Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guns in America (part 7) - Absolutism

Last Monday, President Obama gave his second inaugural address. In it, he said:

We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

Apparently, this sentence did not sit well with some on the right, in particular Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The day after President Obama’s second inaugural, LaPierre gave a speech to the Weatherby International Hunting and Conservation Awards in Reno, Nevada. The primary focus of his speech was the aforementioned sentence from President Obama’s second inaugural address. Allow me to quote from LaPierre’s speech:

So what is this “absolutism” the president attacks? And what are the so-called “principles” that he wants us to settle for instead?

Obama wants to turn the idea of “absolutism” into a dirty word, just another word for “extremism.” He wants you to accept the idea of “principles” as he sees fit to define them. It’s a way of redefining words so that common sense is turned upside-down and nobody knows the difference.

We as gun owners face the same kind of false ultimatum. We’re told that to stop insane killers, we must accept less freedom — less than the criminal class and political class keep for themselves.

We’re told that limits on magazine capacity or bans on 100-year-old firearms technology — bans that only affect lawful people — will somehow make us safer.

We’re told that wanting the same technology that the criminals and our leaders keep for themselves is a form of “absolutism” and that accepting less freedom and protection for ourselves is the only “principled” way to live.

Think about what that means. Barack Obama is saying that the only “principled” way to make children safe is to make lawful citizens less safe and violent criminals more safe.

Criminals couldn't care less about Barack Obama’s so-called “principles”! They don’t have principles — that’s why they’re criminals.

Obama wants you to believe that putting the federal government in the middle of every firearm transaction — except those between criminals — will somehow make us safer.

He doesn't understand you. He doesn't agree with the freedoms you cherish. If the only way he can force you to give ’em up is through scorn and ridicule, he’s more than willing to do it — even as he claims the moral high ground.

He said it yesterday! In the very same sentence that Obama talked about “absolutism” versus “principle,” he also scolded his critics for “name-calling,” as he called it.

When Barack Obama says, “we cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” what he's saying is that precision and clarity and exactness in language and law should be abandoned in favor of his nebulous, undefined “principles.”

I’ve got news for the president. Absolutes do exist. Words do have specific meaning, in language and in law. It’s the basis of all civilization. It’s why our laws are written down: So the “letter of the law” carries the force of the law.

That’s why our Bill of Rights was written into law, to ensure the fundamental freedoms of a minority could never be denied by a majority. Those are the principles we call unalienable rights.

Without those absolutes, without those protections, democracy decays into nothing more than two wolves and one lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. I urge our president to use caution when attacking clearly defined “absolutes” in favor of his “principles.”

Mister President, just because you wish words meant something other than what they mean, you don’t have the right to define them any way you want. Because when words can mean anything, they mean nothing.

When “absolutes” are abandoned for “principles,” the U.S. Constitution becomes a blank slate for anyone’s graffiti and our rights and freedoms are defaced.

Words do have meaning, Mister President. And those meanings are absolute, especially when it comes to our Bill of Rights.

There’s more, of course, but those excerpts should give you the general tone and argument of LaPierre’s speech.

Now, before getting into a real substantive discussion about “absolutism”, I just want to note that LaPierre appears to be arguing that President Obama is wrong for “scolding” critics for name-calling. Yet, read LaPierre’s speech and his claims about President Obama and then go back and note that what President Obama really said was only that “We cannot … treat name-calling as reasoned debate”. Does LaPierre’s speech sound to you like “reasoned debate”? Or has he instead simply illustrated President Obama’s point about name-calling replacing reasoned debate? I’d vote for the latter.

Anyway, I want to turn my attention to the real substance of LaPierre’s speech. And remember this: The NRA may not speak for every gun owner in America, but the NRA’s speech is the loudest pro-gun speech you’ll hear. Moreover and more importantly, the NRA has enormous influence both on politicians and on electoral politics, due to both vast amounts of money and a well-organized grass roots (or Astroturf — it’s not really clear) campaign. One more quick preliminary point: Ask yourself whether the NRA really represents its individual gun-owning members or the gun industry that, to paraphrase Indianapolis gun store owner Don Davis, “just loves to sell guns”.

So let’s start with LaPierre’s basic premises, as summed up in the last sentence quoted above: “Words do have meaning … [a]nd those meanings are absolute, especially when it comes to our Bill of Rights.” Let’s presume for a moment that LaPierre is completely correct: Words have meanings and within the Bill of Rights those meanings are absolute. Well, then, I’m curious to know what meaning LaPierre would ascribe to the first thirteen words of the Second Amendment (emphasis added):

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.

Remember: Words have meanings and those meanings are absolute. Except, you know, the first half of the words of the Second Amendment which appear to be nothing more than a … um … er … principle?

