Two (Genuine) Questions For Americans Who Support Gun Ownership And Your Constitution

I’m not American. There’s a lot of things I don’t really get about American culture- and, if I’m entirely honest, I’m not always interested in finding them out. Not because I’ve anything specifically against Americans as people. It’s simply that I get tired of the USian hegemony over my part of the world, culturally as well as economically, and I want to move my attention to someone else. I know more about some aspects of the US than I do about my own country. That bothers me.

One of the things that I don’t really understand- don’t really grok, I guess- is USian gun culture. Your attachment to guns. I’d very much appreciate if you could help me to get it.

A gun is not just a gun

Things are very different where I come from. I know some people who like to shoot as a hobby, sure. I don’t know the details of how they get the guns they shoot with. I’ve been told a few times, but the details kind of glaze over and all I’m left with is “Well. That sounds complicated”, and then I’m glad that I’ve ended up with more loosely-regulated hobbies. But I haven’t heard a single one of them bragging about their guns.

I guess that guns have a different cultural meaning here. We’re not long out of a decades-long civil war that we refused to name as such. I grew up hearing news reports about shootings and bombings all the time. It felt far away to me then. It’s only a half-day’s drive up the road. But guns and bombs: these are things that paramilitaries have. What you’d call terrorists, and I’d say… oh, it’s complicated, and then try to explain hundreds of years of history and by the end of it you’d wonder if there’s such a thing as a good guy.

Guns, for me? Paramilitaries have them. Gangs of drug dealers do, as well. Farmers have them. And people who like to go to rifle ranges. The army has them, of course. And a small fraction of our police do.

I don’t know anyone else here who has a gun. I’m sure, of course, that someone’ll pop up in the comments to tell me all about theirs, ’cause that’s what happens when you say anything online.

Ireland isn’t perfect. We have violence in spades. We have guns, too. But we don’t really have a gun culture. Nobody feels they have a right to gun ownership. Some people own them, yeah. But.. I don’t know anyone who feels entitled to do so, without a really specific reason.

A constitution is just a constitution, isn’t it?

Here’s another thing I don’t really understand about Americans: how you feel about your constitution.

We have a constitution here as well. It dates from 1937- our country is newly independent from Britain, remember. In the 79 years since then, we’ve voted on amending it 35 times. Twenty-nine of those amendments passed. That’s, on average, an amendment every second year (although it’s not quite like that- we tend to vote on several at a time. Last year we passed one proposed amendment on marriage equality and rejected another on the age of eligibility to run for President). There is currently a countrywide conversation and campaign to repeal one of those amendments- the Eighth, which equates the life of a fetus to the pregnant person carrying it.

We’re not precious about our Constitution. If we’re precious about anything, it’s the Proclamation of the Republic, which has the distinct advantage of having been proclaimed in a failed uprising by a bunch of revolutionaries who then got executed before they could gain any real power and upset anyone by enacting policies they disagreed with.

Our Constitution, though? It’s a document. A pain-in-the-ass document made by someone with frankly awful views on women and religion. We like some bits, ignore others, and change it around on the regular.

Even if someone here agrees with a particular part of the constitution, I’ve never heard someone argue that it’s a fundamental right because it’s in there. If we’re lucky, we fight to get fundamental rights put in there. But that document? It’s useful and important, because it’s difficult to change. It’s also annoying as all hell ’cause it’s flawed and difficult to change. What’re ya gonna do, though?

But when I hear Americans talk about the constitution, it’s with the reverence of a sacred text. Something isn’t a fundamental right and also in the Constitution- it’s a fundamental right because it’s in there. I don’t understand that.

Two questions for you.

Here’s my first question for Americans. One about guns and the other about your constitution.

For those of you who support the right to own guns: what would it take for you to change your mind? I don’t ask this, by the way, because I don’t think that you have reasons for your perspectives- and I’m interested in hearing those too, but I’d like it if you could answer my question also. I ask because in almost any area where I hold a strong belief, I have an idea of what it would take for me to change that. I can think of circumstances that, if they were to be true, would cause me to change my beliefs.

