David Hoppe

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:: Constitutional showdown

The costs of freedom

by David Hoppe

Vice President Joe Biden’s schedule has been packed. Biden has been meeting with representatives from the many organizations who have a stake in the ongoing national argument about gun violence. Last Wednesday, Biden met with people from victims’ groups and gun control advocates. On Thursday, he brought in the National Rifle Association. Meetings with members of the entertainment industry were up next.

Biden, at President Obama’s behest, is gathering ideas and information about gun violence in order to draft a set of proposals aimed at making the country safer or, if you prefer, saner. The president says he wants to present a plan for dealing with gun violence shortly after his second inauguration, on Jan. 21.

If the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last month wasn’t reason enough, Biden’s task is made even more urgent by a report released last week by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. It appears the U.S. suffers more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation. Life expectancy among U.S. men ranked the lowest among 17 countries, including Canada, Japan, Australia and much of Western Europe. Our widespread possession of firearms, according to the report, is a contributing factor.

Nobody likes this kind of news. But while it seems that most of our policymakers have, for the moment, at least, shaken off their fear of the gun lobby, just what kind of reforms are in store — and how effective they can be — remains unclear.

In the meantime, it looks like we are about to be gobsmacked by competing invocations of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

The U.S. Constitution is this country’s most sacred document. Many have observed that, in a country without a state-sanctioned religion, the Constitution amounts to a secular bible. Consisting, as it does, of the words of our Founders, the Constitution and its first ten amendments have served as the basis against which we measure our ongoing understanding of laws and governance.

It’s held up pretty well over the past couple of centuries.

But, thanks in large measure to a fixation with guns born of a convoluted reading of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, it looks like we’re headed for a food fight over what the freedoms this document supposedly enshrines are really about.

The last of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings were being buried when the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre offered the NRA’s remedy for gun violence: more guns. But along with his insistence that arming “good guys” was the best deterrent to violence the NRA could think of, LaPierre also struck out at the media and entertainment industries, which, he said, through the exploitation of graphic violence promote “the filthiest form of pornography.”

Bizarre as I find it to be agreeing with Wayne LaPierre, I have to say I think he’s right about this. It is true that a large portion of our entertainment industry amounts to a kind of toxic dump, the only justification for which is that the dreck it produces makes lots and lots of money. This stuff may not be doing society any good, but some people seem to like it.

It is also fascinating, though, to see LaPierre, who has for years used a self-serving interpretation of the Second Amendment to protect gun zealotry, ask us to ignore the First Amendment protections routinely invoked by entertainment moguls.

Here is the Second Amendment, which, so far, has been used to allow for the rampant sale and accumulation by individuals of military style weapons and ammo:

“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.”

And while we’re at it, the First Amendment, under which the makers of violent video games and slasher films take shelter:

“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 to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Overlaying this 18th Century, Enlightenment Era language upon the techno-charged 21st Century global marketplace is perilously akin to reading tea leaves. The words were written, with a quill, when candles lit rooms and it took a minute to fully load and fire a single-shot musket. The idea that these documents have much, if anything, specific to tell us about the distribution and sale of semi-automatic weapons or games that make slaughter seem fun is, if anything, a kind of make-believe.

The Constitution, an inherently social document, was never intended to serve as cover for blatantly anti-social business practices that would have been impossible to conceive of when it was written. This necessarily makes it not so much a set of rules as a guide to principles. It should not inhibit us from doing what’s necessary to protect the public health.

But if we’re not careful, we could find ourselves ensnared by distracting arguments over what the Constitution allows — and doing nothing significant about the sicknesses that bedevil us. In that case, a new discussion may begin. It will be about the Constitution’s relevance to today’s society; whether we are still mature enough to make it work.