CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

6f8cf-rustIt’s happened again: Another shooting. In Orlando this time, 49 victims plus wounded.

And in the aftermath we fight. Among friends, countrymen, the arguments begin. It didn’t take a day — 2 a.m. shooting, lines drawn by sunrise — that is America.

We are a nation trapped by ourselves.

Omar Mateen was an American Muslim, a U.S. citizen of Afghani roots inspired by foreign extremists to buy guns legally and turn them on gay nightclub goers. In one hateful rampage Mateen put himself into the center of multiple American tinderboxes — immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism, homosexuality. If his attack was an act of terrorism it was one well-aimed — these issues we willingly tear ourselves apart over. His spark hit its mark, and it was more than enough to ignite an explosion.

But that is where America is today: Ever ready to draw swords. Fight-or-flight is now our political status quo, and over and over again, America’s choice is to fight, especially among ourselves.

But where does that get us? What kind of country is left when every debate turns brutal? That is our habit, but how do you govern from a never ending cage match?

Take guns, for example, that tinderbox among tinderboxes. What is the appropriate gun policy? Is the current level of regulation enough? Too much? What does the Second Amendment really mean? How does “a well regulated Militia” play into “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” a right that “shall not be infringed”? How does that fit in the era of the Glock and the AR-15? Is it still relevant?

These are reasonable, basic questions, the sort of conversations that should be raised in the halls of Congress after such an incident as Sunday’s attack. Any modern state would consider such questions foundational to finding a balance between the rights of citizens to own guns and the rights of citizens not to be killed by them.

But we have no such discourse. Opponents of guns declare there is no legitimate use for an assault rifle. Ardent defenders return to the “cold dead hands” refrain. Instead of an articulate conversation on gun policy we are fed campaign slogans. The conversation inevitably goes nowhere.

Two hundred and thirty years ago, the Founding Fathers banded together “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This sort of squabbling is not what they meant.

But in America today conversations go nowhere. The greatest country in the world, we can’t talk about our problems. We can’t discuss what is killing our citizens. We need a frank discussion on guns, gun rights and the appropriate balance between individual rights and collective security, but all we get are shouting matches and campaign slogans.

This is one issue. There are more: immigration, terrorism, religion. Mateen touched on many of them. But there are still more: abortion, economic stratification, race, gender equality. These are the tinderboxes that tear America apart, and they are also the issues too tender to address directly and with grace.

They are issues close to our hearts, ones we have stared at too closely for too long, and now all we can do is fight over the details. We measure our progress in battles but have forgotten the point of the war.

And what is the point? “To form a more perfect Union.” To “insure domestic Tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.” To “promote the general Welfare,” to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

But what good is liberty when Muslim Americans are killing gay Americans in American streets, and no one is willing to talk about it?

Shout about it? Sure. But not talk.

We are a nation populated by rugged individualists grown too independent to govern ourselves. The general welfare and the common defense are concepts alien to us. We are left with 330 million different burning visions for America that struggle against each other.

Maybe it was always this way. Maybe we have always shouted past each other. Maybe the common defense was never that common, the general welfare never that general. Maybe when the Framers who wrote the Constitution 230 years ago did it it was with a smirk and crossed fingers. Maybe those opening words were window dressing.

But men who conjure a country from thin air aren’t the sort to shy away from tough conversations. Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of discourse, of disagreeing agreeably. They fought, but they did so with a shared goal: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”

Where has that spirit gone? Where is the sense that America is the sum of its parts, and those parts are myriad. This country needs room for ideas, room for discussion, and debate and disagreement safe from being declared tantamount to treason. The problems facing us are global, and in an interconnected world, damage is never isolated. A shooting in Florida sparks fear everywhere. The tinder will light. No one is immune.

Yet we stand by our individualism as it kills us. And all the fires Mateen so efficiently set around immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism and homosexuality, they remain burning. To be defused and extinguished will require thoughtful consideration, citizens and legislators working together to hammer out compromises that navigate a sea of conflicting tensions: security versus freedom, security versus privacy, individual rights versus collective rights, religious freedom versus personal freedom. All in an evolving world, where terrorism is the new communism and the new terrorism is only a matter of time.

To do that we have to start talking, we need to be willing to ask hard questions. Of each other. Of all of us.


 

This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column Archives: Gun Talk

CDS Column Archives: Gun Talk

d8a5e-s-1070996Sometimes a conversation seems impossible to begin.

