The Second Amendment is an Unhealthy Relic

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Full disclosure:  I am Canadian.  That cultural barrier may mean I will never “get” the fixation of some of my American friends and neighbours on the Second Amendment and its right to bear arms.  To me, the Second Amendment is an outdated feature of the early democratic experiment, a relic that has long outlived its usefulness, and the “right” of gun ownership a positive threat to communal safety.

In the US, however, firearms are part of the conception of fundamental democratic rights as understood by many Americans, evidenced by the Second Amendment.  Just last summer, Trump appeared to encourage political violence if Hilary Clinton were to toughen gun laws.   Evidence also shows that fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than in the 1990s. What is going on?

The first place to look is at the Second Amendment itself.  One very common defense of the Second Amendment focuses on the right to bear arms as necessary to maintain the existence of a democratic state, and without which, the government would devolve into tyranny or perhaps be overwhelmed by foreign invasion.  For the Founding Fathers worried about the longevity of the republican experiment and drawing on the experiences of the Revolutionary War, the concern may have been warranted.

In the event, this does not appear to be supported by the evidence.  One might ask if there has ever been occasion in the past two centuries to think “but for guns…”  In other words, are there concrete examples where, but for the existence of an armed citizenry, the US would have devolved into tyranny?  The existence and proper function of democratic institutions lies not in ownership of firearms, but in the prevalence and acceptance of these norms by its citizens.  This does not require an armed citizenry to flourish.  In America, the crucial foundations for this tradition were borne from the centuries of English democratic evolution and confirmed by President Washington’s personal humility and commitment to democracy.

Across the pond, continental Europe and the UK enjoy their own democratic traditions and robust freedoms without such laws.   Even Switzerland, famous among European nations for widespread possession of firearms among its citizen army, does not allow most of those militia members to carry bullets at home.

Given the overwhelming might a modern government could deploy against its own citizens with drones, fighter jets, tanks and weapons of mass destruction, the calculus of our current age is also radically different from that of the Founding Fathers.  In the early republic, Washington’s generation would have envisioned Napoleonic set-battles or Revolutionary guerilla warfare which featured far greater parity between sides.  The asymmetry between a repressive government and citizenry is now orders of magnitudes higher.  Fantasies of resistance to that dystopian government may presuppose the empirically dubious causal link between arms and democracy, but even if they did not, the small advantage to be gained in that unlikely hypothetical are outweighed obscenely against the costs paid every day in reality.

Yet these arguments hold little water with supporters of gun rights.  Take again these statistics provided by CNN illustrating that far fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than was the case in 1990.  Between 1999 and 2013, the biggest justification for gun ownership, “protection”, increased from 26% of gun owners to 48%.  Yet the evidence shows there is actually less gun violence today than in the 1990s.  

So why does the US seem like a less safe place for gun owners? Perhaps it owes something to the familial and societal breakdown suffered by many lower-income Americans.  For an American victim of decades of wage stagnation, and who is also no longer able to depend on the same degree of familial or church support as in previous generations, the world may indeed appear much less safe.  The post 9/11 and post-Columbine world, with its spectacular acts of random mass violence, may also play a role.

Another key place to look is in the statements of the NRA itself.  This recent NRA advertisement presents a world where firearms are the bulwark against the onslaught of the liberal hordes.  This advertisement suggests the need to bear arms is indeed borne from political fear.

Such conceptions appear little more than paranoid delusions and disgusting right-wing fantasies, the indulgers of which warrant Hillary Clinton’s infamous epithet “deplorables”.  They are also highly alarming indicators of societal breakdown, fueled in no small measure by lurid imaginations and NRA propaganda.  They are part and parcel with Trump’s veiled threat against Clinton.

Yet, like all effective propaganda, they contain a kernel of truth.  In this instance, albeit in hideously disfigured form,  there is legitimate concern over progressive ideological domination in certain cultural arenas.  This is hardly only the concern of the violent extremists that this ad is designed to appeal to.  But for the NRA and its supporters, this concern manifests in fetid, overblown fantasies of a hostile regime where armed protection is the answer.

Another reason why there may be less support for stricter gun laws is the notion that, even were the most draconian prohibitions on gun ownership in place, criminals would still obtain firearms, putting law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage.  There are good reasons for questioning whether this would actually be true – but conjecture aside, this view is undeniably pessimistic.  It presupposes the inefficacy of laws and police on a significant enough scale that citizens must arm themselves to be safe.

