The Second Amendment, the NRA, and the quest to militarize American life

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Parkland shooting survivor-turned-activist Emma Gonzalez (left) grills NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch on gun control.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is one of the most hotly debated pieces of text in history. For devotees, it guarantees the most important freedom ever enshrined in a government document. For critics, it is a dangerous relic of colonial history with little relevance to modern life.

Conflicting interpretations come about, in part, because of the text’s unusual opacity. In full, the Second Amendment reads, “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.” Strangely, those who most vocally champion the Second Amendment usually ignore the first half of it, while those who argue for a more restrictive reading consider the passage in its entirety.

Legally speaking, the notion that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own arms for personal use is new, originating in the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller. Prior to Heller, the Supreme Court always considered the Second Amendment with regard to a well-regulated militia. In 2016’s Caetano v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court further clarified an individual’s right to “all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.”

Heller and Caetano were enormous victories for the National Rifle Association. Founded in 1871, for its first 100 years or so the NRA dedicated itself to education, training, and hunting advocacy. A former president of the NRA, Karl T. Frederick, testified before Congress in 1934, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” In the 1970s, the NRA radicalized and began to push for a reading of the Second Amendment that eliminated all restrictions on gun ownership. As Brennan Center for Justice President Michael Waldman explains, “They supported a lot of scholars and law professors. They elected politicians. They changed the positions of agencies of government. They got the Justice Department to reverse its position on what the amendment meant.” Their campaign dramatically shifted the prevailing public and legal viewpoint.

Even after these enormous gains, the NRA remains relentless. Its present goal appears to be nothing less than the militarization of every corner of American life. To combat school shootings, the NRA proposes we arm teachers. The NRA “opposes expanding firearm background check systems,” despite a whopping 97 percent of Americans expressing support for universal background checks. On NRA TV, the group unleashes full-scale fascist propaganda, attacking the “extreme ideology” of mainstream media and the left with a “clenched fist of truth.”

Their hostility is born of a persistent paranoia about Democrats, Hollywood, gangs, leftists, immigrants, government, and most recently, activist schoolchildren. For the NRA and its members, guns represent a way of life, a political philosophy, and a business model all at once. They see guns as the most essential tool of liberty, used to put food on the table, defend the home from criminals, and if necessary, fight the government. The NRA regards gun regulation of any kind as unconstitutional tyranny.

Though it’s commonly interpreted this way, nothing in the Second Amendment explicitly suggest that its intent was to equip citizens with the tools for anti-government revolution. Historically, the Second Amendment has actually served those in power more than it’s been used to oppose them. As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues, “The militias referred to in the Second Amendment were intended as a means for white people to eliminate indigenous communities in order to take their land and for slave patrols to control black people.”

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NRA President Wayne LaPierre uses racial dog whistles to rile up the primarily white men who make up his organization.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s view is controversial, but the connection between gun culture and American racism is impossible to ignore. The rhetoric of today’s NRA is littered with racial dog-whistles. NRA President Wayne LaPierre makes frequent mention of the crime in cities with large black populations like Baltimore and Chicago, warns about “illegal criminals” crossing over the Mexican border, and once said of President Obama, “Eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough.”

When it comes to people of color, the NRA has frequently fallen short in its professed goal of protecting Americans against government tyranny. The group despises Black Lives Matter, an activist movement born purely out of a desire to combat state violence. When Philando Castile was executed by a police officer after announcing he carried a lawful weapon, the NRA was silent. In 1967, the NRA actually helped then-Governor Ronald Reagan pass an open carry ban in California purely to suppress the armed Black Panther Party.

People of color have far more compelling reasons to arm themselves than the aggrieved whites to whom the NRA usually signals. In 2017, police killed nearly 1,000 Americans, a disproportionate number of whom were black. Protests over police killings of unarmed black men have been met with militarized showdowns and incitement of riots. In 2016, state and private security forces attacked members of the Standing Rock Sioux for protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, imprisoning them in conditions so inhumane they were condemned by the UN.

