In the wake of the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Valentines Day 2018, I decided to resurrect the following exchange between my brother Marek and me as we join families around the country searching for answers to truly vexing questions. Our sister, Teresa, added her view while on holiday in Melbourne, Australia.
I was watching an old movie recently, 1939’s Dodge City, a classic Michael Curtiz directed western starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. It tells the story of how the wildest frontier town of the Old West was tamed after the sheriff (Flynn) banned sidearms in town in the wake of DeHavilland’s kid brother getting dragged to death by a team of horses that got spooked by brazen gun play along Main Street.
The movie was set in 1869, eight years after Kansas was admitted to the Union. And though the centerpiece of the movie was the taming of the Wild West, oddly, by today’s standards, never once did the issue of second amendment rights ever come up. One can only imagine how a remake might be fashioned today. Yet in 1869 the U.S. Constitution was firmly in place and functioning quite well.
So it seems that even in the Wild West there came a time when too many six-shooters on too many hips in a crowded city was considered too much of a public safety risk to be allowed, never mind assault rifles.
Yet even after Flynn took all the citizen’s sidearms away, Dodge City didn’t fall into tyranny. Folks just weren’t being killed at as high a rate. Think we’ve learned anything?
At what point does the cure become more deadly than the disease? Yes, the possibility of the federal government becoming a tyrannical overlord is never beyond the realm of possibility – though that was not the concern of the Founding Fathers, because they WERE the federal government. And anarchy is always a nascent threat, though rarely likely on a day to day basis.
But when tens of thousands of our fellow citizens die from gunshot wounds annually, and thousands more wounded, at what number is the tipping point reached? Never? We tie pink ribbons around trees for many a malady, but never for this? We screen for toothpaste at the airstrip, but not assault weapons on the Vegas strip?
Grave capacity requires grave responsibility. Somehow over its two-plus centuries American citizenship has seen fit to bestow the former without expecting a corresponding accountability toward the latter. But since it is a constitutional right to bear arms in the U.S. – which has been interpreted by the Supreme Court in the 2008 District of Columbia versus Heller case to mean an individual right rather than in the form of having a “well-regulated militia” as stated in the amendment’s original language – every Tom, Dick and Shamir in this country can swagger around kicked and loaded with whatever caliber fits his urge of rage.
We came from a Midwestern gun-owning household. Both Mom and Pop were shotgun owners, military people who came from a heritage of rural hunting, one in America, the other from Poland. We were taught to handle firearms responsibly as youths, belonged to the Missouri Bottom Gun Club, and even earned certificates of merit from the NRA at summer camp. Guns were to be respected and handled with care and attention.
That is the kind of gun ownership the Founding Fathers had in mind when they considered the issue in the first place. America at the time did not have a standing army, and was overwhelmingly rural. Neither of those conditions are true anymore.
I saw an NRA ad recently on Fox News in which a woman related her story of a home invasion rape and her subsequent promise to herself “never ever to feel vulnerable again”. She tagged the testimonial with the declaration, “That’s why I will always be armed. I am the NRA.”
Fear is the straw man that is constantly being lifted up these days in framing the gun issue, fear of the government and fear of our fellow citizens. “I will never ever feel vulnerable again”.
What ever happened to those days when folks left their doors unlocked and neighbors were like family? Nowadays, it’s back decks and loaded Glocks rather than front stoops and block parties.
All the evidence suggests caution when giving stressed human beings access to deadly force, especially in urban settings. Your eyes ain’t lyin’, people live on a knife’s edge these days. The responsibility quotient isn’t sufficient for the right to hold as originally intended. It’s a cultural artifact. The culture has changed, and certainly not for the better.
We are a country of strivers, but striving toward what? After 27 were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2015, then 49 more fell at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando 2016, despite the horror in Las Vegas October 1, 2017, nothing can shock anymore, only dismay. So where is our Errol Flynn?
After the Las Vegas shooting, I received the following messsge from my sister Teresa on holiday in Australia.
“Personally, I feel sad & embarrassed to live in such a violent culture–contrast with us taking public trams last night in the dark 11:30 pm and walking several blocks in Melbourne to our hotel—unthinkable in US. We’ve lost something essential at home and not sure how to get it back. What a delightful feeling not to be scared walking at night! Lots of shocked unbelievable coverage last night before we headed out on our dinner odyssey.”
Reply from brother, Marek, a public defender in Eureka, California.
Morning, Tone –
I find myself on the opposite side of the gun debate. That’s certainly partly due to living in a rural county as opposed to an urban county. It’s also due to my work; reading police report after police report, and being exposed to violence in these endless (and endlessly repetitious) narratives that kind of alerts you to the potential for violence among the big apes that we are. And, of course, regular and even emotional contact with the perpetrators of violence in jail visits.
Sitting with an inmate in a locked, 8×10′ cinder block room (or smaller) while they rage at all the lies and false accusations and how everyone else is getting great deals while they remain in custody, and every other real or imagined inequity in their lives, reinforces the conclusion that you are ultimately responsible for your own protection.
So I carry a gun. And I like guns, too. I admire the technology and appreciate the aesthetic of steel and wood and function that defines a gun.
And as far as the law and the constitution go, I side with Scalia in the Heller decision. The 2d Amendment gives a practical reason, vis-a-vis the government, for the right to keep and bear arms (two distinct components — keep, or possess, at your residence; and bear, or possess outside of your residence), that being a well-regulated militia; but it is the recognition of an already pre-existing right of the people that underlies the the amendment, not the right of the government to give or deny anything.
The federal government was not so unified in the minds of the founders, and there was passionate disagreement among them about how much centralized power there would be (see, Hamilton and Burr’s fatal encounter). But there has never been a time in history in which some people somewhere were not in violent conflict with their government.
I do feel that ultimately the guns I own are protections against a collapse of the law and order that we take for granted, but are mostly held together by everyone’s agreement to follow the law. I was reading yesterday about how the military would follow the orders of President Trump because that’s what they do, follow orders. The police and military would, of course, follow orders to arrest and detain folks if they were ordered to do so; that’s what they already do.
An armed populace is no guarantee of anything, certainly not unanimity of purpose, but it does provide a very real check on arbitrary and unconstitutional authority.
And for all the yahoos out there with guns, and there are a lot out here, they aren’t blazing away at every provocation and argument. It happens, certainly, and perhaps more often in some locations than others, but for the number of firearms out there and the number of people owning guns, the percentage of such incidents are very small. The actual personal toll, however, is devastating, I understand that and I don’t mean to minimize how that destroys families and extends suffering up and down through a community. But that’s not “gun violence”, that’s violence perpetrated by someone with a gun.
The long game being played by the Democrats to choke off the availability of guns and ammunition from the populace is understandable on one level, but it is an intention that assumes that the populace is not to be trusted and that the government needs to disarm them. It’s a natural inclination of any entity to protect its own interests, and government always has the agenda to control and regulate people.
Anyway, I’m off to court, starting jury selection in a trial for assault with a shotgun. How apropos.