Timothy Egan: Cancer in the U.S. Constitution

The Second Amendment came at a time when a typical firearm was a single-loaded musket, not an automatic machine gun.
The Second Amendment came at a time when a typical firearm was a single-loaded musket, not an automatic machine gun.
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The country’s founders did not intend to empower crazy people to kill school pupils or worshippers at church says Timothy Egan

One of the great disconnects of our history is how a nation birthed on the premise that all men are created equal could enshrine an entire race of people as three-fifths of a human being. We tried to fix that, through our bloodiest war and a series of amendments that followed.

Not so with guns. The Second Amendment, as applied in the last 30 years or so, has become so perverted, twisted and misused that you have to see it now as the second original sin in the founding of this country, after slavery.

It wasn’t meant to be the instrument for the worst kind of American exceptionalism — setting up the United States as the most violent of developed nations. But it is now. The more we stand out for random mass killings daily, the more the leading cause becomes clear: the warped interpretation of the freedom to own lethal weaponry.

The amendment itself is not the problem. Yes, it’s vague, poorly worded, lacking nuance. But the intent is clear with the opening clause: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.”

The purpose is security – against foreign invaders and domestic insurrectionists. President George Washington relied on a well-regulated militia from three states to put down the Tea Partyers of his day, the tax-evading lawbreakers in the Whiskey Rebellion.

At the time, the typical firearms were single-loading muskets and flintlock pistols. At most, a shooter could fire off three rounds per minute, at a maximum accuracy range of about 50 yards.

Compare that with the carnage unleashed by the gunman in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock. Among the 23 guns he hauled into the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino were at least a dozen that he had apparently modified into rapid-fire weapons of mass murder.

Spraying at people below him, Paddock unleashed about 90 rounds per 10 seconds and could mow down his targets – human beings – almost a quarter-mile away. He was able to convert semi-automatic AR-15s into something very close to machine guns.

All of his weapons were legal but should not be, by any rational reading of the Second Amendment. Did the founders really intend to empower crazy people to kill children at school or worshippers in a church? If they did, then we should all have the right to portable nukes – for that is the logical conclusion of such an argument.

No, the Second Amendment became a cancer because lawmakers stopped making laws to match the technological advances of weaponry. They did it to appease a lobby of gunmakers. And that cowering to a single special interest shows how the cancer has spread to the democracy itself, making it nearly impossible for majority will to be exercised.

A majority of Americans – indeed, a majority of gun owners – want laws to keep lunatics and terrorists from committing mass homicide. But what is the response of our elected officials? I’ll let President Donald Trump explain. As he told the National Rifle Association after the election, “You came through big for me, and I am going to come through for you.”

The disgraced former cable pundit Bill O’Reilly said all the recent carnage is “the price of freedom.” But it’s not the price of freedom in Canada or Japan or Britain. It’s the price of freedom only in the United States, where mass killings have surged. In every other free country, sanity has prevailed.

And what about that “well regulated militia” part of the amendment? It’s overlooked in favour of the second clause, about the right of people to firearms. Nearly half the states have no requirements, before buying a gun, for any kind of training in handling a firearm.

As I said, it’s only in the last 30 years or so that this amendment has metastasized. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Firearms Act of 1934, restricting sales of machine guns and sawn-off shotguns – the weapons of choice for violent gangsters.

But now we have more regulations on paint, toys and the sell-by date of milk than on sophisticated weapons. The Supreme Court, though it ruled 5-4 in the 2008 Heller case that an individual has the right to own a gun unconnected to service in a militia, has left the door open to sensible regulation. “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited,” the court wrote in that case. “It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever for whatever purpose.”

It’s a no-brainer to pass a law designed to keep people from turning their AKs into machine guns with the so-called bump stocks. But it was also a no-brainer to restrict people on terrorism watch lists from buying guns, as was proposed after the Orlando slaughter of 49 people last year. It failed. A healthy democracy, reflecting the outrage of its citizens and the common-sense will of the majority, would have done right by the Orlando victims in a heartbeat.

But we’re no longer a healthy democracy, thanks to the cancer that has grown out of the Constitution.

©2017 New York Times New Service