Faith Meets the 2nd Amendment

“Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.”  Mahatma Gandhi.

Mask by B. Brecht

Do you hear the screams of the 16,000 murder victims each year?  Do you hear the crying of the 1.8 million assault victims?  Do you see the bloodstain on the carpet when you close your eyes?  Are you still traumatized by the one you lost?  Are you still blaming Cain for the violence or do you have the ability to look inward at your own violence and your own fears and see that violence and fear as part of our culture.

The United States is suffering from a culture of violence.  We blame the victim, but not just the victim of violence.  We blame the poor person for being born into poverty and not pulling himself or herself up by the bootstraps.  We blame the mentally ill who are more often victims of violence than perpetrators of violence.  We blame the rape victim for not being cautious enough or not fighting back hard enough.   We blame the abused spouse for a poor choice or for not seeking a divorce.  It is so much easier to blame than it is to address the issues we have created as a culture.  Our culture of violence did not occur on its own.  It occurred because our hearts changed; and, as our hearts changed we changed laws and policies that allowed the wound of violence to fester and spread.

We have allowed our fear to control us and drive our policy and personal decisions.  Consider some of the recent issues we have faced.  We fear poverty and the mere appearance of poverty.  Consequently, we spend ourselves into debt on an individual and national level.  We purchase bigger homes, cars, and social programs.  We are willing to steal, sell drugs, and swindle others rather than appear to be poor.  We fear other nations and terrorism so we build a more powerful military and enough bombs to annihilate the world’s population.  We build interior security measures that significantly limit our freedoms and make travel unpleasant, even if safer.  We spend enough on defense to eliminate malnutrition.  We fear competition so we cheat on tests, undermine our colleagues, and pass tax codes to lure big business and while they get richer the people get poorer.  We fear the other political party being in power.  Rather than working together for a better society the political parties have become increasingly hostile to compromise and cooperation. We fear pregnancy (both being pregnant and not being able to be pregnant) so we make contraceptives free to delay birth and limit the number of children, promote abortion, use fertility specialist to have children later in life, or use in vitro fertilization when one has no partner at all or can’t conceive otherwise.  We fear death and spend endless amounts of money to delay it and consequently we live well beyond our intended age and grow ever more alarmed at what the end of life is like when it is no longer natural.  We fear people who murder so we murder them with a death penalty.  We fear violence and so we buy weapons of violence and put ourselves at ever-greater risk of dying a violent death.   What we seam to fear are the imperfections of life and suffering.

America Magazine published an article recommending the repeal of the 2nd amendment.  The editors showed courage in writing and publishing the article, but is it wise and is it practical?  When I teach health policy I tell students not to define the solution into the problem and always have clear criteria to evaluate a way forward.   The America Magazine editors define the problem not as violence, but as the inability to enact stricter gun laws.  They admit that this is not the sole solution, but it is the one they address.  To be clear they did not recommend an absolute ban on firearms.  As the editors pointed out, the repeal of the 2nd amendment will not repeal original sin, but it may make a safer world.

Setting clear criteria for evaluation of a policy is critical.  The criteria should be based on legality, political acceptability, respect for human dignity, and the ability to implement the policy.  Any graduate health policy student would tell you that the repeal of the 2nd amendment is not going to happen in the foreseeable future and the attempts to repeal it may derail the legitimate work that needs to be taking place.  As Senator Ted Kennedy learned when he rejected the health care plan President Nixon was willing to support it took 40 more years to negotiate his way back to less.  Let’s not make that mistake with the 2nd amendment.

First, any policy with a reasonable likelihood of success must not violate the constitution, statutory, or common law.  Challenges to the 2nd amendment have lost in the Supreme Court and there is ample case law to support the right to bear arms.  Second, the repeal of the 2nd amendment is not politically feasible at this time.  While the majority of Americans support closing the loopholes on background checks and taking large magazines and assault weapons off the street, they do not support the repeal of the 2nd amendment.  The political will is absent and there is not strong public support for such an action.  Third, would the repeal support human dignity?  That is harder to answer. Doing away with implements of violence clearly promotes human dignity provided they are taken away equally from all and do not leave some powerless.   Finally, is it implementable?  The answer is clearly no.  There are too many people that love their guns.  They clearly love them more than their children, more than their neighbors, and more than peace.  Their fear is so great that they are unwilling to trust that peaceful existence is possible without implements of violence.  Unfortunately, the same acts that the repeal is meant to eliminate are the acts that fuel the fear that will cause people to fight the repeal.  It is highly unlikely that any southern state would vote for the repeal and thus it would not pass.

