Monday, April 30, 2007

Ignorance "Shall Not Be Infringed"

The Virginia massacre is still making the news in the most inane way: “…constitutional right,” stated the correspondent; “…constitutional right,” reflexively muttered another correspondent; “…constitutional right,” bleated yet another correspondent. And so it went: no broadcast was, or indeed is, complete without reference to the alleged constitutional right of Americans to “bear arms”. The predictable verbal diarrhoea of any correspondent is only matched by the fact that it will be regurgitated by his or her fellow club member.

However, the constitutional right that the correspondents lean on as crutch of first and last resort is not quite as it seems. Ratified in 1791, the famous amendment (one of ten that make up the Bill of Rights) that Blighty’s correspondents refer to so readily and with apparent thorough knowledge reads as follows: “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 case of the highly-paid correspondent the right to ignorance “shall not be infringed” - and it hasn’t, and doesn’t look like being so.

Now, how many a correspondent, apparently so knowledgeable about the U.S. constitution, has read it and its amendments? About none would be my considered calculation. One would imagine that at least one of the motley crew would find a few seconds to quote the famous second amendment. That at least would wake the sonorous: “…what… what…Militia?”

A literal reading of the seldom read, frequently incorrectly quoted amendment would suggest - demand? - that only a “well regulated Militia” has the right to “keep and bear Arms”, and that it is not an individual right.

The NRA, of course, disputes this. Interestingly, they refuse to state the amendment in its entirety, in fear of the truth, no doubt. There is a lively debate in the U.S. around this issue, not that you would be so informed by the scores of lucky correspondents who have made it across the pond to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Not being particularly well-acquainted with the intricacies of how this clear stipulation has been ignored and that almost anyone with the urge to buy an assault rifle being allowed to do so is evidently a shortcoming. Perhaps the Supreme Court has ruled - or rather overruled, if you see my meaning - that the right applies to individuals, not to the state Militias entrusted to keep freedom alive. If anyone knows, drop me a line.

Although it is dangerous to try to read into what those who ratified the amendment in 1791 had in mind, I do not think these chaps had assault rifles in mind (operative word: assault). Since the forces of the nation state are now so overwhelming, one would be inclined to suggest that no individual has the capacity to counter F-15 jets and “Daisy Cutters”. Therefore the “freedom” argument melts away, unless, that is, U.S. citizens should have access to awesome military firepower. Best not give the NRA any ideas.


AN said...

It is interesting that if a right to bear arms was and is a guarantee of personal liberty, that America saw a literaly genocidal theft of land and destruction of liberty for the aboriginal peoples, and not only legally sanctioned slavery until the 1860s, but Jim Crow laws and apartheid laws against blacks in many states until the 1960s.

Phugebrins said...

It's a very interesting sentence is that.

"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"

Either it means:
"Since a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"
Or it means:
"A well regulated Militia shall not be infringed, as such a Militia is itself the right of the people to bear arms and is also necessary to the security of a free state."

The former seems the more likely, and it doesn't explicitly mean arms can only be owned by militias. The phrase "well regulated" is also perhaps worth pondering on.

But these musings are largely besides the point. "It's (not) in the constitution" doesn't make it wrong/right.

AN said...

After thinking a bit more about this, the left argument against gun control is often based upon opposing the monopoly of violence by the state, perhaps with some romantic notion of fighting on the barricades.

(Which reminds me of dad's army where mainwaring says to Wilson, we will figt them to the end and save the last bullet for ourselves, ow many bullets do we have? Wilson replies: one each.)

But given that the state does have a monopoly on military aircraft, heavy artilry, tanks, etc. This argument fails.

I remember talking with saome exiled members of the Iranian Tudeh party, who decsribed how in 1979 they had won over members of the Shah's army bu putting flowers in the barrels of the guns,and talking to them. They had actually had to disarm some unltra-left anarchists who had wanted to shoot at the soldiers - which would have been disastrous.

Ken said...

Needless to say this question has been debated in the US and most opinion is firmly on the side of the view that it is an individual right.

Suppose there was an Amendment which said: 'A well educated electorate being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and read books shall not be infringed' - would that mean that only voters were allowed to have books?

Of course it's true that its being in the constitution or not doesn't make it right. I think it's right, full stop. But I've been through this argument so many times that I'm tired of it. Most of the revolutionary left will parrot the 'liberal' line on 'gun control' and there's nothing I can do about it.

With regard to AN's point, the right to keep and bear arms was both asserted and used by blacks in many of the struggles against the Southern system and racism more generally.

