When it comes to free speech and other rights, we are in a constant state of negotiation and renegotiation of the limits and parameters. This is necessary and appropriate as the world we live in looks nothing like the 18th century. Things like slander/libel, misinformation, and porn existed in the 1700s, but our experience with these things has changed as technology advances and our cultural horizons change and as we rethink what it means to be an equal citizen.
Yet, with gun rights, we are expected to treat AR-15s with no greater scrutiny than a flintlock musket. For the right to bear arms it is 1792 forever.
As a teacher, I must prepare my students for their “active-shooter” drills. I must make my classroom a fortress ready to throw up the barricades at a moments notice. I literally wear a panic button with which I can put the entire school on lockdown. I’d love to be able to open my doors and windows to my classroom on cool days and enjoy the freedom of fresh air. But I can’t for fear that an unhinged person might make my students a target.
But guns make us free?
The problem is that we all know that the right to bear arms has become unsustainable as constructed. All reasonable people in the United States want an appropriate balance between the right to own a gun for our own protection and sensible limits that protect us from the excesses of those who might exercise this singularly deadly right irresponsibly. We know that background checks, licensing and registration are reasonable. It’s understood that people with violent backgrounds, who have demonstrated irresponsible behavior probably shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun. Maybe when it comes to weapons capable of, say, wiping out classrooms or grocery stores or churches there should be some additional hurdles to acquisition.
Almost everyone in this country is willing to have this conversation and to renegotiate the norms associated with the right to bear arms.
Unfortunately, our twisted relationship with the 2nd Amendment also happens to sustain a very profitable, multi-billion dollar corporate ecosystem. These moneyed interests have hired some of the most skilled lobbyists and have purchased enough key politicians to move the conversation in directions that have nothing to do with legitimate rights, but have everything to do with protecting profits.
And these forces don’t care how many school children get slaughtered.