My friend, a Roman Catholic priest, surprised me.
“In the Bible it says, There is no God! Go ahead, look it up!”
I did, and of course my friend Father Daly was right. Here’s the full quote from Psalms: “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God.’”
My intention here is not to suggest that atheists are fools. Atheists and others who choose no religious affiliation now make up twenty percent of the U.S. population. The Dalai Lama is an “atheist.” Some of my best friends are atheists. I’m not writing here about atheism. I’m writing about prefatory clauses.
As with Psalm 53:2, a prefatory clause opens the Second Amendment. I often see gun rights advocates quote the Second Amendment as “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But the full quote is “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.”
In their dissent to the landmark 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller, four of the nine Supreme Court justices read that prefatory clause as meaning that the right to bear arms was a collective right, not an individual right. “The ‘right to bear arms,’” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “protects only a right to possess and use firearms in connection with service in a state-organized militia.” Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer agreed and joined his dissent. But four justices joined Justice Antonin Scalia in declaring the right to bear arms an individual right. That’s how close it was (indeed, how many other landmark cases have been as close?). But absent legislative action, individual right is now settled law.
What I would hope is that folks who were on both sides of that debate could now agree on the following…
Let’s keep guns out of schools. In the same majority decision quoted above Justice Scalia took pains to note that “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited…The Court’s opinion [the majority opinion that the right to bear arms is an individual right] should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions… laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools…”
As the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association said in a joint statement last Thursday “Guns have no place in our schools. Period.” Armed law enforcement officers (there were two of them) got off a few shots but could not stop the 1999 Columbine massacre; nor could armed personnel stop the massacre at Virginia Tech. As Mother Jones Magazine has reported regarding the 62 mass-murders over 30 years they examined recently, most of the killers got their guns legally, and not one was stopped by an armed civilian. And let’s not forget Fort Hood, where there were 13 killed and 29 wounded… on an army base filled with armed soldiers.
Would more guns have saved the firefighters who were ambushed and shot to death in Webster, New York this past Monday? Or the victims of the sniper attacks that paralyzed Washington, DC in 2002? In the words of PATCH blogger Robert Herbst “It’s the guns…!”
We should recognize NRA chief Wayne LaPierre's call for more guns for what it is: in the words of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “a shameful evasion of the crisis facing our country… a paranoid, dystopian vision.” The New York Times called it a “mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant.” For those who have been following LaPierre’s career this should come as no surprise. Read "LaPierre's NRA was already so crazy back in 1995 that George H. W. Bush resigned his membership." The full text of President Bush’s letter was published in the New York Times on May 11, 1995.
Let’s ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines. The Supreme Court - in the same majority decision quoted above - took pains to support the “historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.” There is no reason we cannot outlaw such weapons, and we should. A buy-back program would be needed to get these dangerous weapons out of folks’ hands. It’s been accomplished elsewhere, notably in Australia (domestic municipal buy-back programs include Los Angeles and San Diego) and we should push to do it here. And we need to ban the on-line sale of ammunition. This would be a good thing; because whatever you may have heard about decreasing gun deaths, according to the Violence Poverty Center using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while gun deaths remained relatively flat from 2000 to 2008, the total number of people shot went up nearly 20 percent since 2001. “States with low gun ownership rates and strong gun laws,” they found, “have the lowest rates of gun death.”
Let’s close the gun-show loophole. The loop-hole defeats any attempt to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. We need to push for longer purchase times, and to end “instant” purchase time.
Let’s come back together. Proposals put forth by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre last week – one calling on the federal government to “create an active national database of the mentally ill,” another asking why “with all the money in the federal budget, we can't afford to put a police officer in every school?” - are so-called “big government” or “tax and spend” responses which would cost billions of dollars. While I deeply disagree with LaPierre on these specific proposals I wonder if there might not perhaps be a glimmer of hope here: Is it possible that a new conservative-liberal consensus on government taxing and spending for the public weal is aborning?
If so - while we’d need to be clear that autism is not a mental illness but a neurological development disorder; and while we’d be wrong to blame autism for the Sandy Hook massacre, and while armed guards in schools is a terrible idea - perhaps this newly dawning realization that indeed “it takes a village” will focus us on the need to fight rampant de-funding of programs for those with neurological and psychiatric disabilities, and children’s programs which are already in existence; and to support additional funding for new programs to aid the most vulnerable members of our society.
And as the NRA has now come out in favor of a national database to keep track of folks who have never committed a crime, perhaps they can be persuaded to drop their powerful efforts to thwart legislative attempts to create a much needed federal registry of gun transactions, also by people who have never committed a crime, for use in criminal investigations when gun crimes do occur.
Is this possible? Well, there’s reason to believe that a shift in attitudes is underway. A just released poll indicates that a bare majority of Americans “now favor major restrictions on owning guns or an outright ban on gun ownership by ordinary citizens and more than six in ten favor a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles.” Indeed, the fact that a new grass-roots anti-gun violence movement called “Newtown United” has taken off in the town where the massacre took place – a traditionally strongly pro-gun area where “dozens of gun dealers, gun instructors, gun repair shops and shooting ranges do a brisk business,” and “regular people... have an arsenal in their basement" - gives us hope that out of tragedy may come a new understanding.
Finally, let’s have a national discussion on the 2nd Amendment. Let me hasten to underscore that the few gun owners I know personally are all decent, law-abiding folks. Let’s not make matters worse by demonizing each other, whichever side of the issue we’re on. And I understand that suggesting a national discussion on the 2nd Amendment is more controversial than any of the above proposals. But following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 we saw the beginning of calls – from the Harvard Crimson, from Salon's Washington Bureau Chief Walter Shapiro, from Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution and others - for repeal of the 2nd Amendment. And now, following the Sandy Hook massacre we have former Seattle policeman Norm Stamper, former Colorado lawmaker Bryan Jameson, Dr. Jeff Clawson, Professor Robert Klose, and the magazine The Economist again calling for repeal or consideration of repeal. We should educate ourselves about these arguments, pro and con. Maybe upon consideration legislative action to repeal the 2nd Amendment is something we will wish to support.
In the meantime…
Please purchase a “We Are Newtown” bumper sticker, proceeds to go toward a memorial to the victims.
Please read my previous post on gun control.
Your comments are welcome.
Rabbi Mark Sameth is the spiritual leader of Joyful Judaism: Pleasantville Community Synagogue an inclusive, progressive synagogue – with members from twenty towns, villages and cities all across Westchester