What is liberty?

I was pretty excited to learn that a second book by Harper Lee will be released this year. No matter how Go Set a Watchman rates against To Kill a Mockingbird, I am not fussed. I will buy her book in good faith. See, I owe Harper Lee.

TKAM 4
Scout gets to know Boo Radley. The man had lived in her imagination as a monster, but turned out to be a child-like, gentle man.

The book helped to shape how I see the world. From rape to racism, mental illness to old age and pain, ethics, morality, equal rights and the fragile safety found in a loving home against a dangerous world, I learned a lot from the story Lee set out so gracefully.

Now that I live in Australia, going on 12 years, I am aging, and feel more inclined to speak out against injustice. I look at the country of my birth from a distance with objectivity and dismay, and I wonder, what happened to liberty?

Like many people on Facebook, I open my news feed each day to read about another death of a woman, man, child, or several people as a result of a handgun. Just now, I find out there was a mass shooting in Georgia. Five people dead. The man killed his ex, several children and then turned the gun on himself.

Don’t tell me that couldn’t have been stopped. Before that man picked up that gun with intent, there were signs, he was not right. This damaged individual had access to a firearm. There was a need to end something, and deprive a few people of not only their liberty, but their lives.

And there will likely be a few more before the week is out. That’s the way things seem to be going lately.

To date, right now, on February 7, 2015 in the United States, there have been 4,281 gun-related incidents resulting in 1,266 deaths (it was actually 4,275 with 1,268 when I began writing this a couple of hours ago). One month in and the number is 6.75 times the total number of deaths by a firearm for the entire year of 2011 in Australia when there were only 188 deaths. I would wager today’s stats aren’t too different.

I have to wonder, where the pro-gun, pro-carry in any respect people argue for their civil liberties, I need to ask, what is liberty? Does the freedom to live your life in safety and happiness mean more than the freedom to own a gun?

It think this is an issue far more complex, because the freedom to live means more than safety. But I fear the rhetoric that surrounds gun-violence and gun legislation has muddied the water when it comes to considering what is true freedom.

I also question the infringement of the liberty of children who are hard-wired to learn by example. When they are often the ones in the line of fire, how do adults shape a child’s perspectives on gun legislation and use?

kids-with-guns

For the past several months, I have received the daily, sometimes frequent posts from the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, that report timely items about who’s dead, where, how many, how old, and what those pro-open carry, concealed carry, anti-background check, anti-gun-free zones kind of people are doing now. Photos, and all the rest.

Sites such as The Gun Violence Archives and GunPolicy.org also supply the statistics, in perhaps a less biased manner. It is hard to look at the data and not feel biased if you have a grain of humanity about all those deaths.

In any event, my daily feed is uneven and I felt that to gain more understanding of the other side seemed like a good idea.

So for a change, I spent a few hours last night perusing the web sites of the other side. Like Bearing ArmsGun Owners of AmericaThe Second Amendment Foundation, OpenCarry.org, Keep and Bear Arms, The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (I didn’t expect that). Of course there was the NRA and the NRA Institute for Legal Action.

The sites offer a collection of knowledge. There are some sites that detail the passage of bills though state houses about the relaxation of gun control measures, safety checks, background checks, abolition of gun-free zones, where you can carry your fully-automatic weapon.

But among all of these web sites, I saw one clear shared message: Don’t take away our right to bear arms. In some groups teetering on or falling off the edge of reason, common sense seems to be a spurious detail and advocates are defiant and outspoken against legislation for universal background checks.

Moderates to extremists, the refrain is the same. Anything that refutes the Second Amendment right is a cause to fight.

bill of rightsSo I turned to the Second Amendment, checked out that famous sentence in the Bill of Rights, penned in 1789.

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.

I did a bit of snooping around the net, hit Wikipedia, a few articles by college history professors, and then eventually printed out and read a 27-page article titled The History of the Second Amendment (1994) by David E Vandercoy, professor of law at Valparaiso University.

