Things We Read Today (42), Weekend


The Lesson, If There Is One

Living in one of the most historically rich regions of the country, I’ve wondered whether future generations will have the same sense of strange, half-shaded mystery about our time that we have of the past.  I suspect not.

The events of the past come to us mostly in written words.  Press a button at a museum and an actor’s voice reads the account from the past, which is reflected in a still scene of mannequins.  The imagination must supply the rest.  Our time is recorded in multiple media and is full of pavement, light, and plastic.

One resemblance that our era will likely maintain with prior history is the sense that something is terribly off in our society.

One company Christmas party that I attended, this year, was at the Valley Inn in Portsmouth.  After an excellent meal, the owner came out and told us the tale of the centuries-old house and the Cornell family that built it: Apparently, the elderly matron had some sort of accident and fell into the fire in her bedroom during the chill of winter, at around the same time of the Salem witch trials to the north.

After her burial in a crypt, her brother awoke one morning having had a vivid dream that she had appeared to him and claimed murder at the hands of her son, who had been in the house at the time of her death. When doctors thawed out her frozen corpse to perform an autopsy, she bled.  So, in front of a large crowd of spectators from around the area, they hung her son for murder, and his wife named his daughter, born a short while later, Innocence.

The thing that’s off in our own time is quite different, but it is undeniable.  We look for dementia, not demons, to explain an inexplicable atrocity, such as happened at Sandy Hook in Connecticut on Friday.  And the spectators have such a thirst for details that news media send pictures of the wrong man around the world, naming him the killer, as details trickle out and as reporters hound traumatized families leaving the scene. Then come the television cameras in church gatherings, and the President caps a weekend of online politicization of the atrocity for the cause of gun control by insinuating it into a speech at the town’s high school.

Over the weekend, I looked to stabilize my reeling world through analysis, concluding that the real horror of the age is the young age of the spate of mass shooters in the last fifteen years.  I also concluded — and whatever the merits of my numbers, this seems inarguable — that the solution is not the knee-jerk politics of voiding Constitutional rights, but the more mysterious work of changing the culture.

Rights and Obligations: Second Amendment

As I went about my day, yesterday, I engaged in a handful of Twitter discussions with people who conclude from a lunatic’s atrocity with stolen guns in Connecticut that the government must prevent sane, patriotic, and compassionate Americans from owning military-grade firearms.  Obviously, central to the debate is the meaning of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, printed in the Bill of Rights 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.

I first brought up the sentence in response to claims that nobody needs, and no right therefore exists to, assault rifles or large ammunition clips.  My point was that the Second Amendment explicitly references “Arms,” which means weapons — especially of the sort used in warfare.  The right, as enshrined, isn’t about hunting, sport shooting, or even personal self-defense.

The response was that I had forgotten to mention the words “Militia,” “regulated,” and “State.”  Such reminders aren’t really to the point.

Grammatically, those three words apply to the first clause of the sentence, which speaks to the rationale for the right, not a description of the right itself.  That there are government, regulation, and military structures involved doesn’t tell us anything about the initial question, which was whether Americans only have a right to keep and bear small-scale weapons suitable to killing animals and scaring off muggers.

But if we look more closely at the grammar, we see that the thing being regulated is the Militia.  The right to keep and bear Arms, by contrast, cannot be “infringed.”  If we’re reading the Bill of Rights in terms of what it allows the government to do when it comes to restricting the freedoms of the people, it seems to me that the government’s window is in regulating the activities of armed Americans who come together as an organized military force.

More important on the individual basis, though, is that it simply cannot be the case that the government can erase citizens’ right to weaponry simply by shirking its own duty to regulate a defined Militia.

Scope and Process, the Nuclear Option

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that all military-grade weaponry ought to be available to the general public.  I’d very much like to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the wealthy individuals and organizations that could afford them, to pick the most extreme example.  And it’s of course true that the Founders did not foresee weapons of such destructive force.

What’s needed, then, is a Constitutional amendment clarifying the line beyond which a right to bear arms conflicts with the society’s right to protect itself from war-like numbers of fatalities.

One suspects that no such amendment is ever suggested because gun-restriction advocates would prefer to be able to draw the line much more expansively than the American people would allow through the amendment process.  What those advocates want, in other words, is to limit not only Second Amendment rights, but also basic rights to due process and self governance.

That impulse cannot be permitted to find successful expression.

