Is This Dynamic Debate Now Changing?
Ever long for the day when senseless violence will be gone for good?
Are guns-as-threat going the way of the dodo?
Or will the future be a rerun of tragedies we have known?
This blog takes a serious look at murder in the U.S.A. It sets out three perspectives we’ve never heard in our lifetime. Not from the NRA. Not from Congress. Though the American version of the guns debate has been running for some 200 years, it has never reached resolution. More serious, it may even be stalemated. The same old arguments; only the volume changes. Tinkering at the edges, yes, but the killings go on. Is it time for fresh perspectives?
So here’s the invitation: Read these statements from very different sources, then ask, Is this time around different? Are people now more willing to change, to get involved, to vote from a mindset we haven’t known before?
There is no magic in what follows. I’m under no delusion that it will resolve this major challenge in American life, which in many ways spills over borders to become global in scope. But since doing nothing will just perpetuate the status quo… well, why should we shrink from getting involved?
PERSPECTIVE #1: CAN WE BE AS ETHICAL AS UBER?
Uber halts self-driving tests after Arizona Death
March 18, 2018
Uber has halted all testing of its autonomous vehicles across North America. The company made the announcement just hours after a pedestrian was killed by one of its self-driving vehicles in Tucson, Arizona. The moratorium includes San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Toronto among other places. It is believed to be first fatality in any testing program involving autonomous vehicles.
Arizona and Uber, which at first had a warm relationship, now find it severed. Repealed, let us say. At least for now.
Analyzing the tragedy, here are the essential facts:
- A pedestrian was killed.
- The “weapon” was a self-driving car.
- Would she have been struck even if a human driver had been in charge? No one knows.
- Typically, a driver who kills a pedestrian gets charged. Common sense would seem to say that the virtual driver – in this case the company (Uber) – should also shoulder responsibility.
- And that is precisely what Uber did. Far from “hit-and-duck,” they stepped up to the plate, apologized, offered to cooperate with the investigation and voluntarily pulled their autonomous vehicles off the road.
Note well that last part – it’s crucial: a radical resolve to remove the instrument of death. No half-way measures like shifting the blame or stopping all testing in one geographic area while keeping the status quo in other places. No pious promises to offer up Uber-prayers. No panic-driven proposals like training citizens to shoot at any vehicle that appears to pose a threat to decent people.
Uber chose the logical way, the right way. What would be its equivalent if the lethal tool had a trigger instead of wheels?
If you comment that the right response would be to eliminate guns until they can be proved safe, what would that mean in practical terms? Assuming the Second Amendment stays in place, murder weapons will continue to be viewed as defensive tools, therefore off limits to all serious questions.
In real life, whenever any idea is thought to be beyond question, it’s time to put it under a microscope. Let’s try these questions for starters:
- Because the Constitution is a human – meaning imperfect -- achievement, it can be amended. Because amendments also are imperfect attempts to do the right thing, they can be re-examined, even repealed. Does that apply in the present context? Why or why not?
- How does the Second Amendment differ from the stance that all citizens – including those too old or too impaired to get a driver’s license – have a right to the freedom that comes with mobility? Would such a right not be served by the right to enjoy either a traditional or an autonomous car? Once that right is recognized – even enshrined in the Constitution, let us say – can the related cost in human life be shrugged off?
- Since the right to bear arms is built into the American Constitution, the central question becomes How to repeal an amendment. It has been done, of course; could it not be done again?
Let’s not be naïve. Long before repeal becomes reality, people who even talk about it will be seen as disloyal, dangerous, unAmerican.
WOW! A surprising thing happened on the way to releasing this blog. Just before it was scheduled to go out, John Paul Stevens, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, made this comment in the New York Times:
By John Paul Stevens
March 27, 2018
Rarely in my lifetime have I seen the type of civic engagement schoolchildren and their supporters demonstrated in Washington and other major cities throughout the country this past Saturday. These demonstrations demand our respect. They reveal the broad public support for legislation to minimize the risk of mass killings of schoolchildren and others in our society.
That support is a clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons, increasing the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 years old, and establishing more comprehensive background checks on all purchasers of firearms. But the demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment.
Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment, which provides that “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.” Today that concern is a relic of the 18th century.
For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated militia.”
During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned Chief Justice Burger’s and others’ long-settled understanding of the Second Amendment’s limited reach by ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that there was an individual right to bear arms. I was among the four dissenters.
That decision — which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable — has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power. Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.
That simple but dramatic action would move Saturday’s marchers closer to their objective than any other possible reform. It would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States — unlike every other market in the world. It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.
Granted that Stevens has no vote on the Court, his use of a public forum, his “bully pulpit,” is worth every citizen’s attention. President Trump responded at once by tweeting, “No way!” (Full stop. Discussion over. Forget it! Let’s move on to other matters. Period.)
Speaking of pulpits brings us to
PERSPECTIVE #2:THROUGH THE EYES OF FAITH
This is how The Washington Post presented it.