Similarly: what is the justification for viewing the Constitution as a quasi-sacred text? I don’t understand that, and I’d really like to.

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Two (Genuine) Questions For Americans Who Support Gun Ownership And Your Constitution

16 thoughts on “Two (Genuine) Questions For Americans Who Support Gun Ownership And Your Constitution

  1. 1

    I’ll try.

    I don’t see it as much as a right to own a gun as a right to defend ones self. I don’t own a gun, but then I’m fairly privileged. If I’m in trouble I can call the police with fair confidence they may help me, or, at least, not harm me. It’s one of the reasons I don’t feel the need to own a gun.

    That’s not true for many Americans. This NYT article discusses people who are shot pleading with bystanders to not call the police, and mentions that some people prefer to drive each other to hospitals rather than call the emergency services.

    Of course the police will then get involved, but it will be at the hospital, with witnesses where there’s a better chance the police won’t hurt them or make the situation worse. The Chicago police even operate a “black site” where they take prisoners when they don’t want their family or lawyers to be able to get in touch with them.

    In such a country it’s not unreasonable to distrust your government so much to want to be able to defend yourself. The strange thing is that most people who defend the right to own guns are those who, like me, aren’t being routinely shot by the police or being sent to black sites with no representation. In fact, when minorities have, in the past, tried to arm themselves, that has been the only time our conservatives favor (and institute) gun control.

    Even those of us with privilege, though, often fear the government at times. We have a police force that uses military equipment and tactics. We have a government that routinely legally seizes money and property from citizens without trial (requiring the citizen to file a civil suit and prove their money or property wasn’t used in criminal activity to get it back). We have police and prosecutors who routinely lie, yet are not punished even when caught.

    To answer your first question, there would need to be an overhaul of the police and criminal justice system in our nation before I would eagerly support removing gun ownership as a right from our constitution. I see government police abuse so often and have concerns that someday I may need to defend myself rather than use the government police who cannot be trusted.

    While I don’t own a gun, I’m hesitant to tell others they shouldn’t be allowed to. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be serious changes to gun ownership and sales regulations. I’m just not yet ready to support a ban on citizen ownership until our police also seriously reduce their gun ownership and usage (and violence).

    Second question. I don’t view the constitution as a sacred document. I do like the section we call the Bill of Rights.

    The reason I like it is that so many of our advancements in civil rights has been based upon court interpretations of the Bill of Rights. When they work at their best they limit the power of the government to deny the people their civil rights.

    It’s the “originalists” who, if anyone, consider the constitution to be sacred. They seem to think we should pretend the original document was perfect, written by perfect people, producing perfect results. They are also the first to forget there are vital amendments beyond the original ten in the Bill of Rights. Many of our civil rights cases judgments depend upon the fourteenth amendment.

    It’s understandable why they think the original document (and situation) was perfect. It declared that white male landholders would run everything. If you are a white male landholder, that sounds like a good system.

    I don’t know too much about Irish or European law (I’m American! Why should I learn that! You should learn our laws!), but perhaps instead of comparing our constitution to your constitution, it would be better to compare our Bill of Rights to the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s a document with the force of law we can point to when we feel the government is violating the civil rights of its people. It’s a limitation on government abuse.

    That’s also why so many conservatives here point to it as if it were a magic incantation when the government does something they don’t like. If they don’t like something the government does, that must be government abuse. Of them.

    In that respect, I suppose, they could consider the constitution to be “sacred” since they think it protects them from the horrible government “abuse” of having to respect the civil rights of others.

  2. 2

    As an American, to answer your first question:
    * I support people’s right to own guns because I don’t think the government should just take people’s property without good reason.
    * I think the 2nd amendment should be repealed because it’s too broad and prevents us from passing any meaningful gun regulations.
    * I see this is a property rights thing. The constitution doesn’t say I have the right to own a car, or a computer, or any other property — just that the government can’t take my property without good reason.
    * I believe that the manufacture and sale of guns should be heavily regulated. We have strict regulations for cars and medicine, so I don’t understand why we can’t regulate guns in the same manner. Oh, wait, it’s because 2nd amendment.