The Government’s Promise of Traded Security for Less Freedom, in Healthcare, Too

Justin Binik-Thomas believes that the birth of his second child gave him a taste of the future of medicine, under ObamaCare.  First came the repeated sonograms and the dark suggestions of “options” when they came back less than perfect.  Then came the planning for treatment when the baby girl was born with three fingers fused together:

We knew that surgery was likely in the near future and chose to select a top-notch full coverage insurance plan this year.

The hospital informed us that this is a fairly new operation perfected over just the last five years. However: this surgery will “cease to be available in two years for insurance patients due to ObamaCare.” This is a quote from the flustered nurse at the hospital.

This plan pays all costs incurred after the deductible, provided the services are provided in-network. The plan goes away in 2014 as a result of the health law. The best new plans to replace this will pay for 90% after deductible, and will cost more.

I stress that this is likely just a taste.  With guns, the statists say that the government cannot possibly fulfill its duty to keep the people safe unless it can impose “common sense” restrictions on the people’s firearms freedoms.  With the government’s newly claimed duty to keep the people healthy, we can be sure that calls will soon be coming for “common sense” restrictions on how people can and cannot treat their bodies and what medical treatments they can or cannot procure.

A Clarification of Meaning

It’s important to note, in all of this, that travesties and suffering remain intolerable.  We can never be complacent.  We must find in dreadful news the motivation to make our world different… better.

But process matters.  How we do things matters.  The unintended consequences matter.

We are beings with the capacity for reason, and we should use that reason to understand that willing things to be different through the force of government is simplistic and apt to bind us with more terrible threads than those we’re striving to sever.

An Example: Fading Prosperity

On Small Business Trends, Scott Shane provides an example. The British Legatum Institute has ranked prosperity in the United States outside of the global top 10 for the first time:

Over the past four years, prosperity has increased around the globe, while it has remained stagnant in the United States, the Legatum Institute reports. As a result, the Institute ranked the United States 12th out of 142 countries on its 2012 Prosperity Index, putting the country outside the top ten for the first time.

Returning us to prosperity is central to the agenda of our newly elected and reelected leaders. But doing so requires an understanding of the causes behind our stagnant wellbeing. The Legatum Institute finds that a decline in entrepreneurship and economic opportunity, rather than slippage in education, health, safety or personal freedom, is to blame.

Shane hypothesizes that attempts to control the portion of our economy derisively called “rent seeking” have diminished the ease of and incentive for entrepreneurship.

One thing of which we shouldn’t lose sight when discussing prosperity is that the people who suffer the most when it is absent — suffering in the terms I’ve called “intolerable” above — are not those who fail to prosper, but those struggling to survive.  Even as we act individually, we raise or lower our entire community by our actions.

Of course, when government controls have the consequence of stagnating the economy, government has increased leverage to claim more money and power to assist those whom its policies have harmed most.

Ending on a Couple of Positive Notes

I was thrilled, last week, to discover that AM790 is now offering podcasts of Positively Rhode Island, which can be difficult for me to catch live on Thursday afternoons.  Scroll down to the bottom here.

Bryan Rourke tells the heart-warming story of East Providence native John Carnevale and the hospital complex that he has been helping to build, structure by structure, in Uganda.

  • Warrington Faust

    Although I am not sure it can be found in the Federalist Papers, the reason for the right to keep and bear arms is known. It may be in the record of debates. The militia was the "Governor's army" to protect the states from invasion by the federal government. The individual right was for individuals to assemble and protect themselves from the various governments.

    It might be said that no state has ever been invaded, but then there is the question of our Civil War. It might well be argued that the Confederacy was no longer composed of "states of the union" and that it was invasion of a foreign entity. We might also look at the invasion of Utah to put down the Mormons (I am pretty sure that was the regular army and not National Guard).

  • helen

    "If we’re reading the Bill of Rights in terms of what it allows the government to do when it comes to restricting the freedoms of the people…"

    On this point I must disagree. The Bill of Rights restricts the government from violating the freedoms of the people. The Constitution is about restraining the government and maximizing the freedom of the people within a workable framework of law.

  • John

    I read the second amendment as a protection for states. It assures that the federal government shall not prevent a state from raising a militia, if needed, and have its citizens armed and ready to protect the state from either the federal government OR foreigners. After all, back then they couldn't be sure the federal government would come to their aid in a crisis.

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