The right of the people to keep and bear arms: Part V


Part V: Engaging in debate – ‘If people talked with each other, that would save lives’

April 21, 2018 — “There is no moving toward a ‘solution’ when almost half the country wants to erase the Second Amendment,” Ed Scarberry wrote on the Florence Oregon UNCENSORED Facebook page. He was responding to a teaser for this article, which posed the question, “How can we move toward solutions on the gun debate?”

In response, Matt Stone said, “For one, some people can stop the hyperbole of when people want some basic and common-sense rules that they are out to ‘erase’ the Second Amendment. We do need to admit there is a problem. We also need to stop allowing people’s paranoid delusions, or delusional fantasies, to become arguments against reason.”

“I stand corrected,” Scarberry wrote. “I should have said almost half the Democrats want it repealed ...”

Scarberry posted a March 27 article by the left-leaning Washington Post, which stated only 21 percent of all Americans wanted to repeal the Second Amendment with 39 percent of Democrats supporting the move, 16 percent of Independents and eight percent of Republicans.

“It is what happens when you neglect a problem for so long,” Stone said. “When you see a law protecting abuses of a right, you alter it to better address the current situation. No rational person is saying to get rid of all guns. People want rules on what kind of weapons we allow in our society, and rules on acquiring and conducting themselves with them.”

“Agreed,” Scarberry said. “The problem is, this country is so divided that rationality left the building a long time ago. Very little room for compromise with today’s political and social climate being what it is.”

That social media conversation — a polite example of the ongoing debate — was an encapsulation of the difficulties facing America right now when it comes to the debate on guns, or any other political discussion.

Scarberry’s views of gun reformers is understandable.

One gun rights advocate who wrote to the Siuslaw News about the series said, “As a firearms owner and supporter of the Second Amendment, I am pretty used to being portrayed in most media outlets as a terrorist, a homicidal

maniac or a stupid, redneck Neanderthal.”

On the other end of the spectrum, conservatives often accuse gun reformers, and liberals in general, of being un-American.

“Liberals want the government to be ever larger and more intrusive,” one reader commented via email. “Ergo, they are contrary to the American premise.”

From the research done on this series, none of the gun rights advocates interviewed could be classified as “homicidal maniacs or stupid, redneck Neanderthals.”

Nor, too, could it be said that the liberals interviewed for this series do not believe in America. While certain political parties may have different views on what role the government should play in America, liberals were just as passionate about America and what they viewed as its core principles.

These examples were more nuanced when it comes to how

different sides of the debate

view each other, especially in the names sometimes lobbed about for those with a different point of

view — including “snowflakes,” “deplorables,” “Libtards” and “Repugnican.”

And some people just refuse to talk about it.

“You can’t debate it,” one Facebook user said. “Each and every gun control law is by nature unconstitutional.”

While the sentiment that gun control laws are unconstitutional is technically inaccurate (the reasons for which will be explored later), the sentiment was clear: There is no point in debating, even if the facts state otherwise. Both sides are intractably entrenched.

But as Jaeda Forral posted on the Florence, Oregon Facebook page, this kind of thinking is dangerous in today’s society.

“When you strip away all of the partisan bulls**t, the simple fact is kids are dying at school and they’d rather not,” Forral wrote. “They are asking for help. From adults. That’s it.”

 

“Free State”

“The debate was settled in 1776,” wrote one Facebook commentator on why it is useless to talk about the guns in America.

While the Declaration of Independence, which was signed in 1776, did not mention the right to bear arms, it certainly laid the groundwork for the Second Amendment, which was ultimately ratified by Congress in 1791.

“He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislatures,” the Declaration said of the King of Great Britain. It was the fear of “standing armies” that ultimately led to the creation of the Second Amendment.

Before the Revolutionary War, colonies relied upon militias for defense, groups of part-time civilian soldiers whose training and commitment varies from militia to militia.

Realizing that unorganized bands of militias could not be used to wage war against the British, the Continental Congress created the Continental Army, which gathered local militias under the command of George Washington.