Sometimes there is something critically important to talk about, but the words never find their way out.

Sometimes. Like now.

About 10 days ago I walked into a high school cafeteria. It was me and 20 others, surrounded by low ceilings, folding bench tables and fluorescent lights at a school in southern New Hampshire. The class: hunter safety.

It came in two parts: a Friday night, where we learned the basics, then a week off before a Saturday and Sunday of more lessons and a day of field training. That night we went over the seasons for different game, the importance of wildlife conservation, the parts of a gun and the rules of gun safety. We learned about hunting strategies, the importance of approaching landowners before going on their property, basic survival skills and what to do should we become lost. And we learned about guns. We learned about muzzle control, about keeping your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot, about treating every gun as if it’s loaded and ensuring your shooting path is clear both up to your target and beyond.

That was Friday. Six days later a 26-year-old Oregon man walked into his college English classroom heavily armed and wearing body armor. He shot more than a dozen people. Nine died. The man then killed himself. It was the 294th mass shooting (more than four people killed or injured) this year.

Two days later I was back in southern New Hampshire, back beneath the glowing fluorescent lights. It was phase two of hunter safety, which, let’s face it, is primarily a course on gun safety.

“Muzzle control, muzzle control, muzzle control,” the instructor, Bob, told us over and over again. “If you learn one thing from this class, I want you to learn muzzle control.”

Learning about guns in the wake of a mass shooting can leave you wondering about your choices. This was, after all, not the first time this had happened to me. In 2012 a friend of mine, a firearms instructor, took me to the pistol range to teach me about handguns. I went back a handful of times and was having fun with it until 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into a Connecticut elementary school and shot 20 first-graders. He brought with him the same make gun as I’d been shooting. It was the worst elementary or high school shooting in history, and in its wake handguns didn’t seem so “fun” anymore. I have not shot one since.

A taste of that came back this weekend. I took the course because I had this whole ideology behind hunting: I like meat, and I’m more than happy to eat hamburgers, bacon and chicken, but I, like many Americans, have become estranged from what goes into what I eat. My fondness for steak aside, I would struggle to kill a cow if one were put before me.

Or a pig. Or a chicken. I signed up for a hunter safety course because I wanted to acknowledge that disconnect between my appetite and my actions. The act of ordering buffalo wings or pepperoni sets in motion a whole string of market forces that are in fact a complex version of pulling the trigger, and I wanted to acknowledge my part in that killing. Not to call it wrong, but just to recognize my place within it.

But when someone takes that same trigger and turns it on a crowd all of the sudden my interest in guns feels dirty by association.

And the conversation that follows leaves me embarrassed. In the wake of the shooting, as after every shooting these days (there seem to be a lot of them), the sharp claws came out. Snarky memes like “Timothy McVeigh didn’t use a gun, yet you can still buy gasoline, fertilizer, and rent a box truck” line up against charts depicting the number of Americans killed since 2001 by guns (406,496) and terrorism (3,380). The sides are picked—gun-rights or gun control—and the yelling begins. It’s a broken conversation, one we are all caught in and caught by, one almost assuredly better to sit out than to join.

In a way America reminds me of myself eating the chicken without recognizing my part in the killing. Those numbers—406,496 versus 3,380—clearly portray the American disconnect. We fought two wars and instituted sweeping government overhauls to combat terrorism, a risk that takes less than one percent of the lives of gun violence. How are we so blind to 30,000 deaths a year and yet so prepared to fervently fight a shadow? How are we not at least compelled to talk about guns?

It shouldn’t be that complex a discussion; this isn’t the first time something quintessentially American has been killing us an out of control rate. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was the automobile. Between 1966 and 1974 more than 50,000 people a year died in car wrecks. So the government began requiring automakers to install seatbelts, police began enforcing drunk driving laws and states began requiring passengers to buckle up. The results were dramatic: fatalities dropped even as the number of cars on the road increased. By 2013 there were 32,719 automotive-related deaths, 917 fewer than caused that year by guns.

America did not need to get rid of cars to make its citizens safer. It just had to be smarter, more considered, about its car policy. The same is true of guns: America does not need to get rid of them, but we need to be smarter. The country needs to take a hard look at the disconnect between the rhetoric about protecting American lives and the laissez-faire policies that contribute to 30,000 dead Americans each year.

It shouldn’t be that hard, but it can only begin with a conversation.


 

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in October of 2015.