(Full disclosure: This is a long article concerning the rights and responsibilities of Americans. I know that Internet attention spans are short, but with a government that’s supposed to be by and for the people, we all need to take the time to be informed. I humbly request that you take the time to ingest what is written here, whether you agree or disagree.)
“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day … I believe it [human condition] susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is effected.”
– Thomas Jefferson, April 24, 1816, in a letter to French nobleman Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours.
The following is an attempt at answering Mr. Jefferson’s 200-year-old challenge to enlighten the people, and I’m doing so as an avid reader of history, not as a lawyer:
ALL ABOUT RIGHTS
Less than 230 years ago, the Founders of this country began the process of creating the U.S. Constitution – the guidelines by which the U.S. Federal Government is to be run. There’s no doubt that the Constitution is an important document for our government to stick to (after all, why have a constitution in the first place if the government doesn’t need to follow it?), but the Constitution only became useful and necessary for “the people” of this country upon the writing and ratification of its Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is comprised of the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and they break down like this:
Amendments 1-3 are known as the “safeguards of liberty” (liberty is synonymous with freedom), and they bar the government from violating things that our Founders considered to be universal human rights: Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to petition the government, the right to bear arms in defense of yourself and your rights, and the right to be free from the government quartering soldiers in the people’s private homes in times of peace (something that was a problem near the end of the era of British rule).
Amendments 4-8 are known as the “safeguards of justice.” Another problem with basically all other governments in the world at the time was the way they administered “justice.” Worldwide, the people had no right a fair trial, or to face their accusers, or really much else. Governments could jail people for just about anything they wanted for as long as they wanted, and they often did. They mainly jailed political dissidents, the poor, and those who hadn’t paid their taxes (which was again always the poor, as they paid the taxes to support the wealthy). So, these five amendments were designed to prevent such a thing from happening in the USA. This is often a bone of contention with government apologists who defend police abuse of power by default by saying things like, “If the police were after you, you must have done something wrong.” Literally 40 percent of the Bill of Rights only applies to people who have been accused of a crime (the seventh amendment concerns civil cases, rather than criminal).
Amendments 9 and 10 are known as the “unenumerated rights and reserved powers” amendments. The ninth acknowledges that the rights of the people are not limited only to the things mentioned in this Bill of Rights, and the 10th declares that all other rights not mentioned are to be legislated by the individual states. (The 10th was made largely toothless by the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 23rd, 24th and 26th amendments, which is a whole other subject for another time.)
I believe that everything above this is not only the right of every American to know, but actually the duty of every American to know. However, in my experience, public school doesn’t often do a very good job of explaining these things, and I ended up having to learn about this stuff by reading dozens of history books on the Founders and the Founding.
The conspiracy theorist in me wants me to believe that the reason so many Americans seem to be so ignorant of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights is because, “The government wants people to blindly follow its policies and laws, and knowledge of the Constitution, and especially its Bill of Rights, keeps people from doing so.” But the more rational part of me can’t help but counter that conspiracy theorist with, “Considering the apparent intelligence (or lack thereof) of many/most of our elected officials, and our government’s track record of actually pulling off grand ideas in my lifetime, I doubt there’s any sort of ‘master plan’ behind American ignorance. Chances are, it’s by choice.”
And that’s the rub.
Today’s U.S. Federal Government is inarguably hostile to the rights of the people. Our Founders knew this was going to happen, and it actually began during the presidency of John Adams – much sooner than any of the Founders probably would’ve guessed, and Adams himself was not only one of the Founders, but the man who was responsible for the sudden emergence of tyranny less than a decade into the life of the USA (which you can read about here if you so choose).
Governments always naturally drift from freedom to tyranny if left unchecked. Again, quoting Jefferson (from his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge put forth to the Virginia Legislature in 1778):
“Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, …whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or accidental condition of circumstance.”
(I’m aware I’m quoting one particular Founder, and he’s definitely not the end-all, be-all of Founding Fathers, but it’s easy because he was the most prolific writer, and actually invented a machine that duplicated every letter as he wrote it, preserving them all for his posterity.)
In today’s federal government, where the partisan divide may be the worst it’s ever been, there’s one thing that consistently receives bipartisan support: Violating the rights of the people.
