Guns and Liberty, Guns and Fear
by Bob Schober
Another mass shooting, more calls for something to be done. Politicians pause for prayer, Republicans and red-state Democrats squirm with generalities, and Trump picks his way carefully through the National Rifle Association policy thicket, hoping not to be pilloried by his supporters or NRA gun rights fanatics.
Trump said change is necessary, too, but on the fringes: strengthening background checks and banning bump stocks, both of which the NRA supports. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, acknowledging student anger and outrage, is also calling for raising the age limit to purchase assault-style weapons from 18 to 21 in his state. Speaking before the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 23, Trump called for arming willing teachers and school officials, an idea widely panned.
The murder of 14 students and three teachers on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is the latest, as of this writing, in what has become an almost daily occurrence in America. The NRA, long an almost exclusive Republican cash register calling for every citizen to own a gun and carry it everywhere, has long controlled the gun debate. The Douglas students, in their grief and fury, have created the Never Again movement to call politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, to account for their kowtowing to NRA’s propaganda, money and organizing power.
Change rises from below, and the growing movement could, at long last, shift the politics.
On CNN’s “State of the Union” of February 18, Cameron Kasky, a shooting survivor and cofounder of the Never Again movement, said: “My message for people in office is: you’re either with us or against us. We are losing our lives, and the adults are playing around. We don’t need you, and on March 24 you are going to be seeing students in every major city. We have our lives on the line here.”
On Feb. 20, three charter buses arrived in Tallahassee with 100 Stoneman Douglas students and their 15 adult chaperones to urge the Florida state legislature to adopt stricter gun control laws. An account of that day was written by Emily Witt in the New Yorker, and the following excerpt reveals the energy and anger fueling the movement:
Kasky … stood on a car to make announcements and give advice.
“A lot of people with cameras here are here to help, and a lot of people with cameras here are here to destroy us and keep the Second Amendment safe. First of all, we’re doing that, too. I want my dad to keep his guns. We’re just trying to just not let seventeen of us get shot in the f…… face again.”
The Women’s March Network has called for a nationwide student walkout at 10 a.m. March 14 to last 17 minutes, one minute for each life lost in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. That to be followed on March 24 for a student “March for Our Lives” in Washington D.C.
In 2017, there were 345 mass shootings, defined as four or more killed by one shooter, the deadliest year is modern U.S. history, according to Gun Violence Archive. Since 2012, more than 1,600 mass shootings have occurred nationwide with more than 1,800 killed and more than 6,400 injured, according to the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center.
There have been 290 school shootings since 2013, about one per week, according to Every Town Research. There were 65 school shootings in 2017, and as of Feb. 20, there have been 18 school shootings in 2018.
The public certainly wants something done. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Feb. 20 showed 97 percent of respondents and gun owners both support universal background checks with 2 percent opposed.
Even Pat Robertson, the arch-conservative televangelist, insists on some change. On The 700 Club on Tuesday, Feb. 20, he said: “I’ve got no opposition whatsoever to shooting, but for heaven’s sakes, I don’t think that the general population needs to have automatic weapons.” (Fully automatic weapons were banned by the National Firearms Act of 1934 the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986. The AR-15 is a semiautomatic version of the U.S. military M16).
Roberston called for more thorough background and medical checks and a ban on “bump stocks,” the attachments that enable semi-automatic rifles to fire faster, more like machine guns.
NRA President Wayne LaPierre, speaking at CPAC, took a defiant line, blaming media for wallowing in increased ratings following mass shootings and argued that more armed security would stop school shootings and called on parents to beef up security on campuses.
“Evil walks among us, and God help us if we don’t harden our schools and protect our kids,” he said.
Have you heard this phrase? “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.” That is vintage LaPierre, and the first commandment of the NRA. His school arming idea was rather undercut, one might say, by the Broward (Florida) County sheriff announcing that the armed and uniformed school resource officer on the Stoneman Douglas site took cover, as did three other sheriff deputies, rather than enter the building and engage the shooter.
Many pro-gun advocates, including Trump, are calling for stricter enforcement of background checks, even though Trump and the GOP Congress cut such spending in the new federal budget.
Another rallying cry is more restrictions against the right of the mentally ill to own guns, and following the 2012 Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting, LaPierre blamed “delusional killers” for gun violence in the U.S. and called for a national registry of people with mental illness. But in February 2017, Trump repealed an Obama Administration regulation that would have made it easier to block the sale of firearms to those with certain mental illnesses.
There is, however, little evidence to support the idea that the mentally ill are largely responsible for these horrible mass killings. The National Center for Health Statistics, which tracks gun homicides, reports that fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people with mental illness. Rather, gun deaths and firearm ownership, after controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors (poverty, education levels, etc.) and other crimes, in places with more guns have more gun deaths, according to the Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center.
Mass Shootings the Blood of Liberty?
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its first interpretation of the Second Amendment since 1939. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes such as self-defense. In 1994, gun-owning households held an average of 4.2 firearms; in 2013, that number rose to an estimated 8.1 firearms, according to Pew Social Trends.org.
Here’s some background:
Southern states had armed militias patrolling for the purpose of slave control, and their votes were necessary to enact the Constitution. The generally spotty performance of militias during the Revolutionary War convinced the Founders of the need for a standing army. There was a widespread concern that a standing army could be a threat to individual freedom, and an armed citizenry could be called to defend the country when threatened. James Madison, who wrote the Second Amendment, understood the need to allay southerners’ fear that their militias might be disarmed, leaving whites defenseless against enslaved blacks, wrote Carl T. Bogus, Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Roger Williams School of Law in Rhode Island, author of The Hidden History of the Second Amendment.
Some the arguments from then echo today in the entrenched, never-ending gun debate.
Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Thomas Jefferson’s notorious statement made before the Constitution was enacted and he was elected president: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Marty Hayes, president of the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network, cited that quote in a members’ journal article of February 2013 defending the civilian need for modern semi-automatic weapons.
“We, the citizens of America, need to retain the same weaponry as our military and police to even the playing field, so that in the event of an attempt to enslave the American people, we can resist equally,” Hayes wrote. “Revolting against tyranny is the first reason Americans must retain our rights to own high capacity, semi-automatic weapons.”
So, if Hayes is correct, will the NRA next call for citizens to have tanks and fighter jets? In our history, people have successfully protested and changed government actions without guns – the civil rights movement is one example.
Hayes’ view captures the essence of the insurrectionist theory, adopted by the NRA in the 1960s, that the ultimate check on government tyranny is an armed citizenry, and citizens have the right to keep and bear arms so they can resist the government when it falls into the hands of traitors or tyrants. The only problem with this theory, Bogus points out, is “Who is to decide whether the government has fallen into the hands of tyrants and traitors?”
Hayes also argues that citizens need such weapons to defend themselves and their families and “counter criminal violence.” However, the crime levels in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, for example, are about the same, but the U.S. murder with firearms rate is 138 times higher, according to NationMaster.
The debate about these weapons goes back decades, and author Kurt Vonnegut joined the fray in his 1991 “Fates Worse Than Death.”
“I only wish the NRA and its jellyfish, well-paid supporters in legislatures both State and Federal would be careful to recite the whole of it, and then tell us how a heavily armed man, woman or child, motivated and restrained only by his or her personality and perceptions of what is going on, can be considered a member in a well-regulated militia.”
Bob Schober is managing editor of Whatcom Watch.