Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Charleston, the Confederate Flag & Guns

Growing up in North Carolina, a stone’s throw away from the South Carolina border, I have been profoundly affected by last week’s heartbreaking events in Charleston. Of course, one need not be familiar with the geographical location of the tragedy to have been acutely touched by it. Indeed, the entire country has been deeply moved by the senseless slaughter of nine of our fellow citizens as they worshipped together at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.   Once again, we as a nation are left grieving for lives lost much too soon, and in a manner much too horrific, to fully and rationally comprehend.

This unthinkable act of barbarism has sparked outrage from every corner of the country – from the citizenry to our political leadership, irrespective of political and ideological stripe. Of course, this heinous crime did not occur in a vacuum; we now know that it was one motivated solely on the basis of race. The church, one of the oldest black congregations in the United States, was targeted as a result of its being historically associated with the civil rights movement, and its parishioners being principally African American. The confessed killer, Dylann Roof, is a young, Caucasian male whose repulsive manifesto clearly indicates that he possesses a hatred and abhorrence toward the black race so vile that he deemed it necessary to foster a race war in this country.

Remarkably and hearteningly, just the opposite seems to be happening. The victims’ families have lovingly and graciously (yet unfathomably, to my mind) forgiven Dylann’s wayward soul for savagely executing their loved ones. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, flanked by the state’s two Republican Senators, publicly called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. Indeed, much of the public discourse following the shooting has revolved around this much maligned and rightly ridiculed symbol still used in parts of the deep South. Let me be clear: I am delighted to see this debate materialize, and seemingly moving toward a broad consensus that this divisive symbol should be removed from public grounds. I support such a move unequivocally and wholeheartedly.

I am, however, dismayed and concerned that the discussion surrounding the Confederate flag has largely dwarfed and muted any substantive debate with respect to gun control in this country. As divisive and painful as the Confederate flag certainly is, it did not brutally end the lives of the nine prayerful souls in that church. It did not massacre the defenseless children in Newtown, CT, Columbine High School, Blacksburg, VA, the unsuspecting theatre-goers in Aurora, or the countless victims on the streets of Chicago and throughout America on a daily basis. The flag is a symbol; the gun is the murder weapon. The former hurts feelings; the latter shatters lives. Shouldn’t this fact at the very least render gun control worthy of debate, just as the Confederate flag is and should be?

In a nod to full disclosure, I readily admit that I have never held, let alone fired, a gun in my life; and, frankly, I do not understand the fascination with them. Notwithstanding this fact, I grew up in the South, and have countless family members and friends who engage in legal hunting of various types throughout the year. While I do not quite understand the “sport” or engage in it myself, I adamantly support and respect the right of others to do so. I am certainly familiar enough with hunting to know that one does not need an automatic or semi-automatic weapon to kill a deer. A shotgun or rifle will do just fine. To the contrary, the weapons of choice for the oft-occurring mass murders – including Newton, Columbine, Blacksburg, Aurora and Charleston – are almost exclusively automatic or semi-automatic firearms. Banning such lethal weapons would not impinge on any Americans ability or right to legally hunt. This seems like an awfully good place to start.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the divergent interpretations thereof, poses a significant hurdle in the fight to reign in gun violence. It is difficult to overcome the entrenched conviction held by gun advocates that the Founding Fathers granted, by way of the 2nd Amendment, the individual right to keep and bear arms. Many Constitutional scholars and historians disagree vehemently with the view that it was the Framers’ intent for each American to possess the right to keep and bear arms for personal protection. Given the historical context within which the Framers were writing, it is most reasonable to conclude that the intent was to enshrine a state’s right to maintain and train formal militia units which could provide protection against an oppressive federal government. England, of course, was barely in the rear view mirror at the time of writing. Moreover, I am not sure how else to logically interpret the “well-regulated militia” clause other than to mean the right to bear arms should only be given to these organized groups.

But even if it were their intention contemporaneously, it is highly implausible that they would have foreseen firearms capable of mass murder within the span of a few seconds, and, if so, would have sought to protect them. Much like the Founders, as brilliant as they irrefutably were, did not, in 1787, envision Americans flags being planted on the moon, the politics of climate change, the threat of nuclear war, an African American president, a woman on the ten dollar bill, iPhones replacing lighters at concerts, or endless selfies being annoyingly posted to Twitter and Facebook. Things change; our world evolves. Its inhabitants, ideally, evolve along with the changing world around them. And I believe that the genius of the Constitution, as a living document, is that it has the capability and flexibility to likewise evolve with societal changes. Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion released just yesterday in Obergefell v. Hodges, alludes to this understanding of the Constitution: “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times…The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.” Of course, Kennedy is writing in support of the Constitution’s granting a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry, but I would contend that his general point is applicable to our interpretation of the Second Amendment as well.

Accordingly, considering the current reality in which we live – one riddled with ubiquitous and widespread gun violence, it is beyond doubtful that the Framers would have sought to protect the individual right to bear semi- and automatic weapons within the framework of the US Constitution. To be blunt, this notion seems preposterous. Furthermore, given the undisputed brilliance of our Founders, it seems to me that they would have, if such was their intention, simply included in the Amendment the phrase “for the defense of themselves,” as was eloquently pointed out by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). Why would such a clarifying phrase have been so clumsily omitted if it were the original intent?

Whatever the Framers’ intention, surely they would have expected our current leadership to possess the intelligence, independence and intestinal fortitude to adapt to our present reality. Surely they would not look kindly as politicians stick their collective heads in the sand, and hide behind an amendment written over 220 years ago – when slavery was legal, women could not vote and the Industrial Revolution was still in its infancy. Surely they would expect us, the people of this country, to engage in meaningful and reasonable debate to solve what is now clearly an epidemic, just as we seek to cure the maladies of cancer and poverty. Surely they would encourage us to act aggressively and expeditiously to remedy this stain on our culture. And, surely, for God’s sake, they would expect us to have the guts to stand up and confront the National Rifle Association, and its ferocious lobby.

The NRA argues, somehow seriously, that the solution to the gun violence epidemic is more guns. Really: a gun problem requires more guns? It is hard for me to fathom a more delusional and irrational solution. A doctor would not prescribe ice cream to someone fighting obesity, or cigarettes to a person suffering from emphysema. In their ideal world, all of us would be armed to the hilt in an effort to counteract the possibility (or certitude) of a deranged, gun-wielding psycho opening fire in the public square. If the NRA – and their allies – have their way, the new reality would be our constant intermingling with folks toting their guns to our schools, the grocery store, movie theaters, ball parks, churches, and any other public arena. This solution is one driven by paranoia and fear instead of addressing the problem. It is a resignation that the problem cannot be solved, so we might as well be prepared for the next, imminent tragedy lurking around every corner. It is reactionary, and speaks to the worst attributes of our nature. Is that the America in which we want to live and raise our children?

Ben Carson, a Republican presidential candidate, recently opined, “The heart of the matter is not guns, the heart of the matter is the heart.” Clever line and fair point; one I will cede. Obviously, it does, in fact, require a depraved, crazy and/or mentally ill person to use a gun for evil purposes. But I think it is safe to say that America does not have a monopoly on crazy people. I am guessing all countries have their fair share. All countries do not, however, suffer from consistent and pervasive gun violence.  Sadly, we stand alone in the civilized world in that dubious regard – as a country which tolerates such incomprehensible madness. My question is a simple one: for what? To this, Charleston deserves an answer.

June 27, 2015 Posted by | AME Church, Ben Carson, Charleston, Charleston Shooting, Confederate Flag, Gun Control, President Obama, South Carolina | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment