AMENDMENT TWO POINT FIVE

Man is an imperfect being, and none of his creations, whether material or political, will ever achieve perfection. But some steps can be taken that will alleviate, though not eradicate, the problem of gun violence. These steps involve the regulation of firearms, tighter control of the trade in firearms, better enforcement of existing laws, and greater attention to the mental health of the population.

There are three good reasons why people want to have guns: first, they want to hunt, either for necessity or for pleasure; second, they want to be able to protect themselves and their property; and third, they enjoy such sporting events as skeet shooting. Guns suitable for these purposes should be freely available.

But there are other guns which are not suitable for these purposes, guns which have been designed for use in warfare: semi-automatic rifles (“assault weapons”), for example. These guns have no purpose other than to kill as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. And there are also guns which have elaborate features which are not necessary for hunting, protection, or competitive sport. The good old six-shooter has enough capacity; a 30-bullet clip is not necessary. Sale and possession of guns intended for use in warfare and guns which can shoot more than six bullets at a time should be illegal.

One goal of legislation should be to keep guns out of the hands of criminals as much as possible, and that is why background checks are necessary and should be required for all gun sales. Presently, I am told, some 40 percent of gun sales in the United States are made without background checks; and, moreover, the data bank to be used is incomplete. Now that there are smart phones and tablets, there is no reason why background checks at gun shows should be difficult.

Not all convicted felons should be included in the data bank; there are some nonviolent crimes, such as forgery and embezzlement, whose perpetrators may safely be allowed to have guns. But no gun should ever be sold by anyone to a person who has been convicted of a violent crime, and buying a gun to provide to such a person should also be illegal. If the National Rifle Association opposes this kind of prohibition, the purpose of the NRA can only be to protect violent criminals.

In addition, while the NRA publicly claims that enforcement of existing laws is adequate and no additional laws are necessary, NRA lobbyists are busily persuading — and paying — lawmakers to withhold from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms the resources it needs to enforce those laws. Most guns used in crimes are sold by a very small percentage of gun dealers, and yet the ATF is prohibited from performing the kind of investigations needed to identify these dealers and close them down. It arouses the suspicion that the NRA is in active collusion with the criminals.

But some of the most horrendous crimes recently, such as the Aurora movie theater massacre and the Newtown elementary school massacre, have been committed by persons who have no history of violent crime. There is also a registry of persons who are considered by mental health professionals to pose a potential danger to society, but fewer than half the states contribute to it. States that do not contribute should be denied many forms of federal funding, and use of this registry, as well as that of violent criminals, should be required for all gun purchases…

Given these four measures, there would not be a complete elimination of deaths by guns, but the numbers would certainly be fewer. Saving the life of only one person a year would be worth whatever expense and inconvenience the measures would incur.

*

The greatest obstacle to taking these steps is the National Rifle Association, which likes to pretend that it is a band of law-abiding hunters. Nonsense. The National Rifle Association is a creature of the corporations that manufacture guns. And of course we believe that corporations always put the public good ahead of profits, just as we believe that every time we lose a tooth the tooth fairy leaves a dime under our pillow.

Since the National Rifle Association is a private organization, it is not required to make its membership rolls public. If those rolls were available for scrutiny, I suspect that many of the law-abiding hunters who are members would be appalled to discover that some of their comrades were convicted felons who joined in gratitude for NRA positions that facilitate armed robbery and do nothing to prevent murder. In fact, if I were the head of a large criminal enterprise, I would shovel large sums to the coffers of the NRA, since it would be actively enabling me to carry out my business more smoothly.

It is noticeable that any time an advocate of gun control says, “We’ve got to keep guns out of the hands of crooks and crazies,” the NRA screams, “They’re trying to take our guns away from us.” If the NRA would only keep quiet, nobody would know that they have so many crooks and crazies among their members. Perhaps gun owners who are both sane and law-abiding should leave the NRA to the crooks and crazies and form their own organization.

*

One fantasy that the NRA has been promoting is that everybody would be safer if everybody had a gun. Well, we have had situations in the past where everybody had a gun, and safety was not noticeably increased. If the NRA is right, Wild Bill Hickok, who was armed, would not have been killed in Deadwood by Jack McCall, and in 1873 Dodge City would have been the safest place in the United States.

Again we turn to Huckleberry Finn Grows Up, where Huck describes some of the situations in which guns settled situations lethally that could have been solved more peacefully. I give only a selection; there are more. The scene is Kansas Territory in the years between 1854 and statehood in 1861:

Seems like it [the trouble] ’d started November 21 bout ten mile south of Lawrence. Two galoots had land claims right next to each other, Franklin Coleman and Charles Dow. Coleman was pro-slavery, and Dow was a free-soiler. They didn’t agree bout nothing, and one thing they didn’t agree on was where was the boundary between their two claims. They argeed and argeed and argeed, and on November 21 Dow went over to see Coleman and they argeed some more. I reckon Dow must a said some pretty hard words to Coleman, cause when he was walking away Coleman got out his gun and shot him in the back.

