Thursday, August 13, 2009

A modest proposal

After reading this column by Gail Collins in the NY Times this morning, I reflected that this new, worrying phenomenon of anti-health reform mobs packing heat at town halls poses an interesting health-care question. Namely, if an anti-reformist does an injury to himself with his gun, what is the likelihood that his insurance will cover it?

I say that with my tongue firmly in my cheek of course, but the ongoing saga of anti-reform mobs—and yes, “mobs” is the proper term here—pre-empting discussion and dialogue at the behest of lobbyists in the employ of the health insurance industry, to say nothing of the egregious disinformation being disseminated, represents a depressing nadir in U.S. political discourse.

But I’m off topic. It was the issue of guns that sat me down to post this morning. More specifically, it was the bizarre fact that all of the guns on display in the cases outlined by Ms. Collins were entirely legal.

I find it interesting that those most adamant defenders of the second amendment tend to share political ground with those who favour a “strict constructionist” interpretation of the constitution—namely, the belief that the constitution should not be re-interpreted to suit new historical contexts, but should hew as closely as possible to what the Founding Fathers intended when drafting it.

Now, speaking as an English professor, I think this entire approach is a bit wonky. Interpreting a text on the speculation of what was in its authors’ heads is an invitation to fallacy. On the other hand, I’m willing to grant that there is a lot of daylight between matters literary and legal. That being said, I’m not sure how a strict constructionist approach to the second amendment translates into “guns for everyone!” It reads, “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.”

Here, a little historical context is helpful. The Founding Fathers were deeply suspicious of professional armies such as the British redcoats, seeing them as the tools of tyranny. The original idea was that the U.S. should not have a professional army, but a people’s militia. To that end, it was the citizenry’s obligation to have weapons on hand to prevent (to quote The Simpsons) King George from coming into your living room to push you around.

Well and good. Of course, that particular prejudice against a professional military class didn’t last, and today the U.S. spends as much on its defense budget as the rest of the world combined.

See, if I was being a strict constructionist, I would parse the amendment as follows: the first clause regarding the “well regulated militia” (key word regulated) that is necessary for the “security of a free state” (i.e. national security resides in this militia) modifies the main clause “the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Gun-rights advocates tend to decontextualize the main clause, leaving out the modifying clause—which ultimately stipulates that the right to bear arms is predicated on being a militia reservist.

The fact of the professional U.S. military sort of derails a strict constructionist reading of this amendment. I do however have a solution—two solutions, actually.

Seeing as how the second amendment implies the illegality of a professional military, it should be dissolved and everyone gets to stockpile as many guns as they want. Failing that option, in exchange for surrendering their firearms, every American will be issued one Brown Bess musket—which was undoubtedly what the Founders had in mind when they spoke of “arms”—to have on hand should King George ever feel like throwing his weight around again.

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