"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." — Second Amendment
This nation's Founding Fathers were wise, but they weren't clairvoyant. In 1787, a "well regulated Militia" had more to do with keeping the old musket cleaned in case the Minutemen needed to get back together than it did with an individual's right to possess more firepower than a standing army. The framers' intention was to assure the rural populace that, in league with a regulated militia, they had the power to beat back an insurrection or invasion by force of arms. Not even Ben Franklin, however, could have foreseen a semi-automatic assault rifle in every closet or statewide militia organizations that serve more to intimidate citizens than protect them. Certainly, the founders did not wish for a paranoid Wild West mentality to grip the entire country with regular occurrences of indiscriminate gun violence and murder. The Second Amendment has become the Rosetta Stone for conservatives, impervious to modern interpretation, exploited by the National Rifle Association (NRA), and used as a shield for ever-expanding gun sales, especially during the two years of the Obama presidency.
That's why the obscene violence in Tucson was a shock but not a surprise. This country has become so accustomed to spree killings, the only news value is the body count or the prominence of the victims. The documented mental condition of the Tucson shooter demonstrated that lethal weapons are as easy to obtain as a Happy Meal, and if one Walmart won't sell you enough ammunition to fight off an army of Huns, just drive over to the next one and load up.
We lurch from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson without batting an eye, because the battle for reasonable gun regulation has been forfeited in the face of the firearms lobby. The NRA, by heavily contributing to the campaigns of sympathetic state and local officials, has sustained a mostly successful campaign to eliminate any restrictions on gun purchases and where a gun can be taken. Consequently, the guy sitting next to you at happy hour or in the public library could be concealing a firearm. There was barely a scintilla of public debate before these insane notions were codified into law.
It can be expected that a goober like Texas representative Louis Gohmert would advocate carrying a weapon into the House of Representatives, but when Memphis congressman Steve "Quick Draw" Cohen announces he'll start packing heat, it's a cause for concern. Not because Cohen is a bad shot or a pacifist with an occasional temper but because we have come to this as a society. Who could blame Cohen after a major party's senatorial candidate suggests "Second Amendment remedies" might be appropriate against certain government officials and policies and some zipperhead in dysfunctional Arizona declares open season on congressmen and their constituents? At Cohen's own town hall meeting during the Tea Party's "Summer of Hate," a few local zealots chose to wear holstered weapons like trendy fashion accessories, and suddenly, there's a rash of amateur constitutionalists strapping on sidearms at public events as some sort of political statement. The Glock has become the most coveted household possession since the Salad Shooter.
The debate over regulating the sale of guns is over for the foreseeable future. The only remaining question is how best to keep weapons out of the hands of homicidal lunatics. For all the conservatives have done to champion gun rights, they certainly have liberal attitudes about who can obtain them. Some Republicans take pride in being the party of "God, guns, and guts." Unfortunately, lately, it's other people's guts that are involved.
One of the questions in a recent forum for candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee was, "How many guns do you own?" The greater the number of firearms claimed, the louder the applause from the audience! One candidate bragged of owning every manner of weapon except a surface-to-air missile. The Republican Party is just a few warlords short of resembling Afghanistan.
Politicians and pundits are quick to assign blame, but who can say what motivates these murderous freaks? A brutal popular culture that glorifies violence has surely contributed to our annual national gun carnage, but Canada has as many guns per capita as the U.S., and they watch the same movies and listen to the same music we do. If their gun murders — nationwide — in a year equal Chicago's in a month, it must be an issue of mental health. And indeed, we seem to be in the middle of a national nervous breakdown.
The Tucson shooter seems just another in an endless parade of the viciously insane. John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. Squeaky Fromme took a shot at Gerald Ford in order to be incarcerated with Charlie and the Mansons. These potential assassins cared more about fame than politics, yet they were able to wipe the drool off their chins long enough to purchase a firearm.
Who doesn't believe that another incident like the massacre in Tucson isn't looming somewhere already? This country's deranged individual arms race has made us one nation under the gun, and the casual, vending-machine nature of weapons sales has turned us into the land of the free to carry and the home of the artificially brave. I don't think this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.