Well, that, of course, was a murder. And there warn’t no way of keeping the law out of that. But the law in Douglas County, which is whar Lawrence is, was Sheriff Samuel Jones, who’d been app’inted by the Territorial Legislature. And Jones was a pro-slavery man that come from Missouri, like all the sheriffs app’inted by the legislature. Coleman was skeered that Dow’s friends’d come a-gunning for him, so he run to Jones and asked Jones to perteck him. So Jones and Coleman went to Shawnee Mission to talk to Govnor Shannon, and then Jones took Coleman to Lecompton, where he’d be tried by pro-slavery men that’d be like to say shooting a free-state man in the back was self-defense.

 

Bout the same time feller name of Tom Barber got killed. He had a claim bout eight mile south of Lawrence and come to town to help us. On December 6 him and two friends, they lit out for home cause he wanted to visit his wife. Barber warn’t armed, but t’other two was carrying guns. They was stopped by bout a dozen Missourians and ordered to turn back. Barber and his friends said they wouldn’t go. There was shooting, and Barber was hit in the side and knocked off his horse. The two friends left his body lying there on the roadside and come back to Lawrence as fast as they could go.

. . . a farmer name of Jones come into Lawrence to buy a bag of flour at Mr. Corcoran’s store. On the way back home he run into a party of Law and Order men [members of the pro-slavery party]. They robbed him, took his gun away from him, and then shot him dead. When the word of that come back to town, some of the hotheaded young scamps rid out to the scene of the crime, wanting to avenge it. Well, they was a-looking for trouble, and they found it. They come up again two Law and Order men. First they traded words with them, then shots, and one of the Lawrence boys were killed. Course, they was blame fools, but if that carried the death penalty, there wouldn’t be many folks left alive.

. . . Jim Lane got into big trouble. He’d took a claim on some land up north in Doniphan County, in addition to his land outside Lawrence, and his next neighbor were pro-slavery. They argeed a lot bout politics, of course, but it come to a head when the neighbor claimed Lane were a-planting corn in his pasture land. They had words, and then it come to blows, and in the end Lane shot the man and killed him. The man’d pulled a gun on Lane first, so it were self-defense, but the case took old Jim outen the free-state battle for a while.

Of course, those were days in which the nation was sharply divided between two groups, the people who believed that slavery was right and proper and the Abolitionists, who believed it was an abomination. That division ultimately led to civil war. Aren’t we fortunate to be living at a time when there is no potential for violence because there are no sharp divisions among us; the right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats may disagree on a few minor issues, but on the big major questions they are in total agreement and regard each other with mutual respect and admiration. In a pig’s eye they do.

*

The second amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads 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.” It is one of ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791. That date is significant because it leads to two further considerations.

The first is that at that time a gun could shoot only one bullet at a time. The Colt six-shooter, called a revolver because the chamber that held the bullets revolved each time it was fired, was invented in 1836. The Sharps rifle, which was standard in the early days on the frontier, was single-action. One reason that the North defeated the South in the war was that the Northern army was armed with the superior Spencer rifle, the world’s first repeating rifle; it had been invented in 1860. The Winchester, “the gun that won the West,” did not appear until 1866.

The second consideration suggested by the date of the amendment is the political situation at the time. The formation of the federal government was extremely controversial. Until the Constitution was adopted, the “United” States was a weak confederation of independent colonies. Many persons, especially politicians who held power in those colonies, were suspicious of the federation; Hamilton, Madison, and Jay had to publish the Federalist in 1787-8 to reassure them. Some of these persons were simply concerned that they would lose some of their own power; they were big frogs in the little ponds of the states, and they feared becoming little frogs in the big pond of the federal union. But some were seriously concerned about the possibility of tyranny if too much power became centralized, and they wanted to retain the ability of the states to defend themselves against tyranny if it arose. These people wanted the states to have the right to create “well-regulated militias” of citizen soldiers who could leave their plows and grab up their firearms when called to action.

Another point to be raised about the political situation is that the international environment of the United States was very precarious, while its military ability was very limited.. It may be that the most significant phrase in the amendment is “necessary to the security of a free state.” The battle of Yorktown, in which Washington’s army defeated the British to put an end to military activity, had occurred only ten years previously, in 1781, and the peace treaty which formalized American independence was not signed until 1783.

The British still held Canada, from which it was possible that a new attack could be mounted; while George III had presumably learned his lesson, there was no guarantee that his successor would not entertain an ambition to regain the colonies. Moreover, the French held the western two-thirds of the continent on which the new republic was situated, with thriving colonies at places like St. Louis and Nouvelle Orleans. The French had supported the Revolution since 1778, but there was ferment in Europe and nobody knew what would happen; the French had their own Revolution in 1798, and the results were unpredictable. Jefferson did not purchase the Louisiana Territory until 1803.