What I learned was the Founding Fathers were carrying a heavy load of baggage from a few hundred years of armed history in Britain. There was a lot happening before any white man from the Mother Country set foot on North American soil.

To keep it simple, for a few centuries, the monarchy relied upon and even put into law that citizens should be ready as militias, and much of their might was made up not of standing armies, but citizen armies. It was Queen Elizabeth I who first titled those long-bow armed men her militia.

But the Revolutionaries felt screwed over by their British experience and had had enough. They resolved that to keep their infant government in check, (in the system of checks and balances) it was best to allow for a citizen’s army, to check the government. This was the view of the people creating the government, not John Doe in a cabin in the woods, but the main guys.

So the authors of the US Constitution were wary of a standing army maintained by the government, representing tyrannical rule.

Understandable. So much so that prior to ratifying the Constitution in 1787, each state had their own interpretation of a right to bear arms which was not yet even on the horizon. That was the Bill of Rights.

James Madison was a major player here. Part of the deal when the states got behind this Constitution idea was the federal government would put pay to the promise about those amendments. They were taking what the states had to say on board. Everybody wanted to start with a clean slate.

Madison was way into this. He was determined that a citizen’s rights to bear arms should be interwoven into the Constitution itself, and chose Article 1, Section 9 which is all about individual rights.

He took his proposal to a special committee which interpreted his thoughts and the collective thoughts of the states with this:

A well regulated Militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no person religiously scrupulous shall be compelled to bear arms.

Religion definitely played a part as through the centuries; Catholics or Protestants were systematically armed or de-armed by the monarchy and it left everone with a bad taste in their mouths. Additionally, in the late 1780s, the feeling was no Quaker should be forced to fight.

But the end, the last line was debated out because the government might use religion as justification against de-arming an individual. Remember, the concept of the federal government as an authoritarian figurehead was not on after what was seen as a rampant abuse of power by the British monarchy.

Two years after the Constitution, the Bill of Rights went under Congressional scrutiny. Professor Vandercoy writes:

The Senate streamlined the package by combining some amendments and simplifying others. On the right to bear arms, the Senate omitted the words “composed of the body of the people” and deleted the provision exempting conscientious objectors from service. The Senate rejected language that would have added the words, “for the common defense” as part of the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms (for the common defense) shall not be infringed.” Ultimately twelve articles were sent to the states for ratification. The first two failed, but the other ten were ratified.

The language of the Second Amendment, as adopted, read: 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.

How interesting is that?

So last year, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens published a book called Six Amendments: How and why we should change the Constitution. Revisiting that original intent behind the Second Amendment, Stevens suggests that an additional few words would clear up some of the emotional wreckage we are living with today.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.

It makes sense.

Now I ask, in its most basic form, a gun is designed for only one thing. It is designed to kill.

Target shooting and clay pigeons aside, and for all the people in the world who actually need a gun to kill an animal for food to survive, the only reason to have a gun is to be armed with a weapon to kill or injure the other guy before he gets you. Let’s be honest.

A Gallup poll conducted over four days in October 2014  recorded that 68 per cent of the 1,017 adults, aged 18 and above from all 50 states and Washington DC believed that having a gun in the home made them safer. That is up from the 35 per cent of that opinion, 14 years ago.

Why is this?

My thoughts? We feel safe armed in a society seemingly spiraling into violent response. If you are concerned an armed person will attack in a school, or a state building, or business, then either arm your teachers and your staff or install panic buttons. Or carry a gun. No matter most Americans I would wager couldn’t shoot their way out of a paper bag. No matter most people with a gun forget and those weapons are responsible for a growing number of shootings involving children and toddlers. No matter. Let’s get a gun. Because you never know…

Armed

The statistics say that in 1973, there were actually more guns owned by Americans than today; 49.1 per cent of households owned a gun compared to the 34.4 per cent in 2012. In 1998, perhaps more relevant, 36.7 percent of people had a firearm in the house. In 1999, the number of gun-related deaths was 28,874. In 2011, it was 32,163.

