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Rethinking the Whole Country

Repeal and replace? How about the Second Amendment?

“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.”

Setting aside the antique strangeness of the wording, isn’t it time to give thought to the values that permeated the era in which it was written — and who, exactly, “the people” were to which it referred?

I say this realizing that the United States has evolved over the years. Women gained the right to vote. Slaves gained quasi-freedom and then, a hundred years later, their descendants won the right to vote, the right to use a public restroom, the right to . . . live as first-class citizens, sort of. Except for the economy, the prison system, the ongoing racism.

The basic belief that sparked America’s social movements over two-plus centuries has been a fierce loyalty to the nation’s founding principles: All “men” are created equal, etc. The job of succeeding generations has been to expand the application of these principles, to demand that they also protect the people who were left out of their original embrace because of the prejudices then prevalent. In other words, the founders established a great democracy, whose primary flaw lay in the short-sightedness of its citizens.

I’ve believed this myself, without digging too deeply into the matter. But suddenly I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s time to rethink the whole country.

I say this cautiously, with respect and reverence for the nation’s institutional core. I’m not suggesting we jettison the Constitution, but rather that we try to gain a clear understanding of its limits — its spiritual limits, you might say — and begin addressing how to move beyond those limits. And perhaps the place to start is the Second Amendment.

Here’s what it doesn’t say: A compassionate system to maintain order being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to live in safety and mutual trust shall not be infringed.

OMG, the cynics are coming, the cynics are coming! No one has that right. People have the right to defend themselves, not the right to be safe.

I quote Jonathan Tobin, lambasting the gun-hating “left” in The Federalist: “. . . a cross-section of student protesters at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington believe security is more important than constitutional rights. Now, none of the measures they claim to support would prevent crimes such as the Parkland massacre, and American kids have a better statistical chance of winning Powerball than of being a victim of a mass shooting. Yet their position that Second Amendment rights can and should be sacrificed to assuage their fears is still essentially embraced by many Americans, even if gun control advocates rarely state their views so bluntly.”

Look, kids, here’s the Great Nation Divide, opening up right before our eyes! But I believe the verbal bullets fired off in this paragraph are worth pondering. The pro-gun side of the debate does not, as far as I’ve been able to tell, actually attempt to address the issue of public safety. The entirety of its agenda is preservation of the right to own a gun. Thus, “constitutional right” is pitted against an apparently irrational teenage desire for security. You can’t have both, kids. Indeed, it sometimes seems like the right to bear arms has fewer limitations than the right to free speech, which pretty much everyone concedes does not give you the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded building.

But let’s ponder for a moment what the concept “constitutional right” actually means. If the right to bear arms actually trumps (so to speak) the right to live in safety, this starts to address what I believe might be the country’s, or the Constitution’s, spiritual limits, at least in the age of modern firepower.

My question about the national cornerstone comes down to this: For America to be America, does it need an enemy? Is the unquestioned presence of an enemy at the core of how we have defined and organized ourselves? Or do the nation’s constitutional ideals transcend the assumption of an ever-present enemy — that is to say, its default storyline?

No one tells the national story better than a Hollywood scriptwriter. Suddenly I’m thinking of a clip from John Ford’s 1939 classic, Stagecoach, in which a young John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid, is poised atop the stagecoach gleefully shooting at Geronimo’s band of whooping Apaches as they attack the coach. A snippet of this scene was part of Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. In that context, the racist glee of the Ringo Kid’s nonstop killing of the “savages” is unavoidably apparent.

Does the Second Amendment pay homage to the default American storyline: that the enemy is always out there and the only defense is shooting first (or building a wall)? I will say this much. Big Two puts the right to bear arms in the context of a well-regulated militia, which is to say, in the idea that security is a collective enterprise. The amendment’s present-day defenders do no such thing.

It’s primarily because of the nature of the amendment’s defense that I think it ought to be repealed.

Beyond that, the entirety of who we are — of what this nation stands for — ought to be rethought, perhaps via constitutional convention. When the nation came into being, about a fifth of its population were slaves, and the West’s Age of Discovery, which is to say, the Age of Indigenous Conquest and Genocide, was still hemorrhaging. War itself was a certainty.

How much of this consciousness has been preserved in our basic laws? Did the founders manage to transcend even their own prejudices? Why, in any case, is this country so violent and how can we move beyond it?

I ask these questions in the midst of a new civil rights movement, spurred by teenagers, crossing traditional racial and economic divides. They’re not looking for simple answers. Neither are they avoiding the simplest questions.

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

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