After the war, Washington proposed keeping the Continental Army as a standing army, with arsenals and a military academy. However, Congress rejected the idea.

The reasons are too multiple to be mentioned here without getting into the debates of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, but a simple explanation would be that the Founders felt that any society with a federal standing army could never be truly free. A continually maintained standing army could overthrow the government, or crack down on the states’ own militias, thus taking away the rights of a citizenry.

Instead, the country needed to protect itself with decentralized militias in each state that would only be organized in case of imminent invasion or insurrection.

To ensure the rights of those militias, the Second Amendment was passed: “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 (sic).”

However, as time passed, the fears of the Founding Fathers have been realized. A standing army has been created with several branches, and it has, objectively, grown powerful enough that it could overwhelm militias.

Because of this, Justice John Paul Stevens argued in a March 2018 op-ed in the New York Times that the Second Amendment should be repealed, a relic of a bygone era.

But some argue that the term “free state” could include communities, as were the initial reasons for militias. Or homes. Or even individual citizens — the very basis of a free state.

The underpinnings of this argument can be found in the 2008 Supreme Court decision on District of Columbia V. Heller, which challenged the constitutionality of a Washington D.C. law regarding handguns. The District of Columbia generally prohibited the possession of handguns. It was a crime to carry an unregistered firearm, and the registration of handguns was prohibited.

Wholly apart from that prohibition, no person could carry a handgun without a license, but the chief of police could issue licenses for one-year periods. District of Columbia law also required residents to keep their lawfully owned firearms, such as registered long guns, “unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device” unless they were located in a place of business or were being used for lawful recreational activities.

The law was struck down by a 5-4 opinion from the Supreme Court, with a detailed opinion written by Judge Antonin Scalia that reviewed each clause of the Second Amendment. In one section, he argued that the term “well regulated” implied “nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training.”

Considering that all white men of age were required to be in the militia in the 1790s, it could be argued that the Second Amendment was a requirement for all men to be trained in owning a weapon.

As for the term “militia,” Scalia wrote that “the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.” It did not necessarily mean a governmental entity.

Regarding “common defense,” Scalia wrote, “Once again, if one gives narrow meaning to the phrase ‘common defense’ this can be thought to limit the right to the bearing of arms in a state-organized military force … 19th-century courts never read ‘common defense’ to limit the use of weapons to militia service.

“The Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”

Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion, stating that the opinion was strained and unpersuasive, overturning long-standing legal precedent. He also argued against Scalia’s interpretation of the phrase “well-regulated militia,” believing the phrase only applied to state militias.

No matter what side of this debate one comes down on, both sides agreed to two portions of the opinion.

The first portion has to do with gun control. Scalia specifically stated that Second Amendment rights are not unlimited.

“It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” Scalia wrote. “For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

And while the opinion openly focused on handguns, Scalia also opened the door to banning certain types of weapons, which he deemed “dangerous and unusual.” A handgun, which is overwhelmingly chosen for the purpose of self-defense, would not be considered that. But he also stated that an M-16 rifle, the military adaptation of the AR-15, could be banned.

When someone states that “each and every gun control law is by nature unconstitutional,” they are going against an opinion that most gun rights advocates hold up as the bellwether of Second Amendment freedom.

For those who believe that the gun debate is best left unsaid, and that the issue was decided in 1776, Scalia also gave guidance:

“Since this case represents this Court’s first in-depth examination of the Second Amendment, one should not expect it to clarify the entire field. ... If all that was required to overcome the right to keep and bear arms was a rational basis, the Second Amendment would be redundant with the separate constitutional prohibitions on irrational laws and would have no effect."

Therefore, District of Columbia V Heller is not the final decision in the gun debate but rather the opening salvo of an ongoing discussion that the Supreme Court, and every citizen of America, needs to continue.

However, the current debate isn’t just about the Second Amendment. It’s a search for a solution on a whole variety of issues that become evident when looking at the statistics of gun violence in the nation.