We’re trying something new here at Acts of Faith. We have adapted a sermon from a Washington-area priest for today’s newsletter. The topic of guns has flared up in the news for the past several weeks, and the Rev. Susan Flanders, an Episcopal priest at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in D.C., raises the question of whether guns have become an idol in this country.
What do you think? Have you had interesting conversations in your communities about this issue? As always, feel free to write me at email@example.com
— Sarah Pulliam Bailey, editor of Acts of Faith
Have guns become our modern-day idols?
Rev. Susan Flanders
There is a bizarre story in the Old Testament, in the Book of Numbers. It’s about how Moses, while leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, makes for them a bronze serpent to be held up on a pole to heal snake bites. This is after we learn that it was actually God who sent the snakes to bite the people! What kind of God? What kind of cure? Looking at a bronze snake? This makes no sense today, either in terms of our understanding of God or what we know about snake bites. But for God’s people then, the snake was a good snake, a sign of deliverance and protection, a miracle that God had ordered. The bronze snake had healing powers; it would protect God’s people.
But then things changed. If we jump ahead hundreds of years, to the reign in Judah of King Hezekiah, a faithful follower of God, we learn that he tore this bronze snake down and broke it in pieces. It was no longer a good snake, but a bad snake — it had become an idol in the temple, and people worshiped it, lit incense before it and completely forgot what purpose it had served originally. The bronze serpent had lost its power to save; it had become a false savior. And as with any change, particularly when it comes to cherished idols, some people were mad — they probably formed a “Save our Snake” committee!
In order to make some sense of this passage, to once more search for God’s word in a puzzling story, I have come to understand the story of the bronze serpent as a story about idolatry and of how a true savior can become a false savior.
Perhaps we can think about our country’s relationship with guns as a similar kind of story, especially in light of the widespread outrage and demand for action after the latest gun massacre and the daily death toll caused by guns all over the country. Could our national history with guns be a story about idolatry?
Guns were so important at the time our Constitution was written. They allowed for hunting, a necessary activity for many to be able to feed their families. But beyond that, guns were important for self-defense, and sadly, for conquest of native populations as we gradually took over a new continent. And for the Founding Fathers, guns were deemed necessary to enable a militia to protect the citizens’ freedom against any who might try to reintroduce tyranny in their young democracy. Hence the Second Amendment to our Constitution protecting the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Guns started out as a kind of savior, a source of protection — like the bronze serpent.
But, like the bronze serpent, guns have become an idol for many, and the right to have guns – of any kind, in any amount has become a near article of worship for some. The NRA and gun makers can be seen as the priesthood — elevating our guns to sacred status, equating them with a power and potency that must be maintained.
I’m hoping that perhaps now we are in a Hezekiah moment, a time like the one so long ago when the bronze serpent was destroyed. Can we begin to see guns for what they have become, far too prevalent, too high-powered, false saviors in, too often, the wrong hands? False saviors — not only with no power to save but with horrific power to destroy. Can we recognize the worship of assault weapons as the idolatry that it is, and can we stand up to those who continue to bow down at the shrine of unfettered access to murder weapons? I hope we are at a turning point, and the activism, particularly of young people who aren’t willing to stand for continued inaction by our political leaders is heartening. I almost don’t dare to hope this because we’ve been here before, and nothing has happened. But, maybe, maybe, this time.
The passion and energy of so many young people continues and calls to us adults to make up for years of inadequate responses to gun violence. It’s time to turn away from the hold of these weapons and the daily violence they foster; we need to bring down these false saviors.
PESPECTIVE #3: YOUTH TAKING SIDES
Which brings us to our third new perspective: the youth-initiated drive for change. Thousands who have left their youth behind have supported them ever since the shootings in Parkland, Florida, maybe even marched with them in Washington, D.C. or Tampa or Toronto. Or stood with them in Tel Aviv, Israel, where a rally was held at the U. S. Embassy, Or in Rome, whee at least one banner read, “Dress codes are more regulated than guns!” And in Buenos Aires, Sydney, Australia, Victoria, B.C., London, England and Stratford, Ontario and who knows how many other places. People watched or read the story in the news. Here is one heartfelt take on the issue, by a 13-year-old student who lived every minute of the disaster, eternity upon fearfilled eternity. She put her feelings on a placard – as fully as anyone can -- and marched. She allowed a stranger to take a shot (if you’ll pardon the expression), but we withdrew it out of concern for her safety.
We have all heard the screams of the dying
Of kids we could have known
Kids just like us
We have all seen the corpses
Watched the blood flowing from their wounds
And know that could be here
That could be my best friend or little sister or cousin
We are children
We can’t vote
So we don’t have a say
In whether we live or die
It is up to you
We can’t run for office
We can’t pass legislation
It is your job to protect us
It was your choice whether or not they lived or died
THEY DIED. YOU FAILED
You don’t have to fail again
Maybe this time things will be different. If maps can change things, so can people. Especially when they bring new perspectives to old problems, and solid conviction that the time for change has come.
Three perspectives, three disparate sources. Yet they seem to agree: The time for change – real change – has come. Let’s do it!