    For question 2:
    I don’t consider the constitution sacred. If it was so great it wouldn’t have needed amending. But the purpose of the constitution is to spell out the rights of the people, and to outline the powers and responsibilities of the government. I see it as a contract between government and the rest of society.

  3. 3

    The gun part, I’m not going to touch, because I don’t get it either.

    The Constitution thing, though… oof.

    I think you actually start to approach the answer when you compare it to the Proclamation. If you ask an Irish person (of the sort who gets extremely precious about the Proclamation) what the heart of Irish nationhood is, my guess is you’ll often get something about valiant, doomed, beautiful struggles against invasion and tyranny, and if the answer doesn’t involve the name of a single dead warrior-poet, I’ll eat my tiny top-hat. And of course, the Proclamation is that entire ethos made manifest.

    If you ask an American what our nationhood is all about, you’ll get words like “freedom,” “rights,” “equality” (or “equal opportunity”), and “justice.” You may even get actual quotes like “inalienable rights” or “we the people.” Thinking of the Constitution as just an administrative document misses the point that Americans see our country as one that was created specifically to give birth to a new system of administering (and yes, insert air quotes as needed), so the Constitution is very literally the concrete embodiment of Americanness, or at least the best form of Americanness that we can aspire to.

    And yes, all of the above is a just-so story: there are plenty of boring administrative bits involved in setting up Ireland, and I get the sense that an Ireland run by the signers of the Proclamation would have looked a bit different from the one you ended up with; and America has a lot of shitty not-at-all-equal-or-just bits that are absolutely integral to our existence as the nation we are today. But these are the stories countries tell about themselves: Ireland exists to be a self-determining nation of Irish people, and America exists to be a grand experiment in constitutional democracy, and the documents that reflect that are the documents we see ourselves in.

  4. 4

    (And there’s also just the simple fact that anything good we’ve ever done as a country has been because of the Constitution, either directly or by a rhetorical invocation of its spirit. Like, seriously, I can’t think of a single counterexample.)

  5. 5

    What entendante said about the Constitution being part of our perceived national identity is spot on. It was the first one like it. We were the grand experiment, and our Constitution spelled out the terms of the experiment. And like all identities attached to a document, it’s easy for that document to assume the status of sacred text.

    I have a fairly well-developed but not yet well-articulated theory on the guns thing, even though I’m not a gun enthusiast. I think it has to do with the fact that our culture sort of “came of age” in a world that had them. We’re a really young nation of almost all immigrants. When we were settling (stealing) the land, when our society/culture was taking shape, everyone had a gun and it was integral to their day-to-day survival. Most other places in the world, that’s just not true.

  6. GG

    Disclosure: I don’t own any guns, and am pretty sure I’ve never even touched one.

    Second question first: Why the Constitution?

    It’s not perfect, and certainly not sacred, but it’s the bottom turtle of the American legal system. Its possible to have other bottom turtles such as common law (which is what the UK has/had?); the USA just happens to have a formal document.

    The question I would turn back on you is “What is the alternative?”. I think that, definitionally, there has to be some basis for a legal system. Elsewise you don’t actually have a legal system, you have an exercise in various types of power that may behave more (or less) like a legal system.

    There are certainly arguments that The Constitution is, in some sense, illegitimate. I’m willing to entertain those, but I don’t think that’s what you’re aiming at here. I’ll also note that I don’t particularly care about arguments relating to the document’s age or “the dead hand of the past”, since The Constitution provides a mechanism by which it can be amended given sufficient political consensus.

    So, stipulating that the Constitution has some sort of normative force by virtue of the fact that its the foundational document for the US legal system that brings us to the second question: Why guns?

    Because the Supreme Court says that the Second Amendment secures a right to own firearms.

    Now, clearly, this is a contentious answer for at least 2 reasons:
    + People think the Supreme Court got it wrong as a matter of law and
    + Even if they got it right can’t we just ignore it?