For example, the people on today’s modern right wing often ignore what’s in the first amendment, for example, when they push for putting religious monuments on government ground while excluding the placement of monuments from non-Christian churches and groups. It’s as if they believe that just because it’s their feeling or belief, it matters more than the feelings and beliefs of others. And it’s wrong. No person’s feelings or beliefs can be treated by the government as any more or less important than anyone else’s, if indeed this is to remain (or return to being) a free country. It’s wrong. It’s also primarily Republicans who support the government refusing to allow Gay Marriage despite it being the law of the land. These people don’t believe that the Constitution is the “highest law,” but fail to understand that in the United States, legally, it actually is. And Republicans are also primarily responsible (as they held the majority in both houses of congress at the time) for the passage and signing into law of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, which at the outset violated at least 6 of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights. But it definitely did have bipartisan support.
(For the record, because I know it’s going to come up about the Founders, yes, many did own slaves, but believe it or not, even many of the slave-owning Founders attempted to outlaw slavery, and blamed its existence on the pressures put upon them by King Edward.)
“If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816
As illustrated above, the USA was intended to be a place where everyone is free, but with freedom comes responsibility: You need to be prepared to be responsible for being truly informed, responsible for your own behavior, your own thoughts, your own religion, and perhaps most of all, your own safety. That last one is the crux of this column.
YOU ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
All living things have the right and responsibility to defend themselves, as well as defend their family, their community, and their property. All of them. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the plains of the western United States, the jungles and plains of Africa, or anywhere else in the world; anywhere you go you will find living things of all shapes and all sizes insuring their own safety, and the safety of those around them, and fighting to protect their food, their territory, their property, and their community.
That responsibility is not invalidated just because we live in a society. Actually, living in a society expands our responsibility, because we need to protect each other as well. That means that we cannot, and should not, rely upon any elements of our government as our only means of protection. Following the San Bernardino mass shooting, the police and sheriff’s departments did an absolutely amazing job, for certain, in tracking down and stopping the shooters. But they weren’t there to stop the attack, and you can’t expect the government to know where a bad thing is going to happen before it actually does. The onus remains on us, where it rightfully belongs.
RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS
That brings us to today’s American left wing. While the right is guilty of overlooking what’s in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights (and others), the left consistently overlooks what’s in the second. They love to not only isolate the amendment itself from the document it’s amending (the U.S. Constitution), but they even isolate a portion of the amendment as independent from the rest of what’s written in the same amendment. Here is the text of the second amendment (as ratified by the States and authenticated by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson), word for word:
“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 modern left likes to isolate the “well-regulated militia” part of the amendment, and here’s a detailed explanation of why that’s an error:
In Article 1, Section 8, the Constitution lays out the ability of congress to establish a militia with government money. It says that Congress has the power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises:
“To provide for calling for the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;”
Amendments are, by definition, changes to a document, so isolating an amendment from the document it’s amending is illogical. Knowing that this was an amendment to the Constitution, and not a sentence designed to stand on its own, what the Second Amendment clearly says is this, in laymen’s terms:
“We acknowledge that the militia as described in Article 1, Section 8, is necessary to keep a free state secure, but the right of the people – that is, in contrast to the militia – to keep (own) and bear (carry) arms shall not be infringed.”
I’m not aware of any other place in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights where the Founders got the wording wrong, so it’s a pretty major assumption to believe they messed it up in the second amendment just because of what you want to believe. If they intended to be speaking only of the militia, they’d have finished it with, “the right of the militia to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But they didn’t. They said, “the people.” And they meant, “the people.”
This makes even more sense once you return to the point near the top about the purpose of the Bill of Rights: The entire Bill of Rights is about guaranteeing the rights of “the people” against the government’s eventual and inevitable wishes to violate those rights. So, even if they did make an error in the wording of this amendment (they didn’t), why would they include an amendment about a government entity’s right to bear arms (the militia) in a group of amendments designed to insure the rights of the people against the government?
They wouldn’t, and they didn’t. It is, and always was, meant to be an insurance to the people at large of their right – and their responsibility – to protect themselves from those who would attempt to harm them.
Now that that’s understood, let’s take this a step further:
After the San Bernardino mass shooting, the president gave a speech from the Oval Office during which he made some very good points (such as how Muslim countries need to take the lead in snuffing out ISIL/ISIS and others), and at least one very misguided point about gun control. This is an emotional issue on both sides. Both sides are moved by the unnecessary loss of life, and both sides are hurt by it, but for a reason unknown to me, the right is the only side that seems to keep its head in searching for a solution. It could be one of those “a broken clock is right twice a day” things.
