A Living Anachronism Helps Kill Children

February 20, 2018

Culture, Ethics, Odds&Ends, Uncategorized


Compare and contrast our Constitution’s fable with reality. The fable: Haloes gleamed over wigged secular apostles as they knelt beside their polished spittoons in 1787. They never haggled, never referred to their mother country, and never debated behind closed doors in a muggy city in defiance of their original commission. So dare not think the heretical thought: Maybe the Second Amendment has outlived its usefulness. Maybe it’s like an old, empty, unmoored ship, dangerous to other vessels as it drifts in their path.

Our debate over gun regulation dances around the obvious: The fears and assumptions of a previous century reach into ours, groping like an alien’s fingers until they find us and strangle us. The unwritten rules of quasi-religious nationalism – as opposed to simple patriotism — muddle genuine discourse. Ironically, we fail to appreciate the Constitution for what it really is. It’s a remarkable human document forged in compromise at the world’s edge and wrapped in 18th-century anxieties. Neither James Madison nor Alexander Hamilton thought they were writing new Scriptures, nor would they question the loyalty of 21st-century Americans suggesting re-writes of the grammatically dubious amendment (read the version passed by Congress: “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”).

Lift the fable’s fog. Distinguish religion, which dwells on transcendent verities, from politics, which Merriam Webster’s defines as “the art and science of government.” The two spheres can remain distinct despite their occasional overlaps (Christian pacifism, for example, has political outcomes).

Crawl into the framers’ heads: They were Brits with a grudge. They launched their rebellion because they thought his majesty’s government violated their rights as Englishmen. American Constitutional Law was erected on the foundation of British Common Law, and not one of the new rights could trim pre-existing entitlements. Parliament had passed its own Bill of Rights in 1689 after a previous Catholic king attempted to strip Protestants of their weapons. Protestants — not Catholics — could bear arms “for their defense suitable to their conditions, and as allowed by law.”

Add it up: The Second Amendment hearkens to 17th-century British fears of a “papist” coup coupled with the founders’ memories of the raid on Lexington and Concord.

Anxieties over despotism framed the unworkable Articles of Confederation, so delegates were dispatched to Philadelphia to modify them. They scrapped the Articles and wrote our Constitution without asking for permission (hear the howls if today’s politicians did that). The Bill of Rights came later, partly as a concession to states guarding their near-nation status and wary of the federal power to raise an army. James Madison assured skeptics in the Federalist Papers that state militias could defend themselves against national troops, unwittingly supplying intellectual fodder for the South in the Civil War.

Underscore this: The aim of the Second Amendment was the armament of state militias. As Michael Waldman pointed out: “There is not a single word about an individual’s right to a gun for self-defense or recreation in Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention. Nor was it mentioned, with a few scattered exceptions, in the records of the ratification debates in the states. Nor did the House of Representatives discuss the topic as it marked up the Bill of Rights.”

The US Supreme Court always ruled accordingly until 2008, when it overthrew precedent 5-4 in The District of Columbia v. Heller – a deviant decision that may not stand the test of time.

Those militias were eventually dissolved and folded into the National Guard, voiding the amendment’s raison d’etre. It’s now anchorless. It drifts like an old ship into discussions for which it was never intended and arms the National Rifle Association.

The 18th-century world is so foreign, so distant, so … alien. The gap between us and the founders yawns: The United States “were” (not “was”) 13 rural, loose-knit semi-countries of 3.9 million on the rim of a vast, unmapped wilderness. New York City’s population was 33,000; Philadelphia’s, 28,522; Boston’s, 18,320. Life expectancy at birth in 1789 was 34.5 years for males and 36.5 years for women. Physicians bled and purged their patients to balance the “humors.” The indigenous peoples were “naked savages” and African Americans were three-fifths human (it’s there, in our supposedly sacred Constitution: Article One, Section 2, Paragraph 3).

Feel the choking fingers. Seventeen of the 39 Constitutional signatories kept slaves. Highlight that: They owned people. An unremarkable white male like me could purchase Colin Powell. Thomas Jefferson could halt Martin Luther King between his I-have-a-dreams to check his teeth. Maybe he’d buy him (buy him!) along with Coretta so they’d serve as Monticello “house hands.”

Times have changed. Britain and the United States are now the best of pals. We’ve rescued the Mother Country twice and she has evolved into a democracy arguably more representative than ours. Meanwhile, the royal descendants of dreaded King George III now fulfill this job description: “Please humiliate yourself before paparazzi with long-range lenses.”

Legal scholars mumble something about the National Guard functioning as the modern militia. Some even keep a straight face.

America’s 21st-century fears center around mad men in malls and movie theaters and schools – not agents of mitered ecclesiasts nor the army of General Cornwallis. Britain has seen this and, while acknowledging the spirit of her Bill of Rights, implements stricter gun regulations.

Should we re-write the Second Amendment and, at least, smooth its grammar? Maybe. Maybe not. The question is worth reasoned, dispassionate debate. Alas, the chances are of that are slim in this polemical era. In order to engage, we must abandon the myth and pry away those alien fingers. Our founders were not apostles; they were sweating men with clashing intentions, fretting about their newborn country and Philadelphia’s occasional yellow fever outbreaks.

Their document — admirable as it was — was not holy writ.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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