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Thursday, September 26, 2013
In wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last December — the second deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history, leaving 26 dead — President Obama vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association’s much-awaited response proved unsurprising: a deeply skeptical outlook regarding universal background checks. No meaningful legislation was passed at the national level.
Fast-forward nine months.
Roughly 24,000 people have died in gun-related incidents in 2013 and the country is yet again faced with another mass shooting, this time in Washington, D.C. Though many questions still remain, namely how a former Navy reservist with a history of mental illness and gun infractions legally armed himself and legally entered a military facility, American society as a whole is dangerously close to slipping into a climate of normalcy, where such atrocities are met with a sense of complacency. In the immediate aftermath, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of gun control’s most fervent supporters, proved to be the only senator to even make a ritual plea for legislation.
Though this reflects upon a far greater web of problems ranging from partisan politics to unethical lobbying, more importantly, the Navy Yard shooting demonstrates the unsound reasoning of many endorsers of gun rights.
It is worth emphasizing that the Navy Yard is a military installation.
Though the NRA has repeatedly endorsed the paradoxical aphorism “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” recent events offer evidence to the contrary; namely, that the former statement is either untrue or the truth is counter-intuitive (depending on one’s initial viewpoint). Armed guards were stationed throughout the Navy Yard, yet 12 people still lay dead at the end of the day.
Though the issue of gun control shall have to be left for another time and place, I wish to make a few brief comments regarding a peculiar phenomenon in the United States. The U.S. Constitution, both implicitly and explicitly, is often mistakenly viewed as an immutable and infallible document, bearing an aura of reverence unmatched in the secular world. To be critical of the Constitution or Bill of Rights is taboo, though I hazard to guess most sane people would agree that something written more than 200 years ago should be viewed with a certain amount of historical context and awareness as to the needs and conditions that existed in a past time. Amendments are a perfect example of such precautions.
At the time of writing, among other things the Second Amendment was written in the wake of the Revolutionary War and was intended as a final check by the populace on the authority of a potentially tyrannical government backed by a standing army. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights, no matter how progressive and forward-thinking, are (at least theoretically) founded on the hardly flawless rationalist principles of positive law. As the former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson put eloquently, “We [the Supreme Court] are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” This is hardly encouragement for revolution, but it is also far from an exercise of intellectual acrobatics. Rather, it is instead a lesson to bear in mind: Making the dangerous and inaccurate assumption of the infallibility of the Constitution leads to essentialism and a lack of reflexivity, which has particularly far-reaching implications on domestic policy-making.
Though I have tried to remain as objective as possible, that too must remain an aspiration: All statements are value-laden and carry normative implications. However, one thing remains certain. Both the American public and lawmakers in Washington by necessity must address the unacceptable levels of gun violence that have plagued society now for many years. This includes the imposition of universal background checks and a serious, open discussion regarding gun control. Of course, only someone extremely naïve would even presume to think gun control legislation would eliminate all gun-related violence, but the lack of an obvious “fix all” solution is no excuse for complacency nor a tacit endorsement of the status quo.
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