 

“No one really knows”

Homicide rates are used frequently in the gun debate to prove or disprove one’s point of view regarding gun laws. But in reality, the statistics are all over the map. Gun reformers often point to the three states with the most homicide per rates per capita — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — as states where loose gun restrictions cause havoc. Those states, which have fewer gun control laws, have homicide rates of 14.3, 12.1 and 11.8 per 100,000, according to a 2016 analysis by the CDC. It should be noted that the CDC did not differentiate the cause of homicide, whether it be by gun or by other means.

On the other hand, states like California, which have very strict gun laws, have relatively little violence in comparison, with rates of 5.3 and 3.6.

But, states like New Hampshire and Wyoming, which are considered “gun friendly” states, both have homicide rates of 0.0

Gun rights advocates usually point to Chicago as the poster child of “do-nothing” gun laws, but Illinois’ gun control measures have been considerably weakened over the years. In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s 28-year-old ban on handgun ownership. City residents are no longer required to register their firearms with the city and obtain a permit.

But gun deaths are rising, with a rate of 25.1. By comparison, New York City, which has some of the strictest gun laws of any U.S. city, has a homicide rate of just 2.3.

But have gun laws made any real effect on any of these figures? It’s difficult to tell.

Along with stricter gun laws, New York has implemented aggressive anti-gang initiatives, the implementation of “precision” policing, and discontinuing stop and frisk policies all have contributed to a decrease in crime, according to a January 2017 report in the Christian Science Monitor. While gun restrictions may have benefited the city, it is impossible to say that they are a direct cause of low crime rates.

Chicago’s increase in homicides (67 percent in 2016) is still considered a mystery. While many neighborhoods in the city saw a decrease in homicides, five neighborhoods saw dramatic increases, according to a January 2017 report by the Chicago Tribune.

While some attempted to blame the violence on gangs, rates of people arrested for homicide with gang affiliation have actually dropping. Poverty and racial segregation didn’t deepen, and illegal guns didn’t become suddenly available. Some laid blame on the loss of trust with the Chicago Police Department following a Department of Justice investigation after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald — but researchers are still not convinced that’s the ultimate cause. In fact, after decades of declining violence in the U.S., violent crime rose for the second consecutive year in 2016 by 4.1 percent, according to a September 2017 report by the New York Times.

“Police officials and criminologists continue to express puzzlement about the upsurge,” the Times reported. “There is disagreement not only about the reasons for the increases, but also about how law enforcement should respond and whether the figures represent a blip or the start of a long-term trend.”

Multiple theories have been offered regarding the increase, from poverty and social isolation, warring gangs involved in the drug trade, a decline in educational funding, a lack of social services and an erosion of trust in police departments.

“What’s going on?” the Times quoted Pew Charitable Trusts Adam Gelb, who has been studying the rise of crime. “No one really knows. And if someone says they do know, you ought to be deeply suspicious. It’s too early to tell anything.”

While crime statistics have been increasing over the past few years, suicide rates have been drastically accelerating for almost a decade. In 2014, 13 people per 100,000 committed suicide, compared to 10.5 in 1999, according to an April 2016 report by NPR.

The biggest increase was in girls age 10 to 14, tripling over a 15-year period.

The reasons for this statistic are also unknown. One possibility is economic stagnation, which left more people out of jobs, making it more difficult to access health care and treatment.

Another possibility is the rise of social media.

In November 2017, the Associated Press reported on a study showing a possible but yet unproven link between the two, with suicide rates jumping as Facebook became more prevalent. Teens’ use of electronic devices daily for at least five hours doubled from eight percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2014. These teens were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than those who reported one hour of daily use.

In 2009, 58 percent of 12th-grade girls used social media every day or nearly every day. By 2015, the number had jumped to 87 percent every day. They were also 14 percent more likely to be depressed than those who used social media less frequently.

Social media, and media as a whole, may also be influencing mass shootings.

It appears that mass shootings are contagious and occur in clusters, as reported by Pacific Standard magazine in October 2016.