    Answering the second point first: I can’t come up with any principled way to ignore parts of the Constitution without rejecting the document as a whole. This may be a failure of imagination on my part; I’m open to any suggestions.

    To the first point: I don’t think the Supreme Court actually got it wrong. A bazillion years ago I wrote, wondering explicitly about the “being necessary to the security of a free State” clause. Turns out Eugene Volokh wrote a paper ( answering that particular question way back in 1998, well before DC v. Heller. I find his arguments compelling and, more importantly, haven’t seen them rebutted anywhere.

  7. 7

    So many gun owners do not recognize that the Constitution was and still is a flawed document. When it was written, women couldn’t vote and blacks were property. It took amendments to rectify both problems. That ought to give people pause and make them consider the possibility that the Founders may have gotten other things wrong too.

  8. 8

    I would like to address your first area of not understanding us culture, why a gun is not just a gun. My country has a long poor rural tradition. Where hunting, fishing and farming are thought of as nesissary survival skills, because to a large portion of our population they were, or still are. To understand this one thing you can look at is our hunting ethos v the shooting ethos of the UK. They are very different. Guns are pretty integral to hunting and by extension, again maybe not now but in living memory, survival. Guns and their proper handling are passed down as a rite of passage, mostly father to son, but that is rapidly changeing. This results in a very high number of households who own guns, and a large population who is very comfortable with them, sees them as very similar to a good knife. Useful when needed, good to have around, but you have to be careful or you cut/shoot yourself or someone else. Allong comes the culture war, and with it the rhetoric that guns are for cretins, for killing people and you must be a murder to want one. I look at that, I look at the 10ga Ithaca goose gun my great grandfather gave his son because his dad(my great great grandfather) told him “no don’t give the boy a .22. Its too small and he wont respect it. Get him the biggest gun he can hold.” I remember how my grandfather bought his first bicycle with the bounties he collected on woodchucks, that he shot with that gun. And I can understand why a large portion of our population gets offended by that and chooses to hold on to their history. You may say, but those are rifles and shotguns, hunting guns, not assault weapons. All I can say is that somehow the AR15 came to symbolize guns in this country, not sure how or why. For another perspective:

    I’m not sure what it would take for me to abandon my support for the right to own guns, perhaps if we were forced to live in much higher concentrations than we do now? Like every one had to live in NYC or a similar city. I generally feel like the person trying to restrict anot hers liberty has the burden of proof. It’s not a which argument is stronger question but a convince me I should give up my rights kind of situation.

  9. 9

    I can’t answer the first question because guns are not my bag, but I think a couple of background pieces of information might flesh things out more.

    First, the percentage of USians who own guns has been decreasing steadily from the mid-70s (gun ownership, 53.7%) to now (about 31% in 2014.) There are MORE guns in circulation because the folks buying guns are stocking up. The lobbying organization for gun manufacturers is well funded and the electorate doesn’t really have much opportunity to directly vote for or against measures related to guns. At best, you can consider what you think your potential representatives will do regarding gun policy as part of your vote, but there are lots of other things for you to consider as well, so it might be hard to prioritize.

    As to the Constitution, besides the points already brought up about it being part of our national identity, one of the reasons we don’t amend it very often is that it’s quite difficult to amend, especially now that the country is so large. Jump in if this is wrong, but my quick google indicated that the Irish Constitution is amended by a proposed amendment passing through both houses of your legislature, then a referendum is held where a simple majority of voters can affirm an amendment, and the final step is signing by the President. Contrast this to the United States, where potential amendments must be approved by a 2/3 majority of both houses of Congress–a virtual impossibility in our current political climate–before it is then submitted to the legislatures of our 50 states. Only after 3/4 of the state legislatures (38) approve the amendment is it added to the Constitution. (There is also the option of a Constitutional Convention, but that has never come into play.)

    As with the situation with the general public’s lack of opportunity to vocalize their opinions about gun policy at the ballot box, voters have no direct input into constitutional amendments. In general, there is no such thing as a national referendum in the USA–the only thing that everyone votes for is President and even that is not a matter of a simple majority.