Any serious discussion about reducing violence in America must go even further than the much-needed reform of gun laws. Our goal as a species should be to reduce all violence. To that end, the noblest thing we could do is demilitarize our state – which, for the last several generations, has been, as Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “the greatest purveyor of violence” domestically and the world over.

It’s no mystery why some groups would want to arm themselves against the US government. But Second Amendment fundamentalism sets up an arms race between the state and its citizens, as well as between citizens and other citizens, and implies that the strongest and most violent deserve to run society. The Supreme Court’s clarification that the Second Amendment protects “all instruments that constitute bearable arms” seems to exclude fighter jets and nuclear bombs, but it may not be long before the NRA challenges that, too. Citizens in many states can legally own flamethrowers and grenade launchers.

Despite the enormous difference in firepower between citizens and the state, gun holders do occasionally enjoy victories over the government. In January, a judge dismissed charges against the far-right extremists of the Bundy clan, who had seized a federal building and faced down the Bureau of Land Management with rifles. But this case demonstrates the silliness of using guns to arbitrate disagreements. The Bundy clan was in the wrong, degrading public land for private profit and paying no taxes. The interests of the NRA, people of color, the state, corporate America, and the working class are disparate and, in some cases, directly at odds.

Guns have a tendency to amplify all forms of violence. Poverty is perhaps our greatest national source of violence, depriving some 43 million Americans of adequate access to basic needs like shelter and healthcare – dire situations that are exacerbated by the presence of guns. Many of the deadliest domestic terrorists have come from the bowels of the growing white nationalist movement, and they’ve used their easy access to guns to slaughter dozens of innocent Americans in grotesque acts of carnage.

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recently called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. That may be extreme, but no matter what changes we make to our gun laws, they won’t be enough on their own. We must take the extra steps of addressing violence everywhere, placing the Second Amendment in its proper historical context, and considering what it means in 2018, all without sacrificing important civil rights.

As pushed by the NRA, today’s radical reading of the Second Amendment is an open door to civil war. Citizen arms may still be necessary, however, for marginalized groups to protect themselves against corporate encroachment or state aggression. Rather than arm citizens with ever-deadlier weaponry, we should demilitarize our state and corporations. Either we strive to reduce violence and firepower in every corner of society, or we continue to suffer the deadly consequences that come with the arms race and militarization of American life.

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Republicans abandon all pretense of public service

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President Trump appears with two powerful members of his administration, both Goldman Sachs alumni. Gary Cohn is on the left and Steve Mnuchin is in the middle.

If there’s one thing the Republican Party can be counted on to do, it’s lower the tax burden of wealthy Americans. They’re in the midst of an effort to do so right now, and one bill recently passed in the House of Representatives. But the bill is massively unpopular, with only 25 percent of Americans approving of it. Republicans have a remarkably candid response when pressed as to why they are pushing such unpopular and destructive legislation: it’s to please their donors. Continue reading

A tale of two responses: Trump on attacks in Vegas, Texas and New York

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The president adopts a voice of calm after white terror attacks, and a voice of venomous outrage after Muslim ones.

Three high-profile atrocities have occurred on American soil in the span of five weeks. On October 1, a man opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel window and shot more than 600 people, killing 58 of them. On October 31, a man drove a truck into a crowd in New York City and killed eight people. And on November 5, a man shot and killed 26 people at a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

At least since 9/11, the protocol for atrocity in America is militarism and nationalism if the perpetrator is a dark-skinned Muslim, thoughts and prayers for the victims if the perpetrator is white. In these recent events, President Trump’s tweets gave us a healthy sample of each. Continue reading

With Trump criticism, Limbaugh reveals the core of Republicanism

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Rush Limbaugh in a customary pose.

On his radio show last week, far-right commentator Rush Limbaugh used the word “dictatorial” to describe President Donald Trump’s demands that NFL team owners force players to stand for the National Anthem. Said Limbaugh, “There’s a part of this story that’s starting to make me nervous, and it’s this. I am very uncomfortable with the president of the United States being able to dictate the behavior and power of anybody. That’s not where this should be coming from.”

Limbaugh’s comments were covered giddily by much of left-wing media. Headlines and commentary suggested he had broken with Trump. But even if the remarks did represent a break from Trump – Limbaugh stressed repeatedly that they did not – there’s still no cause for celebration. Because Limbaugh’s real point isn’t that President Trump was out of line, but that if anybody is going to restrict First Amendment rights for the players, it should be the team owners.

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America needs a shrink

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A new book by mental health experts examines the deteriorated psyche of the American president.

Last week a group of psychiatrists released a book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. It caused a controversy not only because of its claims about the president, but also because the psychiatrists appeared to break with their profession’s ethical tradition and diagnose a public figure from a distance. They aren’t alone. Some 60,000 mental health professionals have signed a petition stating, “Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.”

Plenty of Trump observers might think that obvious, but it’s a stunning development. Never before have so many mental health professionals warned us about a public figure. And members of Trump’s own party have come to similar conclusions. Senator Bob Corker recently called the White House an “adult day care center” and charged Trump with recklessly setting the nation “on the path to World War III.” The mental instability of the man in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal is well worth taking seriously.

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Carnage in Las Vegas makes the need for stricter gun control clearer than ever

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People scramble for cover as a gunman opens fire on a crowded concert from his hotel room window.

Mass shootings are so commonplace in America that news outlets can practically recycle old stories verbatim, changing only the names of the suspects, the locations, and the number of dead. When pundits are summoned to give their opinion, those responses, too, are predictably rote. Whether it’s said once or it’s said a thousand times, though, there is only one solution to America’s epidemic of gun violence: stricter regulation of the weapons in question. Continue reading

Trump hijacks NFL protests, misdirects America

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Players for the Baltimore Ravens take a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, stand in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and spite President Trump.

George Carlin once said, “I don’t get all choked up about yellow ribbons and American flags. I consider them to be symbols, and I leave symbols to the symbol-minded.” But to many Americans they mean an awful lot, and President Donald Trump is using that to create even more divisiveness. In a tirade at a rally last weekend, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’”

Since then, social media and the American people have been deeply engaged in a conversation about the flag, the National Anthem, and the proper way to respect both. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick admirably forced the pervasive issue of police brutality during America’s national pastime last year, but that’s been completely replaced by Celebrity-in-Chief Trump’s voluminous ego and desire to distract the American people. Continue reading

The socialist claim to liberty

fistBy Kyle Schmidlin and Eldon Katz

Everyone has friends or family members who define themselves as “socially liberal; but fiscally conservative.” The conservative libertarian views their ideology as a mature, pragmatic, and disciplined compromise, the best way to get as many people what they want and maximize everybody’s liberty and opportunity.

But this vision of liberty is perverted and one-sided in favor of the powerful. It grants people the freedom to exploit, but not freedom from exploitation, effectively treating the liberty of the powerful as absolute but anyone else’s liberty as flexible. As Bertrand Russell put it, “The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.” Continue reading

America’s new battle with Nazism is only beginning

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Self-described “identitarian” Peter Cvjetanovic denies being a racist. His face went viral as he marched alongside torch-bearing neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-right – call them what you will, this group of angry, white men had a busy weekend. Hundreds of them descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for a Unite the Right rally. Demonstrators began a torchlit march on Friday night and by Saturday had turned the city into a warzone, culminating in an act of right-wing terror that caused one death and injured 19 others. In response, President Trump couldn’t bring himself to denounce one side more than any other. Continue reading

The real reason Trump banned trans people from the military

Transgender airman: ‘I would like to see them try to kick me out of my military’

After his commander-in-chief’s tweeted declaration, Logan Ireland, a trans member of the military, said, “I’d like to see them try to kick me out of my military.”

In a series of tweets Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump dictated a new policy for the US military: transgender people will not be allowed to serve. Reaction was swift, emphatic and hotly divided. Many citizens, celebrities and service members were dismayed and expressed support for trans troops. But on the far right, especially at outlets like Breitbart, the ban was enthusiastically applauded. While the ban seemed arbitrary and capricious, the divisive reaction to it may have been precisely the point. Continue reading