We do need to explore the policy alternatives and address the culture of violence – the culture of death.  Yet, picking a battle that will only make people more resistant to any effort to make improvements is not necessarily prudent even though it is clearly the most morally responsible action.  If repeal of the 2nd Amendment would end our culture of violence I would support it immediately.

Let’s begin by defining the problem and collecting evidence.  This requires that we come to some consensus on what the problem is and is not.  The laws blocking any collection of data on violence or gun violence must be eliminated.  The people that promote such laws should not fear the truth whatever it turns out to be.

Antonin Scalia, writing following the 2008 Supreme Court Decision striking down the DC gun law said “constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table.”  Therein lies the problem, and to address this problem it is either necessary to address the Constitution, address policy we can change, or address our culture.  Before we change the Constitution I would recommend that we look at the policy and the cultural issues that have resulted in the current culture of violence.  If, after we have researched the actual cause of our cultural shift we find that it is indeed due to guns, then we should explore a change to the Constitution and a revision of the 2nd Amendment.  I highly recommend reading the very thoughtful and well written article in America Magazine located at Repeal the Second Amendment.

Violence Should be Rare and Compassion the Norm

I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.”   –Clara Barton

I love teaching because it gives me the opportunity to form compassionate students.  After all, isn’t teaching about the hope that one of our students makes the world better?  Isn’t the goal of research to find something new that might improve the past? I suppose it is human nature to see oneself as in the mainstream of thought.  I have sometimes delighted in being outside the mainstream.  I enjoy thinking big thoughts and imagining something better, more compassionate, and less violent.  It is hard to imagine such a world when a child being held hostage after a shooting.

If we are going to change the way we approach violence it is not productive to say that a policy or law is ineffective when special interest managed to have enough holes in the policy or law that it looks like policy swiss cheese. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 expired in 2004 and there is great disagreement as to whether it had any effect on gun violence.  One problem was that there were so many exceptions as to make the law ineffective.  It starts by stating, “It shall be unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon.”  What follows is a full page of exceptions and then a description of what it takes to be considered an assault weapon.  It would be comical if it weren’t for the fact that this legislation was meant to save lives.  Is it any wonder that it is hard to show if it was effective?

Christopher Koper (2004) did a good assessment of the impact of the assault weapons ban.  He stated,

Because offenders can substitute non-banned guns and small magazines for banned AWs and LCMs, there is not a clear rationale for expecting the ban to reduce assaults and robberies with guns.96 But by forcing AW and LCM offenders to substitute non-AWs with small magazines, the ban might reduce the number of shots fired per gun attack, thereby reducing both victims shot per gunfire incident and gunshot victims sustaining multiple wounds. (p.81)

He makes one point on which everyone should be able to agree – there is no single factor that influences violence.  During much of the research that occurred while the ban was in effect there was a crack epidemic that influenced violent behavior.  It also occurred shortly after the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill when funding for and availability of outpatient clinics was completely inadequate for the large number of people who were no longer hospitalized.  In 2004 the ban expired and there is clear evidence the number of mass shootings has increased, but why?

We must examine the culture of violence not as merely a gun issue, or a mental health issue, or a drug issue, or even a moral issue.  We must examine the culture of violence as a threat to safety, security, and well-being.  The politicians and lobbyist had their chance to address the issues and they clearly demonstrated they cared more about their own self-interest than safety, security, or well-being of the citizens of the United States.  What they did went beyond benign neglect.  It was at best apathy and at the worst a lack of respect for human dignity and life.

It is time for academia, health care, and the faith communities to take on the issues that have resulted in the culture of violence.  We need a fresh perspective that is rational, evidence based, and driven by concerned citizens.  It is time to take the box the lobbyists and politicians have put the issue of gun violence in and break it down and throw it in the recycling bin.  It is time to think outside the box.  The people who care about rationality, evidence, and human dignity and are not driven by personal financial gain or votes need to step forward.  It would be nice if our government could be trusted to prevent violence, protect human dignity, and support a culture of life.  I do not think they have the courage to do so.  While politicians continue to talk to the people that stood by an let a culture of violence go unchecked those who view life as sacred need to address the issues with open minds and open hearts.  Finding the root cause of gun violence requires that be willing to accept that life is sacred.  Guns are not.