When So Few Words Cause So Much Harm to So Many

“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.” – the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

And there lies the heart of the problem – or one of them, at least.  Today that poorly constructed sentence, with no connective phrasing indicating the relationship between the “well regulated Militia,” the “security of a free State,” or the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” would be edited until it actually made sense (unless, of course, it were posted as a meme on Facebook).  Is the right of Americans to own weapons seated solely, or largely, upon the intent of maintaining a people in arms against a foreign invader or domestic oppressor?  Or, as Justice Antonin Scalia argued in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), is there no necessary relationship, and does the Second Amendment simply promise unfettered rights to arms regardless of the “militia,” or the “security of a free State”?

While this is an interesting constitutional argument, over 30,000 lives are taken each year by firearms in the United States.  Roughly a third of those lives are victims of apparently deliberate violence; while suicides account for the largest share of gun deaths each year.  The many Americans lost each year (equivalent to losing the entire Vietnam War all over again every 21 months) deserve much more than an “interesting constitutional argument.”  Furthermore, as national fears ramp up over an increasing wave of violence (the rise of mass shootings, the rise of police violence against civilians, and the fears of foreign terrorism), gun-rights advocates opposing further regulations and gun-control advocates seeking further regulations both cater to fears of those around us.  The gun lobby and those gun-owners who oppose regulation portray a multitude of apparent threats to themselves, and to their families and homes.  They also ally with more extremist elements expressing fears of the “Other,” and with an increasingly publicly acceptable bigotry against non-whites.  The gun-control advocates fear that they may be next to die to some crazed, Christian “holier than thou” shooter in their church, school, or shopping mall; or that their nephew with problems may be the next to use a weapon to end his life.

President Obama, tired of more than a year of almost weekly “thoughts and prayers” consolations to the nation for the latest shootings du jour, finally moved past a catatonic Congress to enact changes to gun sales regulation via the few powers available to his office.  Immediately, the predictable firestorm of reaction was raised against the President by those in the gun lobby who had eagerly awaited such action for seven years without satisfaction.  The tightening of existing regulations on the sale of firearms now seemed to them to be inaugurating the president’s long-awaited crusade to take away their guns.  Quickly the president rose up to the challenge of national dialogue, in a time when we Americans do not bother to actually listen to each other any more.  At a “town hall” meeting hosted by CNN in Fairfax, VA, the president took questions from representatives from both sides of the gun issue.  Although the NRA’s headquarters is located just down the road from the site of the “town hall,” that organization refused to contribute to the dialogue, preferring instead to steer the issue silently through campaign contributions.

The president attempted to connect with gun-owners and sellers, reminding them that each of them probably had to pass background checks themselves.  His executive order focuses on ensuring that everyone purchasing a firearm passes through the same process.  There was not a lot of listening in the hall that night, however; and the president had to repeat his insistence that new regulations would not result in anyone’s guns being taken away, or even make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to acquire firearms.  When George Lakoff wrote about “framing” political dialogue, this was precisely what he was talking about.  People (on all sides of political and moral questions) create “frameworks” within which new information coming in must either fit, or be discarded.  New facts and arguments which do not connect with existing views of reality are simply discarded; not accepted or even noticed as facts or as being relevant, however well reasoned or argued.  Therefore, it does not matter how much the president reassures conservative gun-owners that he is not “coming for their guns”; since the NRA has spent millions of dollars convincing them that he is, that is their reality regardless of what the new executive order actually spells out, or what the president says to explain the language or intent of the order.

Unlike the gun lobby, however, the president made it clear that at least he was listening to  the other side.  He recognized that the Second Amendment (ambiguity notwithstanding) guarantees the right to own weapons, and that the right to do so is not going to go away.  Those of us who are not killed each year by gun violence are simply going to have to live with the most heavily armed national population in the world.  But, as the president noted, there are ways we can work to ensure safety, to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists as much as possible.  At the “town hall,” at least, one side (the gun lobby) was “framing” the president’s words into an intent to take away their guns; while the other side (the president) was in fact listening and responding to their fears, even accounting for them into his executive order and his message.

There were more stalwart opponents of gun rights at the town hall, however.  Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago (a longtime acquaintance of the president) argued that in Chicago, it is easier for kids to get guns than it is to get computers.  He asked the president why gun ownership and control could not be handled like that of cars (legal, accessible, but heavily regulated, insured, etc.).  The president reminded the father of the public’s paranoia about the government, citing last year’s Texas freak-out over military maneuvers in a state proud to house some of the largest military bases in the country.  Were the government to take firmer steps, especially without Congressional support, the public outcry would simply escalate past the administration’s ability to get anything done.  The president’s executive orders and arguments now positioned him in the center, rather than on the left or right; with the left arguing for greater controls, and the right arguing for fewer controls (or at least against more controls).  The president showed a willingness to listen to both sides.  Nonetheless, in our divisive political culture, the conservatives view the president’s words and actions as being on the left rather than in the center, as those of an activist and opponent rather than as a mediator between two opposing forces.

There is a simple explanation as to why one side in particular, the conservatives fearing a gun-seizing federalist tyranny, wears greater blinders than the other.  As lawyer and blogger Jack D’Aurora noted, the answer is easy:  “follow the money.”  There’s gold in them thar frames. There is money and power to be made by keeping people afraid and “clinging to their guns.”  And until we work harder to push corporate contributions and moneyed political interest groups out of our representatives’ pockets, they will continue to sell us their products and their consequences.  Until we push the NRA and the gun manufacturers (some of whom have also been attacked by the NRA for attempting to improve gun safety, as the president noted at the town hall) out of congressional offices, we will have to live – or die – with an overarmed and under-listening population.

Headline image from a posting by Odyssey, via Google Image Search.

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