Thus there was reason to be concerned about “the security of a free state.” Yet even in the Revolutionary War the colonists had nothing that could really be considered an army. It was a rag-tag group of embattled farmers that fired the shots heard round the world at Lexington and Concord. We won because of Washington’s tactical genius, not because we had a body of well-disciplined professional troops. Now that the war was over, the new nation had no standing army to defend itself against the kind of foreign incursion that actually occurred in 1812, when the British invaded Washington and burned the White House. What we had was only a collection of “well-regulated militias” raised and trained by the thirteen states. We were a poor nation; the militiamen had to supply their own guns and ammunition.

Even much later, as the Civil War began, the regular armies on both sides, which amounted to one army broken in two, were laughably small. That war was fought largely by militiamen; somebody with enough money and ego would declare himself a colonel and recruit himself a regiment. That process is described in my novel Huckleberry Finn Grows Up.

 

Jim Lane took his Jayhawkers [a militia Lane had organized to fight pro-slavery militias] and organized what he called the Frontier Guard out of them. They was the first military organization to reach Washington, and seen to the defense of the White House. . . . [Notice that the “regular army” wasn’t around.]

 

June 3 [1861] . . . the First Regiment of Kansas Volunteer Infantry was recruited at Camp Lincoln, near Fort Leavenworth. The Rebs was flying a Confederate flag at Iatan, Missouri, just a few mile away, and on June 4 twelve fellers from the First Kansas crossed the river, cut down the flag with a butcher knife, and come back cross the river with it. Three of them was wounded. Then on June 13 the regiment left to jine the Union Army.

 

. . . The Second Regiment of Kansas Volunteer Infantry was recruited in Lawrence [June 11]. They marched off to jine the Union Army at Kansas City on June 20, and me and Sarah took little Tommy to see them go. It like to broke my heart to see them beautiful young men going off so brave and cheerful to get shot down like so many rabbits. I made up my mind then and there that if there were any way I could help keep Tommy from ever having to march away like that, I’d do whatever I had to do.

 

The First and Second Regiments both fought under General Lyon at the Battle of Wilson’s Crick in Missouri. Eleven of the Second Regiment was killed in that battle. I knowed two of the fellers, Horace Dyke and Mennassee Glatheart, and it brought the war home to me when the word come that they was killed.

 

Jim Lane got appinted a brigadier genral of volunteers by Presdent Lincoln but resigned his commission so’s he could keep his Senate seat. But that didn’t mean he were out of the war. He took his Jayhawkers and went into Missouri, fighting the Rebs wheresomever he found them.

 

March 25 [1862] the Seventh Regiment of Kansas Volunteer Calvary come back to town after fighting the Rebs in Missouri, and we turned out to give them a heroes’ welcome. They paraded down Massachusetts Avenue, and the town band played, and everbody were a-waving American flags. Govnor Robinson were there, and course he made him a speech.

 

Soon as Jim Lane got through recruiting the Eleventh Kansas Volunteer Calvary Regiment, him and Charles W. Adams of Lawrence started recruiting the Twelfth Regiment of Kansas Volunteer Infantry. They made Adams kernl of it. Soon as the regiment were a-mustered in, they was put to guarding the border between Kansas and Missouri. Then Lane and Cyrus Leland of Atchison started recruiting the Thirteenth Regiment of Kansas Volunteer Calvary. It were organized September 10 and mustered in September 20.

 

In November I come across a dispatch saying that the first slave regiment in the Union Army, the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, had been organized. The kernl in charge were Thomas Wentworth Higginson, from Boston. Well, if Thomas Wentworth Higginson could recruit a regiment of niggers, Jim Lane figgered he could do it, too. So he put together the First Regiment of Colored Kansas Volunteer Infantry. These was mostly slaves that’d come over the line from Missouri, liberated by Lane and his Jayhawkers.

 

Govnor Carney appinted Kernl C.R. Jennison of the Kansas Militia to recruit a regiment of calvary to perteck the eastern border of the state. It were organized at Fort Leavenworth [1863].

 

In that way the Union army was cobbled together. That was even more true of the Confederates. A popular folksong of the Civil War tells how the unit surprised while “eatin’ goober peas” was the Georgia militia. And historians disagree about whether Quantrill’s gang, which raided Lawrence in 1863, had been legitimated as a militia.

Even as late as the Spanish-American War the U.S. army wasn’t big enough to fight a war all by itself and needed help from militias. “Colonel” Teddy Roosevelt led his Rough Riders, a militia force, up San Juan Hill.

But times and technology have changed. Firearms have multiple-shot capacities that the authors of the second amendment never dreamed of. The United States has an army second to none in the world, if not in numbers, then in advanced armaments. And each state has National Guard units who can be called into action at any time by the governor of the state; these constitute the “well-regulated militias” envisioned by the second amendment, and indeed some of them have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the times and technology have changed, it is time to modify the second amendment to keep up with the times. Too many Americans are being killed by guns in ways that the authors of that amendment never dreamed were possible.

 

Canticles of praise and screams of outrage should be sent to samsackett@netscape.net.

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