President Obama has brought up gun control legistlation after every mass shooting at least since Sandy Hook, and I don’t think that’s crazy or wrong. If someone strapped C4 to themselves and blew up a classroom, how the person got the C4 should obviously be something of concern to the government, and guns are no different in that regard. The problem is specifically what the President has advocated to fix the problem of mass shootings. He has yet to acknowledge that the things he’s asking to be implemented would have quite literally stopped none of the mass shooters from committing their crimes. Here’s the misguided point, in detail:
He thinks that there should be universal background checks for all gun purchases everywhere in the country, and those background checks should prevent people from buying guns if they are officially indicated as being a criminal, having a dangerous mental illness, or being on the “No-Fly List” or the “Terrorist Watch List.”
All of these, in my estimation, are bad ideas, when we take into consideration what’s going on in our country today, much of which is a product of the aforementioned USA PATRIOT Act:
1) As of 2013, the “No-Fly List” has approximately 47,000 people on it, and the government has purposefully unclear about how we can land on the list, or how to get off of it. The only way most people will ever find out that they’re even on this list would be when they show up to an airport for a flight and are told they can’t board the plane. But this begs a question: If someone is too dangerous to fly in an airplane, why haven’t they been arrested and charged with a crime? Is there some level of acceptable public danger for walking or driving around in this country that’s not acceptable for flying as a passenger on a commercial airplane? Most importantly, absolutely none of the mass shooters we’ve had in the USA have been on the No-Fly List when they committed their crimes. None.
2) The “Terrorist Watch List” is even more broad than the no-fly list. There are at least 400,000 people on this list, and at least 20,000 of the people on this list are US Citizens or legal permanent residents. And once again, we don’t know how to get on the list, how to get off, or in this case even if we’re on the list at all. And as far as the public has been made aware, absolutely none of the mass shooters we’ve had were on the “Terrorist Watch List.” None.
In both cases above, using inclusion on these lists as guidelines for determining who should or should not be allowed to purchase a legal firearm violates not only the second amendment (as these are presumably “people” hoping to purchase firearms), but the fifth amendment as well, which guarantees that the people should never, “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Preventing you from purchasing a legal firearm using these factors violates your right to liberty and your right to property without due process of law. It’s unconstitutional. And that’s besides the main point, which is that this type of background check would have prevented absolutely none of the mass shootings we’ve had in this country. So, why bring it up now? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks he knows the answer: “If you want to ban guns outright, include dubiously legal lists that lack due process of law as deciding factors, then add everyone in the country to those lists.” The more rational part of me disagrees: “Maybe their solutions to mass shootings are irrational because their fear of guns is irrational.”
3) Next, there’s denying people the right to buy a firearm because of a criminal record. This is a major problem considering the things that can land you in jail today, how the justice system uses minimum sentencing guidelines to force presumably innocent people to plead guilty to a lesser charge (thus denying them a trial in the first place), how the justice system unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities and the poor, etc. On top of this is a much bigger point, though: If people are still dangerous, they should still be in prison! We’re so busy imprisoning drug offenders (over 609,000 people were arrested in 2013 for marijuana possession alone) that we are actually making things easy for real, violent criminals to not only avoid getting caught (just over 480,000 people were arrested in 2013 for all violent crimes combined), but those who are caught get let out of jail early to make room for people who had the audacity to have a piece of a plant in their pockets.
But if you serve your time in prison and cease to be a danger to the public, you have paid your debt to society, and should be able to return to being equal to your fellow Americans. Denying former criminals the right to bear arms and protect themselves and their families isn’t just a constitutional problem, it’s an ethical problem. The government is partially responsible for any person who is barred the legal right to purchase a firearm by the government and is then injured or killed in a situation where they are unable to effectively defend themselves as a result. It’s wrong for someone to be forever denied equal rights under the law just because they were convicted of a crime once. People who are still violent should be denied the right to bear arms; after all, prisoners already can’t buy firearms. We don’t need any extra laws to insure that. To top it off, once again, none of the mass shooters who obtained their firearms through legal means had a conviction on their record that could have stopped them from buying the firearms they used. And the convictions are what matter, not accusations, once again because of that pesky right to due process of law.
