Let me begin with a thought that might sound like heresy to some citizens of the United States: The Second Amendment to our Constitution is not scripture.
Indeed, neither the Bill of Rights nor the US Constitution itself were handed down to us by God. Nor are they said to have been dictated from on high, or be the product of divine inspiration. Rather, they are the product of human beings, subject to human flaws and human error. And they are a product of a particular time and set of circumstances, some of which are no longer in effect, such as slavery, and some of which have changed radically, such as the likelihood of a solider being quartered in a private home, an infringement that is the subject of the Third Amendment.
The founders of our republic clearly were aware of their own limitations by including Article Five of our Constitution, which allows for the possibility of amending our governmental framework, and lists the procedures to be followed in order to propose and ratify a constitutional amendment.
Famously, new amendments have abolished slavery, granted voting rights to women, and lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Infamously, the 18th Amendment prohibited the manufacture, importing, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States. Thirteen years after it was established, this amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment, ending the period characterized by crime and violence known as Prohibition.
We the people can amend the US Constitution, and we can amend our amendments. In theory, we can amend our amendments to our amendments, and so on ad infinitum, but the important point is that amendments can be repealed. And I want to join the chorus of sane and concerned voices calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment.
Bret Stephens, in a recent New York Times op-ed arguing for repeal, concluded with the following: “The true foundation of American exceptionalism should be our capacity for moral and constitutional renewal, not our instinct for self-destruction” ("Repeal the Second Amendment").
Everybody knows that the Second Amendment is written in a torturous manner that makes it impossible to determine its precise meaning: “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.” Historians tell us that the first clause is the main point, to guarantee the right of individual states to maintain their own armed forces, as a matter of collective defense. In part, the motivation had much to do with skepticism about maintaining a standing army on the federal level. The idea that the Second Amendment refers to individual rights is a later interpretation, with its roots in the aftermath of the Civil War, and largely a 20th century innovation.
The Second Amendment is not scripture, and therefore should not have to undergo talmudic exegesis, just so that it can serve as a pretext for preventing any and all regulation of firearms. The initials NRA do not stand for the National Rabbinic Association, so that organization does not have the moral or intellectual authority to dictate its interpretation of the amendment to the American citizenry.
And what about scripture itself? Of course, there were no firearms in the ancient world, but there are references to other weapons. Look at the famous words of the prophet Isaiah: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” in reference to warfare; in another Jewish context, the Christian Bible’s Gospel of Matthew has Jesus admonish one of his followers by saying: “all who take up the sword, will die by the sword.”
Of course, we would expect to find messages of nonviolence dominating the sacred texts of our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. And we might well wonder how it is that so many people of faith in our country can resist any efforts to reduce gun violence so zealously. In another New York Times op-ed, David Brooks argues that “guns are a proxy for larger issues,” for “a much larger conflict over values and identity” ("Guns and the Soul of America").
In other words, it’s the culture war, stupid.
And let us make no mistake about it. Resistance to gun safety legislation is linked to the populist movement that gave us the Trump presidency, it is linked to the alt-right, to white supremacy and neo-Nazi movements, to anti-immigration sentiment, to Islamophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. It should be pretty clear which side we ought to be on.
If there is a passage in scripture that might be the ancient equivalent of the Second Amendment, it might be found in the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus, in the commandment “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This suggests a right to self-defense that might translate to a right to bear arms. But it also implies a collective right to be safe and secure, the right implied by the prophet Micah, and alluded to by George Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, that “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”
Psalm 115 incorporates a polemic against idol worship, characterized as “the work of men’s hands,” concluding that “they that make them shall be like unto them, yea, everyone who trusts in them.” If people treat the Second Amendment as scripture, are they not in effect worshiping firearms as their idols? And consequently, doesn’t that transform them into instruments of violence, molded into the image of their molten gods, tools of their own invention?
This summer I published a book called Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition. One of my central arguments in that book is that our tools and technologies are never neutral, that they have inherent characteristics and tendencies that influence how they are used. Just as objects tend to roll down rather than up a hill, and stones are hard not soft, so guns are inherently designed as instruments of violence. This is a tendency, not an absolute. In some instances, the presence of guns may deter violence, it is true, but on the whole, the more guns in a situation, the greater the potential for violence, and the greater the frequency and harm of violent events.
You may notice that I have made no reference to the specifics of the most recent mass shooting, and that is because the details do not matter. As of this writing, journalists covering the story are obsessed with the question of why it happened. In this instance, that question is proving to be harder to answer than usual. But in my view, the why is irrelevant. The why will always be different, individual, personal. Taking a media ecology approach, what matters is not why, but how. And the how remains consistent across the 131 mass shootings that have occurred over the past 50 years.
It’s the guns, stupid. It’s the firearms.
The answer to why often is some form of insanity, as if there were ever a sane reason to commit mass murder. But allowing for that, the same side of the culture war that defends the Second Amendment also opposes funding for research into the causes of gun violence, and funding for mental health in general, and funding for universal health care, which would aid the victims of gun violence. There is no moral equivalence between the two sides.
And while one side argues for the Second Amendment in absolute or near absolute terms, the other asks, you might say begs, for modest modifications that might not make more than a modicum of difference. Is there any wonder that the outcome is more of the same, over and over again?
It is time for a new abolition movement, one dedicated to the repeal of the Second Amendment, because that in turn would open the door to substantial Federal gun safety legislation. This is not a call for a prohibition on firearms, but rather to open the door for reasonable safety measures, so that we all can sit under our vines and fig trees, in our concert halls and movie theaters and night clubs and malls, and in baseball fields and schools and houses of worship, and in our streets and homes, and none shall make us afraid ever again.