    In addition, the relative strength of the individual state legislatures and the increased political polarization in our national legislative body limit the potential for adoption of national measures regulating how guns are sold.

    I personally see the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, but do not see it as something that should not be changed. Indeed, the first thing we ever did was tack on the first ten amendments. Also, the people who wrote it probably did their best, but there is no way they could have foreseen what the country would become. In fact, they wrote it to replace another document that had failed, so it seems clear based on their inclusion of an amendment process that they expected it to be changed over time to meet the country’s needs. The entire idea of trying to discern what James Madison or Thomas Jefferson would have wanted us to do about like, the internet, seems absurd to me. They’re dead and we’re trying to figure out how to get along now, not in the 18th century.

  10. 10

    Speaking as neither an American nor a legal expert….

    The first and second amendments in the US’s “bill of rights” were approved on the same day in 1789. Both were written with the intent and definition of words in the eighteenth century, not definitions of the twentieth or twenty first. Any interpretation should be based on the definitions intended by the writers, none of this “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” mentality used today to rationalize anything.

    first amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    second amendment: 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.

    In the first amendment, “respecting” means “with regard to”, not “reverence of religion” as far right theocrats take it to mean. The meaning of the word has intentionally been misconstrued to use government to promote religion rather than keeping its hands off.

    The same goes for the second amendment. No one has ever provided a sound argument for “militia” to refer to anything other than the regular army controlled by the government for national defence. “The people” refers to the nation as a whole, not individuals. Nothing in those words infers that individuals can or should have endless numbers of firearms in their homes. Again, the words have been misconstrued from the writers’ intent.

  11. 11

    I, personally, am not fond of guns. They are loud and dangerous, and I think if I owned one, at *some* point I would manage to unintentionally shoot someone (most probably myself) with it, unless I kept it locked in a box and never touched it, which would kind of defeat the point of *having* it.

    But I do think we (at least in the US) do and should have a fundamental right to own a gun. I don’t think that the fundamental right is so strong and irrevocable that we should never be able to pass any law whatsoever to restrict or limit gun ownership in any way, because I’m not a mindless ideologue, but I think–among other things, there are things you can’t *do* to an armed population that you can do to an unarmed one. Imagine how, say, the Holocaust might have gone if the Jews were armed. Not saying it would have gone *well* for them, but it at least wouldn’t have been *quite* the same horror-show if they could shoot back once word got around what they were being taken away for.

    So I guess the only reason I’d be OK with banning guns is if there was some other equally effective way that the citizenry could physically defend themselves from a government turned tyrannical, and that was perfectly legal instead. Or if I more thoroughly trusted my government to not ever turn tyrannical.

    And my thoughts on the status of the constitution?

    1. The US is a much bigger, much more diverse nation than Ireland is (afaik). The Constitution is one of the relatively few things that *all* of us can point to and say “Yep, I’m associated with that.” And we need to rely on it a lot more, as in essence a coordinating factor, to keep “working” as a nation.

    2. The civil war may have something to do with it. We have sort of a collective national idea that Bad Things start happening if we don’t follow the constitution.

    3. It’s harder to change. It was *designed* to be relatively hard to change, in a way that laws aren’t. It sounds like your constitution is, in essence, a particularly strong or important law, rather than quite as much being seen as kind of a layer *beyond and above* individual laws. If that makes sense.

    4. The older something is, the more likely (if it’s regarded at all) it will be regarded with reverence and awe rather than seen as just a thing. Our constitution is over 2 centuries old, yours less than a century. Maybe, back in the 1800s or whatever (can’t math, I hate mornings), we tended to view it a little more like how the Irish view their constitution now, but by now it’s gained a patina of “this is important and inviolable, and bad stuff happens if you mess with it”

    And there’s probably a lot more I’m not thinking of at the moment, but that’s my $.02 for now.

  12. 12

    Brief and simple

    (1) Personal firearms are the most empowering invention of all times. Period. You owning a firearm makes violating your rights a high-risk, and potentially very costly, endeavour, whoever the violator may be. Want to get rid of guns – create a society in which they’re, objectively, not needed. You can’t. Alternatively, demonstrate that individual gun ownage is detrimental (disadvantages outweigh the advantages) to society as a whole. You can’t.

