In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes about the history of guns, the NRA and how the interpretation of the Second Amendment has changed over the course of American history. The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 and spent most of its history focused on hunting and sport. It didn’t get political and begin its aggressive opposition to gun-control legislation until the 1970′s. The idea that an individual citizen has a Second Amendment right to keep and own a gun for self-protection or protection of property is a new phenomena that’s been pushed by the NRA. Lepore cites former Chief Justice Warren Berger saying that this interpretation of the Second Amendment is “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
But Lepore’s most compelling passage is about the state of the gun debate in the face recent school shootings and the Trayvon Martin killing.
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.
Investigators are still trying to determine exactly why Jared Lee Loughner allegedly killed six and wounded 13, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at a supermarket in Tucson. Gun control is usually debated when mass shootings occur, but they don’t usually cause significant changes in gun laws. Whether or not the shooting was politically motivated, this should be a moment when Americans should look at ourselves and ask, “Why are guns so important?”
I’m not talking about a debate about gun laws, though that’s important, too. I’m talking about exploring why guns are so important to so many Americans. It’s not enough to say, “Guns are a part of our culture.” Why are they and violence a part of our culture? In a country where there is a gun for nearly every person, why are some people resistant to reasonable restrictions for firearm purchases? Why do some people feel the need to carry guns on them all the time, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry who carries a handgun while jogging? What motivates these men in Northern Virginia, a relatively high income, low crime area, to think that a criminal with a gun is around every corner, and therefore feel they must openly carry guns on their hips?
I always got the feeling that machismo influences some of the more vocal and passionate guns rights supporters. Guns are powerful. They can extinguish lives. What better way to show strength than to hold that lethal power in one’s hands or strap it to one’s waist? The need to show that strength and power indicates a fear of something. Maybe it’s an insecurity about oneself. Maybe it’s fear of the government or fear of the guy down the block. Michael Moore explored the link between guns and the “fearful heart and soul of the United States” in his film Bowling For Columbine. Until we examine and confront that fear of the unknown, often fueled by imagination, guns will continue to be plentiful and there will be more shootings like the one in Tucson.
Lastly, a sad bit of irony: One of the first pieces of business for the new Congress this week was to vote on the repeal of healthcare reform. That, along with other House business, has been postponed because of the Tucson shooting. Many of the same congressmen who want to roll back healthcare reform support laws that allow the easy purchase of firearms. We have to re-evaluate our priorities. As a country, we need to figure out why so many feel that providing healthcare for every citizen is an American nightmare, but the reality of firearms for nearly every citizen is an American ideal.