July 05, 2010
Also on the Daily Kos. This diary began as a comment to Angry Mouse's front page diary on the Daily Kos about the Second Amendment, but since it ended up being nearly a thousand words long, I decided to make a full diary out of it. It ended up on the rec list, over 400 comments at last count.
Why this liberal doesn't love the Second Amendment
I was born in the US and have lived in Germany for the past 24 years, and although many Americans don't like to hear it, it remains an enduring truth: the proliferation of guns and prevalence of gun violence in the United States is appalling, tragic, breaks my heart as an American, and is utterly out of line with just about all of the Western democracies that we consider comparable to ours. No American, certainly no liberal, should be willing to stand for it a moment longer. Certainly it's possible to do a lot about that without changing anything about the 2nd Amendment, but if repealing the Amendment is what it takes, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest.
Having come from the US, I know that many of you believe that certain things are just inevitable facts of life -- that there are certain areas of large cities where you just don't go, for fear of your life (and you're raised with the assumption that people who do go to those places and die, in a crucial sense, should have known better); that thousands upon thousands of people just get shot to death every year; and that's just the way it is. But from my experience outside of the US I can assure you -- it doesn't have to be that way. I live in the second-largest city in Germany, with a metro population of over 4 million, and while violent crime certainly does go on here, the level of fear and deadliness is worlds apart from what we know in America's largest cities. A quick trip to Wikipedia shows firearms homicide rates in the US as six times the rate in Germany, and also vastly higher than anywhere else in western Europe, but I don't need statistics to know that, because the everyday sense of safety is vastly greater here than where I came from. We don't have to tolerate these conditions in our country. If your argument is based on patriotism, then I have to ask -- how much do care about your country if you're willing to live with so many murdered Americans, when evidence around the world shows decisively that the deaths can be greatly reduced?
As for Angry Mouse's arguments about the Constitution -- let's be fair and recognize that the Heller and McDonald decisions, led by Scalia and the strong conservative drift of the Court in recent decades -- overturned decades of precedent according to which 2nd Amendment rights were not interpreted as an unlimited individual right to gun ownership. Whether or not you agree, the fact is that this is a major historical turn to the right on the part of the Supremes, made possible by decades of Republican presidents filling up the Court.
I take a back seat to no one in my reverence for the Constitution, and I resent the implication my problems with the 2nd Amendment are a symptom of disrespecting it. If you truly love the Constitution, then know a few things about its history, and its flaws. The Constitution is an enduring work of genius, the longest-lasting foundation of a nation-state in history. It also, in its original form, counted slaves as three-fifths of human beings. It gives us the cockamamie scheme of the Electoral College that makes it possible for someone to become President with a minority of popular votes, thus leaving us with Dubya instead of President Gore. And I notice that in Mouse's rundown of the Bill of Rights, she skipped over the Third Amendment, which most charitably can be described as an anachronism (it's widely regarded as something of a joke). Cherish the Constitution, fight for it, but don't make the naive mistake of treating every bit of it as sacred and untouchable. Among the many brilliant insights of the Founders was their knowledge of their own limitations and the unforeseen circumstances of the future; they built it so that we can fix its flaws, if necessary.
Upon reflection during my years outside of the United States, I've realized that the problem of gun violence has more to do with the people's attitudes than with legal questions. If the people of a democracy want more restrictions, they'll have them, and that's exactly the difference over here. What distinguishes a place like Germany from America, where gun ownership is involved, is first and foremost that hardly anybody here wants the damn guns. Guns kill people. If many people have many guns, many people will get shot, and gun violence in the country will start to be more like it is in the US, and nobody in their right could want such a thing.
So the discussion of gun rights and violence really should begin with what we think about the guns in the first place, rather than with the law and the Constitution. But let me just say a few things about that anyway. First of all, the idea that there is a "natural right" to own a firearm, equivalent to freedom of speech, has always struck me as profound nonsense. It's like saying you have a right to drive an SUV. In so many ways, we recognize the government's right to impose restrictions in the interest of public safety. There's no "natural right" that stands in the way of doing so with firearms.
Worst of all, a moment's consideration of the rate of firearms violence in the US makes it clear that advocates of unlimited gun ownership rights are being selfish and, frankly, ghastly. What the hell is it about owning a gun that is so sacred and inviolable? Is it the joy of felling the deer, or hitting the bullseye? For that, we're willing to live with the deaths of thousand upon thousands of Americans every year? What kind of values are those, where is the humanity? If we can save American lives, then of course restrictions on gun ownership are an acceptable price to pay; I recoil in horror at any standard of morals that could conclude any differently.