“A 2015 analysis of 232 U.S. mass murders between 2006 and 2013 and data on school shootings from 1998 to 2013 revealed an increase in the likelihood of massacres for a period of two weeks after similar instances of mass violence,” the report read. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of all such violence took place within 13 days of each other.

A mass shooting takes places, the media covers it, and it inspires others to follow suit.

This phenomenon is nothing new, having been noted years earlier with suicides: If a high-profile actor commits suicide, often other people follow suit.

The body count of a mass shooting is also important. There is no evidence of contagion in shootings that involve three or fewer people killed, but once the death toll reaches four people, copycats ensue. If the copycat is able to either match or exceed the preceding killing, the chance for additional mass shootings also increases.

Social media can make this phenomenon worse. In the past, news coverage of such incidences was relegated solely to television and print media, and the barrage of such incidents could be less prevalent. However, social media can amplify coverage, with potentially hundreds of news sources flooding into social media platforms describing each incident in detail.

And more information about mass shootings is readily available — how shooters planned, the weapons they picked and the places they chose. Not only does this information act as inspiration, but it also works as research.

In what is sometimes referred to as the Columbine Effect, school shooters meticulously study those who came before them to learn better and more effective ways of carrying out their tasks. Of course, most of this has not been proven outright. The sample size of mass shooters is so slight, and the reasons behind them are so varied, that pointing the finger specifically at the rise of mass media would be irresponsible.

As a culture, we ultimately don’t know what is causing a rise in mass shootings. We also don’t know why suicides are rising — nor the increase in violent crime. It’s possible there is no one cause for all of these issues, but a combination of factors that include poverty, education, mental health, drug addiction, race relations and the ever-evolving relationship with rapidly advancing technologies.

And, also, guns.

Perhaps it’s easier to blame guns for everything. Or conversely, to say that guns have nothing to do with the issue. Or even easier still, to not talk about it at all, simply saying the debate has already been made and there is nothing else to say.

 

“We trust each other”

“People very strongly believe they should have the weapons,” Florence Police Commander John Pitcher said. “People also very strongly believe that if there weren’t any weapons, there would be less deaths. And there are good arguments on both sides, and the facts are there for both sides. And if there was a way to get in the middle and actually look at the issues and the problems, and how we could best protect our kids in their schools, it would be great. I just don’t know if those two sides can get together. Each side is very passionate, but does that leave for compromise? I don’t know. I wish I had the answer, but I don’t. But if people talked with each other, that would save lives.”

Pitcher sees the need for a compromise as a life or death issue. If people can’t talk to each other, children die. He knows this because talking stopped a possible school shooting in Florence years back.

“When I was a sergeant here, a freshman told the principal about a kid who was making some comments that really had him concerned,” he said. “The principal came to me with the young boy. We talked. There was enough to be concerned about. We went out, talked to the young man’s family. There were definitely concerns. He had a gun hidden that he had gotten from his dad, and the dad didn’t realize he had gotten it out of his safe.

“But we got that young man some help. From everything I know, that young man is a very good person. A very good man. A contributing member of society.

“That’s what it takes. We talk with each other. And we trust each other. That young high schooler, who was brave enough to call his principal and have an adult he felt comfortable talking to, very possibly could have saved lives here in Florence.”

Pitcher didn’t go into specific details about the incident — what the young man was planning, why he decided to do it. But for Pitcher, those details didn’t seem to matter. Instead, it was the belief that people trusted each other, and the hope that things would ultimately turn out for the good.

“That’s the way you prevent school shootings,” Pitcher said.

Editor’s note: Throughout this series, the Siuslaw News has received countless correspondence on the issue of firearms in America, covering numerous facets of the discussion. While there are multiple topics that could not be covered in this series, the Siuslaw News hopes the articles have at least inspired real conversation and a foundation of fact over speculation. We are inviting the community to continue the discussion in May with a town hall conversation on the issue. We hope you’ll join the discussion, which will include Florence Police Commander John Pitcher and other members of the community, gun reformer and gun rights advocates alike, on Tuesday, May 22, at 6:30 p.m. at City Lights Cinemas.

Note: This is the fifth and final part of a continuing series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.