Friday, October 9, 2009

Star Tangled Banner: on gun laws

This is my second column attempting to introduce Saskatchewan readers of The Badger to the intricacies of U.S. politics and public policy. An easy one this time: gun laws.

America: Where gun control
means using both hands

AT THE MAIDEN’S GRAVE, California – We were headed out to hike in the Sierra Nevada last month near a spot on Highway 88 hauntingly called “The Maiden’s Grave.” It was named for a young pioneer woman who never made it all the way to the Pacific with her family; actually, the historic marker does mention that they aren’t sure there’s anybody buried beneath the pile of stones, or if there is, whether it’s really The Maiden. Besides, nobody knows the maiden’s name.

Whatever. It was a crisp, blue-sky day in the mountains and we’d been told there was an expanse of granite pluton to be explored just on the other side of the high country cow pasture there.

Just above the only gate was somebody’s camp, an old trailer with gear hanging from the nearby pine trees. A fair-sized American flag was waving up in one of them.

I asked one of the women ask permission and a chubby guy with a U.S. Marines field cap and no shirt waved us in. We were up alongside the trailer before I saw the second guy, who was dressed more formally: he wore a shirt and a .45 automatic. He seemed to want to talk politics but we pressed on.

That was only the first sidearm I saw that day. At a rest stop for lunch a bit later we came across a much older fellow who likewise saw fit to walk around with his pistol holstered on his hip. He also had a t-shirt that said NEVER AGAIN on the front and quoted Adolf Hitler on the back.

No kidding. It said, "This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!"

I had a pretty good idea of his politics, too, and so I spent my time talking to a motorcycle rider who dreamed of hunting elk with his brother up in Idaho. Since I grew up in Alaska, I could trump any elk story with one about a moose, and we got along pretty well.

(When we got home I Googled that Hitler quote and found out in a couple of minutes that it’s a pure fabrication. You can check it yourself.)

What is it, do you suppose, that makes grown men want to walk around armed in public?

I understand why people own guns. Lots of people in Alaska have firearms, maybe most of the people. Along with fish, game meat taken by hunters supplies a substantial fraction of the food consumed there, especially in the Bush. In the U.S. as a whole, there are estimated to be more than 235 million guns of various types, which is only about two for every three people, counting the kids and babies. (Of course, I have three myself, so there must be somebody out there going without.)

For me, the worrisome issue isn’t people who own guns, it’s people who own guns that are basically good for just one purpose: to kill other people. In late September, a candidate who wants to be elected general in charge of the South Carolina National Guard (yes, they vote on that) raised campaign funds by auctioning a semiautomatic AK-47, the most legendary military rifle in the world today. It is tough, light and lethal to humans – but you wouldn’t take it bear hunting.

Most handguns, likewise, have little actual purpose other than what is politely called “home defense” here in the states. I’ve known guys who hunted with them, but damned few. Sometimes you’d see a hiker on the trail in Alaska who claimed his .357 magnum was bear protection. Standard procedure was to advise that he file down the site on the end of the barrel, so it wouldn’t hurt so much when the bear took it away and stuffed it up where the sun don’t shine.

America has lived with its gun fixation since earliest times. Unlike Canada, we had this revolutionary war where farmers with hunting weapons were the main combatants against the British Redcoats. That sort of heritage lasts a while.

As a result, the Second Amendment to our Constitution says “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.” Now it sounds like that is talking about guns for the military, doesn’t it? Ha! Over the years our courts have regularly interpreted it to endow that right to each and every citizen.

The majority of Americans want some limitations on gun ownership, but the minority who oppose that are much more passionate, much better organized and – let’s face it – much better armed. Through organizations like the National Rifle Association, they’ve been brilliant in advancing their political agenda, and they own a fair chunk of the Republican Party outright. Hell, Dick Cheney used one of his to shoot a buddy in the face, and Sarah Palin never saw a gun she didn’t like. (While you are Googling that Hitler quote, you should also Google “Sarah Palin gun” and look at the pictures that turn up. Whew.)

But any consuming passion can be dangerous, of course. Right-wing Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) might well have been fanning flames of gun paranoia earlier this summer when she warned against the scary, invasive people who would be going door-to-door across the country taking the Census and asking all kinds of prying questions.

Of course, that may have had nothing to do with the death of Census worker Bill Sparkman, 51, who was discovered a few weeks later hanged to death “naked and gagged [with] his hands and feet bound with duct tape” near Big Creek, Kentucky.

The authorities did note, however, that somebody had scrawled the word “FED” on his bare chest in red magic marker.

Howard Weaver, a journalist for 40 years,
was born and raised in Alaska
and owns three shotguns. No sidearms, though.

1 comment:

-30- said...

"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."

The problem, of course, is the definition of what a "well regulated Militia" actually is. More importantly is what it was a "well regulated Militia" was in the 1780s and why the framers thought to include it as #2 in the Bill of Rights.

Some people believe a "well regulated Militia" is, in reality, the National Guard (for your Canadian readers that would be a form of a reserve military).

But today's National Guard is for all intents and purposes an extension of the Federal military, with little to differentiate it from the actual federal US forces (all Army National Guard soldiers wear tags that say "US Army" on their uniforms).

Why was the right to bear arms even included in the Bill of Rights anyway? Well, some believe that the Bill of Rights was there to keep the Government in check, to curtail its power.

A force of well armed civilians will do that. A standing military with very close ties to the government will not.

Just a thought.