But let’s go a step further. LaPierre says that the words of the Bill of Rights have absolute meanings. Thus, according to this reasoning, “shall not be infringed” must really mean “shall not be infringed”. So, under this hyper-literal, “absolutist” reading of the words of the Second Amendment, wouldn’t that mean that convicted criminals do have a right to keep and bear arms? After all, they’re still a part of “the people”. What about the mentally ill? Where does the Constitution allow the government to remove the mentally ill from the definition of “the people” for whom the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed? Are you comfortable with the idea of convicted felons or the mentally ill having weapons? I’m not. If you really take this words of the Second Amendment at their truest “absolute” meaning, then wouldn’t any gun licensing law be illegal? After all, unless the license is (pardon the pun) absolutely automatic to everyone who applies, then isn’t the very existence of a licensure program that might deny someone a license an infringement upon the absolute right to keep and bear arms without infringement?

And let’s look at the word “arms”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (yeah, I know that the right-wing probably wouldn’t accept definitions from a “foreign” dictionary), “arms” means:

“Defensive and offensive outfit for war, things used in fighting” or “Instruments of offence used in war; weapons”.

Now remember, according to LaPierre, meanings, especially within the Bill of Rights, are absolute.

Thus, I ask, according to LaPierre’s way of thinking, why can’t I have a fully automatic rifle? Why can’t I have a rocket propelled grenade or hand grenade? Why can’t I have a Stinger anti-aircraft missile, a bazooka, a flamethrower, or an anti-personnel mine? Why can’t I have chemical or biological agents or even my own tactical nuclear weapon? Why can’t I own a switchblade (well, here in Indiana I might be able to soon enough…). Why can’t I buy all of the ammonium nitrate I want? After all, even a giant fertilizer bomb is still a form of arms and my right to bear that particular weapon shall not be infringed. Right? And of course, I should be able to stockpile all of the sarin gas or anthrax that I might want. Right? All of those things are “arms” and, according to LaPierre’s reasoning, the right to keep and bear arms is absolute as is the prohibition on infringing on that absolute right.

And think of some of the other “infringements” on our right to keep and bear arms that must surely be invalidated by LaPierre’s absolutist reading of the Second Amendment. Why can’t I keep and bear my weapon on an airplane? I mean, shouldn’t I have the right to defend myself from a terrorist? And why can’t my 13-year-old kids take AK-47s to school? Are they not a part of “the people” for whom the right to keep and bear arms can’t be infringed? For that matter, why can’t convicted felons in jail or the mentally ill in a hospital keep and bear arms? Why can’t I ring my property with punji sticks to keep out trespassers. Why can’t I have a rocket launcher on my car? It would make me feel better in a traffic jam…

Remember, according to the chief executive of the NRA, meanings within the Bill of Rights are absolute. Thus, the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” must be completely and totally absolute.

Is that the NRA’s position? Is it yours?

As long as we’re examining the absolute meaning of the Second Amendment, perhaps it’s worth applying the same absolute meaning standard to other parts of the Bill of Rights; after all, LaPierre didn’t limit his claim of absolute meaning to the Second Amendment. Rather, he called out the entire Bill of Rights.

So consider, by way of example, the First Amendment, applying absolute meanings to the words:

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.

Let’s start with that first clause which is quite clear: “no law”. Those five letters seem pretty absolute, pretty easy to understand. I’ll skip religion for a moment and jump to free speech. “No law … abridging the freedom of speech…” OK. So out of curiosity, what is it that the NRA wants Congress to do about violent movies and violent video games. Pass a law to prohibit them? Hmm. And what about the right to assemble? Can you and I and a few dozen of our friends parade down Main Street or do we need a permit? Can we peaceably assemble at the 50 yard line of Lucas Oil Stadium or in the chambers of the House of Representatives? Can we walk into the next NRA national conference stage a protest? Why not? If the words of the Bill of Rights are absolute, then “no law” must mean “no law”!

And let’s think about the free exercise of religion. What if my religion requires human sacrifice? Remember, “no law”. OK, let’s scale back a bit. Forget human sacrifice. What about animal sacrifice? What about smoking marijuana or peyote? What about the right not to seek medical care for my child? What about the right to seek an abortion if my religion tells me it’s OK? And if my religion tells me that I should kill infidels or stone my child for talking back to me or to stone you if you eat pork? Remember, the words in the Bill of Rights are “absolute” in their meanings.

Luckily, most of the rest of the Bill of Rights uses words like “unreasonable” or “excessive” or “unusual” thus making those provisions much less absolute and much more in the nature of … principles. But wait, I thought principles were a bad thing…

So isn’t it possible that the words of the Bill of Rights aren’t quite as absolute as LaPierre would like you to think they are? Might there not be room for compromise? Might it not be acceptable, notwithstanding words like “shall not be infringed” to recognize that the principle of the Second Amendment doesn’t stop us from prohibiting felons or the mentally ill from owning guns? Might it not be acceptable for our society to decide that danger to our citizens posed by fully automatic weapons or large capacity magazines or armor piercing bullets allows us to restrict their use to the well-regulated militia, now in the form of either the police or the military? Might it not be acceptable to impose registration requirements or enhanced background checks in an effort to try to limit the flow of weapons to those who ought not have them or to cut down on the black market transfer of weapons?

It seems to me that the NRA’s principle of helping gun manufacturers sell more guns is absolute and the principle of keeping our citizens, our families, our children safe, must by definition fall as a mere “feel good” principle that is trumped by the absolutism of the pro-gun lobby. Hmm. Isn’t that what President Obama was talking about?

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