My Turn: If not now, when do we address guns?


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Oct. 1 murders by retiree Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas have crippled South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan’s “Hearing Protection Act,” now wending through Congress. Silencers, endorsed by the NRA, Duncan says, “Would have prevented my hearing loss.” That’s as if Duncan said, “Something must be done to improve these cigarettes because the smoke is killing me.” Such is the mischief of those serving us in Congress.

Republicans have been quick to say this isn’t a time for politics, but a time for grieving. But is it not the moment to act to prevent such cause of grieving?

In 1981, President Reagan was shot and his press secretary James Brady wounded and paralyzed, leading to enactment of the Brady Law requiring background checks of persons buying guns. But 18 years later, the National Rifle Association has succeeded in gutting that law.

Full disclosure: While I am not a hunter, I fully support hunting. I came of age in a family of small game hunters in Indiana, helped my uncles dress game and enjoyed the feast. My grandfather was a storyteller, with the hunt one of his favorite topics. I always allowed hunters access to the 125-acre woodlot of my farm.

In the Army, I was familiarized with all manner of military-style weapons. I believe their private ownership for any purpose should be unlawful. Possession of a whole range of exotic weapons and ammunition, not appropriately related to hunting, such as the legally purchased incendiary ammunition Paddock had in his hotel suite, should be criminalized. Custody of such materials can only mean the bearer means to do harm.

In the past 20 years, the NRA has donated $3.55 million to members of Congress. In a recent year, 293 recipients were Republicans, 14 were Democrats, suggesting a bias on gun issues based on party affiliation. But mass murder of concertgoers or children in school barely stirs the air around lawmakers of either party. Beyond this wholesale purchase of influence, the NRA exercises an even more powerful sway in its championing of candidates who will serve organization interests when they reach office.

In 1939, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the National Firearms Act of 1934, which required certain types of firearms be registered and taxed. The effort was a response to Prohibition-sponsored violence and was directed at weapons used by gangs. The justices’ decision failed to resolve rival interpretations of the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution.

In 1975, in order to reduce rampant violence in Washington, the D.C. City Council banned residents’ ownership of handguns and automatic weapons. In Heller v. District of Columbia, 2008, in a 5 to 4 decision on clear lines of party affiliation, the justices ruled the 2nd Amendment is not a collective right for militias, but an individual right for people to possess firearms —  by extension those of the Las Vegas shooter to possess 47 and bring most of them to his hotel room to subsequently murder 58. The court focused on people having guns available for self-defense.

Five judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, based their decision on what is termed “originalism,” that is, their interpretation of what the authors of the Constitution meant in their 2nd Amendment wording. No concept could be more subjective. In their rulings — strictly following their party association — these Supreme Court judges nearly always interpret words to serve those political party interests. In this matter, Republicans broadly support gun possession while Democrats do not. With good reason some of our Founding Fathers deeply feared the narrow views and gridlock that this republic would endure if political parties emerged.

Here is the reason these five justices got their interpretive argument wrong. While legal scholars conclude there is a common law understanding that individuals have the right to possess guns for reasonable purposes, the justices’ interpretation of the word “militias” ignored the basis for its appearance in the 2nd Amendment.

The first was that then rebel army Commander-in-Chief George Washington’s military recruitment depended on militias raised in the 13 colonies. In passing, we must also understand that the late 18th Century was a time when empire-competing European powers of Spain, France and Britain were interested in, and able to extend, their colonial reach here.

The second reason for adding the militia provision — a demand made by southern colonies before they would ratify the Constitution as it had been written — was that these colonies required militias to defend against frequent slave rebellions. Of course, slavery and the decided wealth it was creating for this country is nowhere mentioned in our Constitution.

Americas’ vast and unparalleled gun culture arises from yet another shameful history, our almost immediate imperial advance into the West, one that soon crossed the continent and crushed the first American tribes in settler’s path. When the victims defended their ancestral land, the newcomers needed guns for self-defense.

Charlemont resident Carl Doerner is a historian and author.