Regardless, Americans are for better or worse stuck with the Second Amendment, though long gone are the days of Washington and front-loading muskets.  Though there remains much to admire about the United States, I cannot help but be relieved a constitutional right to bear arms does not exist in my country.  And while US gun violence is down, the perceived need to bear arms is increasing, an increase which may be explained by fears of a hostile, collapsing world where laws can no longer protect citizens.  The existence of the Second Amendment makes possible this unhealthy reaction.  Far from promoting the stability of the democratic experiment as Washington’s generation intended, the outdated Second Amendment may be driving it in the opposite direction.

Nazis, Antifa and Our Mutual Fears

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President Trump’s incompetent and mealy-mouthed equivocations of Nazi and Antifa violence in Charlotesville have furthered the already substantial American political divide.  While many Americans were alarmed to see Nazi thugs excused by the President of the United States, other Americans were relieved to see Antifa condemned, which they view as a significant threat to democracy and freedom.  In this view, Trump’s response is explained not so much by racism or widespread support for the KKK, as by a fear of what Antifa is believed to stand for.

There is first considerable convergence among the respectable left and right.  Nazis, Klansmen and other actual white supremacist organizations are the avowed enemy of society and harbour ideas that are destructive to human decency and to the fabric of society.  It is understood that our current peaceful and prosperous international order (by historical terms) emerged precisely from the crushing defeat of such a movement.  That movement, whose aspirations are indelibly burned into our collective conscious in the hideous images of the concentration camps, can never again be allowed to approach power and influence.  In that sense, the need to “keep the lid on” right-wing extremism is justified given its historic crimes and potential for destruction, as well as the fact that many of its current members continue to use the symbols and language of fascism.

However, there is a key difference between the left and right.  For many on the left, white supremacist organizations remain a continued threat to democracy, freedom and equality.  Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League must be constantly vigilant to monitor society for hate.  The current structures of American society today are thought among many progressives to consistently reinforce white supremacy, and help foster unequal economic outcomes between white and black Americans.

For many on the centre-right, however, white supremacists, while disdained, have also been something of a bogeyman in recent decades.  In this view, the actual numbers of modern Nazi party or other race-oriented white supremacist organizations have continued to see their numbers decline and their ability to influence policy in their favour has seemed virtually non-existent. Notwithstanding the lurid wishful-thinking of many social studies departments, the evidence that societal structures remain racist seems unconvincing, considering for example how Asian Americans have the highest average income or why people of so many races still want to move to the USA.

However, when actual, bona fide Nazis marched this summer in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and the President of the United States of America did not immediately and unequivocally denounce them, many people rightly found it alarming.  For many on the left Trump’s attempts to mollify right-wing extremists confirmed their fears that there truly are many Americans who support Klansmen, Nazis or a white supremacist society.

Without question, white supremacist groups have seemed emboldened to speak out under Trump.   Much of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration is seen as dog-whistling to large swaths of the population who want to “make America white again.”

However, the evidence that there are large swaths of the US population supporting Nazis or the KKK a white supremacist society is at best spotty given the past thirty years of US political history.  That thesis is also unsupported by the voter support given to Barrack Obama.   The question of institutional racism is a more complicated one, and certainly the swath of police violence against law abiding African Americans suggests this is still a very significant problem.

However, I believe Trump’s tactic to condemn Antifa in the same breath as Nazis reflects not so much dog-whistling to a massive, racist base as a deeper unease on the right at what they think the Antifa stands for.

The divide in the political spectrum again causes mutual incomprehension here.  To most people on the respectable left, Antifa are viewed as criminal troublemakers who use the occasion of protesting to further their own anarchist agenda of violence and vandalism.  Their presence is generally not welcome, as it foreshadows the degeneration of peaceful protest into tear gas, batons, and smashed chain store windows.  However, Antifa is ultimately a small and inconsequential group whose threat pales in comparison to that of white supremacists.

For many on the right, including respectable conservatives who despise Nazis, they see something quite different.  They observe how Antifa uses the lexicon of progressives (“Anti-Hate!”) and how Antifa has targeted a variety of conservative speakers at universities, not only Nazis.  In short, they see in Antifa their fear of progressive capture of intellectual space, particularly at universities, and the perceived willingness among progressives to use intimidation or violence to enforce it.  Those who view Antifa in this way are almost certainly many of the same people who, in Ross Douthat’s words, feared giving progressives the political power to match their cultural ascendency, and thus voted Trump to avoid a Clinton presidency and her attendant Supreme Court choices.   For these folks, Antia may represent a similar if not greater threat to democracy than that of white supremacist organizations.

If one believes there is a method to Trump’s madness, this is likely it:  Trump was reassuring a base that is not so much racist as it is afraid of progressive ascendancy.  Of course, Trump is singularly unskilled at making coherent arguments and distinctions and his response served only to deepen the political and cultural divide.

Unfortunately, the tenor of the conversation and the quality of the current generation of US political leaders is likely to only lead us further down the abyss.