Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Constitutional Proposal

2nd: 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.

            According to the Gospel of Matthew the Roman satrap Herod the Great, having heard through the magi that a great king was to be born in Bethlehem, and willing to brook no competitor, ordered the killing of all male babies in that village.  The feast of the “Slaughter of the Innocents” falls in most western churches just after Christmas, and it has been the subject of famous works of art, including the well-known paintings of Breughel and Poussin, among many others.  There is no other evidence of the historicity of the supposed event, allowing us at least the hope that it might be emblematic rather than literal.  But its horror, alas, is not inconsistent with actual known realities concerning the exercise of power in the ancient Near East.  The final verse of the beautiful psalm Super flumina ("By the Waters of Babylon") expresses the fervent wish of the psalmist that the infants of his oppressors have their heads crushed against a stone wall.

Herod's men bearing arms: Breughel

            Of Herod it can at least be said that he had an identifiable rational motive.  He was not a vaguely “disturbed youth” or “troubled loner”.  The arena of most moral analysis, surely, is the relationship between means and ends.  Herod used unspeakable means in pursuit of an ignoble end, but there was some connection between means and ends.

            We have a very big problem with guns in the United States.  I will spare you the bit about growing up out in the country, of sensing for as long as I can remember that guns were ordinary machines, though perhaps demanding even more respect than such other dangerous machines as automobiles, chainsaws, mowers, or engine block hoists, or of assuming that shooting birds and small animals was a universally practiced mode of improving a family’s protein intake.  That’s all true, but also quite irrelevant to the pre-Christmas slaughter of innocents in Newtown CT.

            The gun problem in America is complex and of long duration.  It is probably not susceptible to solution, but that does not mean it is beyond amelioration.  One index of intelligent organization, surely, is a reasonable correlation between theory and practice.  Take a look at the second amendment to the Constitution.  The second thing to notice about it is that there is not a person alive who can parse its grammar.  If the absolute phrase with which it begins is a justification for “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” the amendment is at the very least obsolete.  The national defense has not depended upon private arms for most of the history of the republic.  But the first thing to notice about the second amendment is that it is an amendment.

            Our Constitution makes no claim to perfection or immutability.  How could it?   Our adulation of the Founders sometimes does not stop short of idolatry.  Would such men be so stupid as to fail to anticipate the probable need for future changes, or to fail to provide a vehicle for their accomplishment?  Of course not.  Almost immediately people saw the need to make ten such changes, and made them by amendment.  We call them the Bill of Rights.  Yet everything legal was not in fact always right.  For example the Constitution clearly recognized the legitimacy of chattel slavery.  Chucking out the constitutional “right” to enslave human beings turned out to be a rather controversial and strenuous business, but the nation eventually got around to it by amendment.  What amend means is “to change or modify for the better;” and it can be accomplished by subtraction no less than by addition.

            Though I lack specific social science data I will venture the guess that alcohol abuse has racked up an even sorrier record of disaster in our American domestic society than has gun abuse.  It certainly has in my personal, anecdotal experience.  I know of no gun accident or atrocity among my own family, my neighbors, or my college classmates.  I could point to a dozen alcohol disasters among that same group.  Thus I can sympathize with and understand the motives of those who, after decades of struggle, succeeded in prohibiting alcoholic beverages in 1920 by means of the Eighteenth Amendment.

            Of course the Eighteenth Amendment itself soon turned out to be a disaster.  When enough people came to that conclusion, they repealed it in 1933 by means of the Twenty-First Amendment.  It took only a brief time for the well-intentioned prohibition of alcohol to reveal its unfortunate unintended consequences.  It has taken the Second Amendment a couple of centuries longer, but they now seem to me sufficiently clear.  What was once intended to extend our liberties has become, in Paul’s terms, “a cloak of maliciousness”. 

            I propose the repeal of the Second Amendment.  Let firearms and their possession go unmentioned in the Constitution.  Let firearms be like trains, planes, automobiles, chainsaws, commercial explosives, electrical wiring, potable alcohol, and thousands of other items of our material culture—stuff that may be very useful, but still potentially dangerous to a degree that invites periodic review and regulation by the duly constituted authorities charged with preserving the general welfare.