AN said...

That's true Ken.

If it hadn't been for the second amendment right to bear arms, then the Black Panthers armed patrols in oakland to "police the police" would have been imposible, and they were a big success in raising black pride and opposition to state racism.

I am interested in you saying that this right was also asserted by blacks in the south. I am always willing to learn how I am wrong!

I have also never been convinced by the moral panic responses to Dunblaine and Hungerford where sportsmen and women in Britain were denied the right to have guns, just becasue the previous system of regulation had failed.

However, Toff has a point in this post that the right to bear arms is certainly coiintextualised by the positive view of militias. Whether or not this preculdes an individual right to bear arms, it doesn't rule out state regulation to prevent fruitcakes and weirdos buying handguns over the counter!

Louisefeminista said...

When it came to "bearing arms" in 1791 it was the musket (inaccurate and ages to re-load)and technology has definitely moved since then...
Though i agree with the arguments on right to bear arms.

But with regards to the Virginia shootings there are other discussions to have such as why this young man decided to shoot his fellow students.

Other attention is being focused on the fact he seemingly had watched films like "Oldboy" (good film and deserved the plaudits it received on release)and was re-enacting scenes from it. Same argument was used to explain Columbine. Instead it was the "Matrix", "Basketball Diaries" and the lyrics of Marilyn Manson.

My own position is that it is easy to blame film and dodgy lyrics because it detracts from the real issues. But what also concerns me is the emphasis on mental health (there was an article in The Observer recently) on the ability of predicting behaviour and with the ever increasing attacks on civil liberties on people labelled with MH problems I am worried there will be a knee-jerk response under the guise of "protecting the public".

I just think the debate goes wider than gun control etc.

AN said...

On the question of mental health, I am not expert on criminology, but years fo watching cop shows in TV has led me to believe that the whole category of sociopathy was devised becasue some serial rapists and serial killers are not mentally ill, but do exhibit certain recognisable personality characteristsics, (which I have shirthanded here to weirdos and fruitcakes). This is not a mental health isue, it is a public safety issue.

I don't think it is too much a restriction on civil liberties to prevent an unstable violent fantasist havin access to an AK47.

Louisefeminista said...

The terms "sociopathy" and "psychopathy" have changed over the decades and usually reflects the political situation of the time. And the terms are close family indeed to personality disorders!

The problem as well is that mental distress gets thrown in the pot as well as personality disorder.

With the media and public reaction lumping of personality disorders and mental disorder will happen and also there are people labelled with personality disorders who are extremely vulnerable people who have had terrible experiences in their lives.

It is a kind of guilty by association and people making general assumptions.

There are disagreements about whether personality disorders can indeed be "treated" and there arguments have been used in relation to the Mental Health Bill and people with personality disorders.

But it is precisely this issue about predicting behaviour. How do you know if someone is unstable and having violent fantasises? The fact the bloke in Virginia may have been stopped from a gun because he had been in a psychiatric institution (but so have many others yet are they deemed a threat?)

I am unsure of what diagnosis he was given and yes, stopping gaining access to a gun may have saved lives but what about other people who have not come against the system, no label, no criminal record?

I just think these labels are arbitrary and there are shrinks out there who believe that too.

Btw: one of the criteria of psychopath is having a total disregard for human life. Does that include Bush and Blair?

AN said...

one of the criteria of psychopath is having a total disregard for human life. Does that include Bush and Blair?

Amost certainly Blair has some sort of messianic personality disorder, including excessive self belief and an inability to distinuish between fact and fantasy.

He would be a prime cnadidate as someone who should not be allowed a gun, unless of course he was prepared to do the decent thing with it.

Ken said...

AN sez: I am interested in you saying that this right was also asserted by blacks in the south. I am always willing to learn how I am wrong!

Damn, I have wasted an hour on the Spart site after going there for an example! The article I had in mind isn't online and I forget where I read it. It was the case of a black industrial worker and WW2 veteran whose home was threatened by racists and who got his workmates to organise an armed guard. The classic instance of Southern armed black self-defence in the Civil Rights was the Deacons for Defense and Justice - if you google 'Deacons for Defense' you'll get all that.

Another wonderful case, much farther back, is cited in the SLP pamphlet 'Capitalism: Breeder of Race Prejudice':

'And when, in 1892, a Negro Populist speaker was threatened with lynching
and went to [Populist leader] Watson for protection, “two thousand armed white farmers,
some of whom rode all night, responded to Watson’s call for aid and
remained on guard for two nights at his home to avert the threat of