    (2) Many constitutions were written after drastic events in the history of a country, after wars, after revolutions, etc. They represent the most honest no-nonsense approach to form a general ruleset under which anyone receives just treatment, iow to create the post possible social contract between individuals, society en large, and the state.

    It is generally understood that everyday politics lacks both farsight and honesty, often combined with an indifference towards people’s constitutional rights, requiring strict boundaries to protect the constitution against manipulation from frivolous lawmakers. If these boundaries are intact, they’ll either demand participation of the general populace, or a political consensus that transcends all party lines for a required majority, in order to change/amend the constitution, and therefor change the social contract under which people live together in that country.

    Many view it as quasi-sacred, because history has proven over and over again how powerful this protection mechanism can be against despotism and injustice.

  13. 13

    The polarization on the subject of guns has gotten to the point that civil discourse is nearly impossible. Around many people I rarely or never mention the subject, because they have made it clear that in their minds any gun owner is probably a barely literate member of the religious right, hates gay people, and is teetering on the edge of being a mass murderer. Others assume that anyone who wants to restrict firearms in any way wants the public disarmed so that the bad guys du jour can enslave us all, kill babies, and burn down all the churches while slaughtering all the christians. People on both sides have made lots of money whipping up fear. When the loudest voices on each side put most of their energy into reviling the other side, it’s hard to have a conversation.

    I’m an atheist, liberal, supporter of women’s rights and LGBT rights. I know that Black lives matter, and that saying so doesn’t imply that other lives don’t, I want the police accountable and the criminal justice system both fair and humane. I want every pregnancy to be by choice, and every child to grow up in a safe, nurturing environment. I don’t want to lose my right to lawfully carry a concealed handgun and to enjoy competitive shooting as one of my hobbies. I have had to carry a gun in some jobs I have held. I on one occasion held at gunpoint a man who was attempting to push a struggling, screaming woman into his car. I shot a wild boar for the pork and the trophy, which is on my wall. Me losing my rights would in no way make society at large or me in particular safer.

  14. 14

    I don’t want to lose my right to lawfully carry a concealed handgun and to enjoy competitive shooting as one of my hobbies.

    Those first four words are your whole argument. And that’s fair enough.

    Me losing my rights would in no way make society at large or me in particular safer

    And yet the evidence – in the form of what has happened after strict firearms controls being imposed on the UK and Australia after mass shootings – disagrees.

    Arguments about citizens “defending themselves” if the government became tyrannical are hilarious. Have you seen the news? Have seen the tech toys the government have got? Talk about bringing a knife to gunfight – you’re proposing bringing a handgun, or possibly a rifle, to a fight where your opponent is armed with MQ-9 Reaper drones packing Hellfire missiles, among other really cool things. The idea that a civilian, or any arbitrary group of civilians, could realistically defend themselves against the government in 2016 is ludicrous.

    1. 14.1

      I will not say that citizens could meaningfully defend themselves from a government bound and determined to kill them at all costs. But, if the government was trying to, say, round up and kill all people of a particular ethnicity, belief set, or the like, if said citizens are armed with guns, it could make the collateral damage too high to stomach. Because shooting Hellfire missiles into a densely populated urban area is a good way to get a *lot* of people killed, not just your target few, right?

  15. 15

    To answer Aoife’s question about the US Constitution: what we might call “constitution worship” is actually an English tradition, dating back at least to the Settlement Act (1701) if not to the immediate aftermath of the Glorious Revolution (1688-9). The English Constitution was the wonder and envy of the world — just ask anyone English (and Protestant, of course, but not *too* Protestant). Or Montesquieu. As late as the 1760’s, this was also the prevailing opinion among English colonists in North America. The later American innovation was not “constitution worship” itself but rather the transformation of the meaning of the term “constitution” from “general form of government” to “a specific piece of paper.” Put another way, what had been “sacred national tradition” for the English became “sacred text” for Americans.

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