The rate of gun-related deaths per 100,000 people in the United States in 2011 was 10.3. There were an estimated 270,000,000 to 310,000,000 civilian-owned guns in the US, meaning that there are about 101 guns per 100 people.

So take two democratic, developed, first-world countries with strict gun control. how do they compare to the United States?

In Australia, where I live now, the most recent figures as I said, was 188 deaths in 2011 at a rate of .86 per 100,000, with 3,050,000 civilian-owned guns at a rate of 15 firearms per 100 people.

In the UK, it was 146 deaths at a rate of .23 per 100,000 with 4,060,000 guns at a rate of about 6.7 guns per 100 people.

Keeping all this in mind, I turn away from the Second Amendment and instead, look at the document that started the ball rolling; The Declaration of Independence.

I think many of us know the stirring language inherent in this declaration. It is a burgeoning nation’s stand against an oppressor and the feelings are eloquently laid out for King George III to see. One line that often stands out is:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s that created equal line that is so often used, and more often forgotten. Especially when it comes to the pro-gun lobby and all its associated mouthpieces.

Echo the now infamous quote from Samuel Wurzelbacher, who in response to the parents left childless after the University of California Santa Barbara mass shooting stated, “Your dead kids don’t trump my constitutional rights.” Classy.

Definitely not anything that reflects our Declaration of Independence.

Seriously, it is harsh, but his sentiments in various tempered forms essentially outline the philosophy that underlies the pro-gun argument. In effect, they have translated that second amendment into having the right to be armed, and they will fulfil that right.

duck and cover
Children duck and cover during a cold war nuclear bomb drill.

Personally, I feel that all these guns in the home, guns in the public sector and security measures, like the under the desk/on the floor drill for the nuclear bomb in the 50s and 60s (now it’s a gunman in the school) are nothing but a band-aid on a melanoma.

We are repeating procedures that were designed to protect ourselves from falling bombs, to the nuclear threat in order to  protect ourselves from an adult, or a child, with a gun. What have we come to?

Contemporary children in a lock-down drill in the case of an armed attack.

We are a society derailed. We neglect the most basic needs of many: shelter, equity in education and health care, support for the mentally ill, for the disenfranchised. We have people strung out without the processes in place to help with addiction, we isolate the aged. People are trying to live in a more expensive world, carving out a life below a living wage, if a wage is there at all.

Where is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness here?

And we own a lot of guns. More and more, they are simpler to obtain. We are tired, frustrated. We lash out. When the signals are there, who can those people turn to when they feel lost, alone and desperate? We have cut out social services or made it too difficult for people to live on those incomes. For the desolate or angry without a support system firmly in place, it’s too late by the time they pick up a gun.

We have perpetuated the collapsing world of young people trapped in inner city violence. A lost population blamed for society’s ills, too many have no choice but to be labelled as a gang member because they live on a particular street. They live a life of terror or confusion. Where is their support and the help for those who choose to live by the gun rather than live to live and thrive healthily to old age?

These are large and complex social issues. Social welfare, health, housing and education are always the last to know. I feel these are the keys to our simple liberties we should enjoy. The freedoms that those Founding Fathers laid out so carefully over 220 years ago.

I feel that the gun thing, it is a symptom of our illness. It is the door we can slam against what ails our society. Me against you, and I don’t want to know what your problem is. Don’t touch me. Leave me alone.

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Let’s take care of our own, look outside our needs. To paraphrase Atticus, walk in another person’s shoes and see the world from his their eyes. Their fear, their illness, their deficits and dreams.

Maybe, and it sounds idealistic and childish, maybe the more we care for each other, we won’t feel the need to defend, because there will be no need.

I know. Never gonna happen.

 

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