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The Right to Bear Courage

Behind the “right to bear arms” lies concealed the right to make money. You know, a lot of it.

The right to . . .

I pause here, torn apart by the political sacredness of these words. We have the right to speak freely and worship the God or our choosing or none at all, the right to reasonable privacy, the right to choose our leaders, the right to fair and equal treatment under the law. These rights are inscribed in the national bedrock: the Constitution. They activate our humanity; without them, we’re so much less than our fullest selves. Without them we’re perpetual victims, forced to live in fear and secrecy.

This bizarrely worded right is also etched in the Constitution: “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.”

Whatever the founders actually meant by this amendment — and there’s no doubt more politics of the moment inscribed here than eternal wisdom — succeeding generations of Americans have had no doubt what it means, reducing it to five words: the right to bear arms. And thus being armed — owning a gun — enters the realm of inviolable rights. It becomes a basic necessity for being human: the key to empowerment. Just try taking that away, baby.

But there’s a gaping paradox here. The right to bear arms, especially as it has come to be interpreted — the right to own an assault rifle, the right to carry a gun pretty much anywhere and everywhere, the right to kill your enemy — is something far, far more than an isolated, individual freedom. NRA propaganda to the contrary, one person’s right to bear arms takes away, ultimately, another person’s right to live in safety.

To put it another way, the right to bear arms establishes a particular precondition for social order, as described so unforgettably by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

Under this view of the world, “safety” requires arming everyone, or at least everyone who’s good. Welcome to the universe of Thomas Hobbes and the war of all against all. Arming everyone is arguably the stupidest possible concept for maintaining social order. It negates trust, empathy, compassion and all the better angels of human nature, reducing society to a buzzing hive of endless suspicion. And peace is cynically degraded to “that brief glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading.” (Imagine the laughter this observation would have generated at the Pulse nightclub a few weeks ago.)

LaPierre’s iconic observation, while socially brain dead, is, however, a terrific advertising slogan. The concept of self-defense, which started revving up in the early ’90s, revived the ailing gun industry, which was hurting badly because of a declining interest in hunting.

“A solution, of sorts,” Evan Osnos writes in a recent New Yorker article, “arrived in 1992, when a Los Angeles jury acquitted four police officers of using excessive force in the beating of Rodney King. The city erupted in riots. . . . The new market for self-defense guns was born . . . and it was infused with racial anxiety.

“Selling to buyers who were concerned about self-defense,” Osnos adds, “was even better than selling to hunters, because self-defense has no seasons.”

Even as the country has grown statistically safer, America’s obsession with armed self-defense has intensified, stoked in recent years by a fear of terrorism. Rebecca Solnit, writing recently in The Guardian, put it this way: “What we see over and over is that this society would like to imagine our epidemic of violence is by ‘them’ — some kind of marginal category: terrorist, mentally ill, nonwhite. But when it comes to mass killings, mostly it’s an epidemic of ‘us’ —mainstream men, mostly white, often young, usually miserable.”

Another thing about the right to bear arms — which equals the right to sell guns — is that it can tolerate no downside. For several decades now, the congressional majority has been so closely allied with the NRA and the gun industry that it has managed to put a near total kibosh on scientific research into guns as a public health issue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “not touched firearm research since 1996 — when the NRA accused the agency of promoting gun control and Congress threatened to strip the agency’s funding,” Todd C. Frankel wrote last year in the Washington Post. “The CDC’s self-imposed ban dried up a powerful funding source and had a chilling effect felt far beyond the agency: Almost no one wanted to pay for gun violence studies, researchers say.

Young academics were warned that joining the field was a good way to kill their careers.”

This is the right to bear arms. You might call it the right to be afraid — afraid of regulation, afraid of consequences. The enemy is everywhere. But there are other ways to live.

“They expect a fight. I just talk to people,” Lee Goodman told me, referring to the way he handles the occasional hate call he gets. Goodman, of Peaceful Communities, has been leading protest demonstrations at gun shops and gun shows in the Chicago area for many years now. The large matter at stake here is a different way of looking at the world.

Goodman emphasizes that his approach is non-confrontational. “At two of the gun shops, guys walked out with guns on their hips” — over to where the protesters were standing. “They had to be prepared to face down peaceful protesters with guns on their hips. ‘Do you really need it? Do you really think you’ll have to kill us?’ I asked. His response: ‘Well, I have a right to have it.’”

Goodman added: “We’re never belligerent. We try to show by example: You don’t have to be afraid of the world. Understanding replaces hate.”

You might call it the right to bear courage.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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