4) And finally, there’s denying people the right to buy a firearm because of mental health problems. The Republicans actually, as a whole, correctly identify mental illness as a primary driving force of mass shootings, and I think that’s pretty undeniable. However, they refuse to fund any sort of fixes at the government level to address it, so their recognition of the problem is inconsequential. The idea of making sure that people who suffer from violent mental illness should be prevented from buying firearms is sound on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you find massive problems with this guideline as well. First off, it should be limited to potentially violent mental-health problems. In the source above, it references that the Sandy Hook shooter was completely untreated for psychiatric ailments “like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.” First off, he didn’t buy those guns; his mother did. And he murdered her and stole them from her, so he didn’t get the guns through legal channels. But those are also not violent mental illnesses. If every OCD person in the USA was denied the purchase of firearms because they have an affinity for even numbers, or feel the need to knock on a door in three sets of three like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, that would be a violation of their rights, and wouldn’t actually solve anything.
Then there’s the prohibitive cost and availability of psychiatric care in this country, which often results in wait times of more than a month to see a psychiatrist, assuming you have money or insurance to pay for treatment in the first place. And even with the current system for checking for severe mental illness in place, the number of psychiatrists reporting back to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in the first place is spotty at best. So, because of the way our healthcare system works, and the tremendous expense it creates for people of all ages, denying someone the right to bear arms on this basis requires that someone essentially self-reports an issue to a psychiatrist (assuming they can get an appointment), goes to the psychiatrist, has insurance or money to pay the psychiatrist, goes often enough to end up with a diagnosis and a treatment, and their psychiatrist reports them to the NICS. Without a diagnosis, this part of background checks is useless, and in this system, diagnoses are actually rare. So, although this may be a good idea in a system where we had cheap, high quality, and readily available mental healthcare (like we should), it amounts to very little in the system that we have today. And once again, none of the mass shooters who obtained their firearms through legal means would have been denied the ability to buy their firearms because of this mental-health protocol. (Even the Louisiana movie theater shooter earlier this year was not actually admitted to any mental-health facilities against his will.)
If we aren’t focusing on things that actually fix the problems we’re facing, why are we talking about the problems at all? Politics, probably…
The fact is that there’s a gun phobia in this society. Part of it is driven by false and misleading headlines about there being more than one mass shooting per day this year so far, or simply by people being blissfully unaware that firearm homicides have actually dropped by half in the last 22 years, while the number of guns has rocketed to well over 300 million owned by civilians.
But I think it goes deeper than that. People fear what they don’t understand, and a lot of people – especially on today’s political left – are ignorant when it comes to guns. This fear leads to legislation that demonstrates that the left is so afraid of guns that they presume that anyone who wants a gun, by default, is a potentially violent criminal who is a danger to themselves or others.
Don’t believe me? Here’s exhibit A: The entire premise behind waiting periods for gun purchases (in California, it’s 10 days) is that lawmakers are afraid that people buying guns are doing so because they want to do harm to themselves or others, and the waiting period (also tellingly known as “cooling-off periods”) is designed to allow the person to return to a pattern of normal, non-violent, thought. This is still an idea being pushed throughout the “blue states” in our country, despite the fact that there’s no statistical evidence to indicate that waiting periods result in any less violent crime.
I believe that presuming that every single person who purchases a firearm is a potential danger to themselves or others is a clear violation of the intent of the Bill of Rights, and definitely so when you realize there’s a total lack of legal due process.
The long-term solution to mass shootings is that we fix our nation’s mental-health infrastructure. In the short term, as I already pointed out almost three years ago, the solution is actually the opposite of these proposed gun-control measures. We need to provide a rational, legal process, nationwide, with which people can choose to be subject to the same background checks and weapons training that local police candidates are subject to, and at the conclusion of this process, people should be allowed to carry concealed firearms everywhere, with very few exceptions (such as court).
There are already plenty of examples of civilians stopping mass shootings with their firearms (that’s not a complete list), and these are people without the government-mandated training I’m proposing.
In the end, the people are clamoring for guns. And I believe the reason is that they don’t trust that the government is even attempting to protect them from violent people. On one hand, the modern right wing properly identifies mental illness as a primary driving force behind mass shootings, but they refuse to fund any fixes to our mental-health system. On the other hand, the modern left wing is proposing solutions that are not only unconstitutional and violate our basic human rights of self-defense, but also would have prevented exactly zero of the mass shootings we’ve experienced.
If the government wants to fix this problem, they need to start by respecting the people and our rights. Starting anywhere else will always end up with unbendable resistance, and the problem will simply continue as it is.
And that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned.