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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Three easy gun control solutions

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One of many gun control rallies takes place in Parkland, Florida. The protests have inspired numerous sympathetic demonstrations across the nation.

In the wake of a Valentine’s Day slaughter at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead, lawmakers, pundits and the American people are debating solutions to gun violence more fervently than they have in years. For perhaps the first time, the NRA is facing real consequences over its drive to militarize every facet of American life, with several major companies severing ties with the powerful lobbying group. But despite the courageous protests of youth across the country, real political action still feels far away.

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Childhood’s End: The young have become the moral voice of America

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Students of Hellgate High School in Missoula, Montana stage a walk-out. One sign reads, “Protect kids not guns.” Dozens of similar protests have erupted across the country in the past week.

For the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Valentine’s Day will forever memorialize the massacre of 17 of their classmates and teachers at the hands of a disgruntled man with a legally acquired AR-15. While shootings of varying severity are now depressingly common at American schools, this incident stood out from others. This is partly because of its high body count, but it’s been unique in another, more important way: it birthed some courageous student activists.

No longer content for their bodies to be the “price of freedom,” nor to accept the now-familiar deadly cycle of school shooting followed by thoughts and prayers followed by NRA hysteria followed by political inaction followed by school shooting, children are aware that it’s their lives at risk and they are doing something about it. Continue reading

How establishment Republicans learned to stop worrying and love Donald Trump

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Hannity’s sources are now telling him that, yeah, maybe the president did want to obstruct justice by firing the special counsel investigating him. So what? Isn’t that his right?

Late last week, The New York Times reported that President Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating suspected crimes by the Trump campaign, transition, and administration. Mueller was put in place last year after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the man previously leading the investigation. Trump’s attorney and White House counsel, Donald McGahn, threatened to resign rather than carry out the June 2017 order to fire Mueller, and Trump backed off.

In a sea of massive Trump scandals, this should be one of the biggest. It’s the clearest indication yet of Trump’s desire to obstruct an investigation into he and his inner circle’s financial ties to Russian oligarchs and, potentially, their cooperation with a campaign of cyber warfare against the American people. That investigation, which Trump continually derides as entirely phony, has already ensnared high-level Trump aides and campaign officials like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page.

Yet Republicans have been mostly mum on the Times report. Senator Lindsey Graham, often a representative for the establishment vanguard against Trump, warned, “if he tried to [fire Mueller], it would be the end of his presidency.” Despite the strong words, no action has been taken. Meanwhile, Trump has enlisted a growing chorus of Republican pundits and politicians to undermine the special counsel and, indeed, just about any institution responsible for holding him accountable. Continue reading

Jeff Sessions re-declares war on pot

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One way Sessions and Trump want to #MAGA: trample states’ rights and throw more people in jail over a plant.

On January 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo, an Obama-era directive that recommended a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that legalized it for recreational or medicinal use. Prior to the Cole Memo, federal authorities clashed routinely with legal pot businesses, especially in states like California. The memo substantially slowed the prosecution of state-sanctioned pot growers, sellers, and users. In rescinding the memo, Sessions declared his intent to re-escalate the war on pot. Continue reading

America: Democracy in Reverse

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Whenever this many rich people celebrate together, be wary.

America is sometimes characterized in its most exultant propaganda as the shining city upon a hill, history’s greatest experiment in self-governance. In the wee hours of December 2, though, it failed to live up to that marvelous hype. What happened in the United States Senate that day was a travesty that can accurately be described as democracy in reverse. An unpopular group of lawmakers passed an extremely unpopular bill, which will eventually be signed into law by an extremely unpopular president for the benefit of a small number of citizens. Continue reading

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

Why Roy Moore is the biggest political story of the moment

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Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, left, shakes the hand of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Arguably the most important political story happening right now is the ongoing scandal involving Roy Moore. Once the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore was removed for his lawlessness. Despite this, voters in Alabama – following a relentless campaign by the far-right website Breitbart – made Moore the Republican nominee to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate. Moore’s virulently homophobic, theocratic ideology already made him controversial to his own party, but last week’s allegations that he preyed on teenage girls made Moore look truly vulnerable. Continue reading

Roy Moore and the stunning cognitive dissonance of Breitbart

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Christian fascist Roy Moore defended himself by telling family values conservative Sean Hannity he did “not generally” date 16- and 17-year-old girls when he was in his 30s.

Anyone who logged into Breitbart over the last couple days saw the site’s usual sensationalist, large-font headlines, but they may have sounded disjointed if read all together. On one side, a vocal defense of Republican senate candidate Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice who has been accused by four girls of pursuing inappropriate, underage relationships with them. On the other side, a string of enthusiastic articles about the takedown of liberal Hollywood by sexual harassment and assault allegations.

One headline, “Judge Roy Moore on Hannity Radio: ‘Allegations Completely False,’” appeared next to the headline, “#OscarSoRapey: Harassers, Enablers Prepare to Celebrate Themselves for Five-Month Awards Season.” Another headline quoted Steve Bannon: “‘Same Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post’ Dropped Trump Tape, Roy Moore Hit Pieces… ‘Purely Part of the Apparatus of the Democratic Party’.” next to that article was one about a man who was allegedly beaten by immigrants in Germany after aiding an underage girl – precisely the type of girl Moore is accused of preying on. 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