The amendment that allows Americans to bear weapons is treated as non-negotiable, even though it leads to tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting
“He was a dangerous man − a convinced man.”
⎯ “Under Western Eyes,” by Joseph Conrad
In the rest of the world everyone’s asking themselves: How can this be? After what happened on Sunday, Oct. 1, they can’t understand the inflexibility of the political establishment, the lack of a debate in the uppermost echelons of government, the reluctance to hold a vote on the issue. It’s always the same response: The Constitution, the Constitution, the Constitution has to be defended!
Las Vegas hasn’t changed anything.
A civilian armed with an arsenal of 23 rifles killed 59 people and injured 500 from his hotel room a week ago. These are words that can barely capture the pain of the widows, widowers, orphans and other loved ones that each one of the victims left behind, or the suffering of those who will have to live with the consequences of their injuries: the mutilations, brain damage and other incurable afflictions. But even though there’s never before been a massacre of this magnitude in the United States during peacetime, today the U.S. Congress isn’t even thinking about abolishing that amendment of the Constitution that let the shooter go ahead; that amendment that enshrines the right of Americans to bear all the arms they please.*
If this possibility wasn’t considered during Barack Obama’s presidency, when 20 children, aged six and seven, were killed at a Connecticut school, it won’t be considered now under a Trump administration, which, in February, overturned a measure Obama imposed prohibiting the sale of weapons to people with severe mental illnesses.
No one will consider changing the Constitution even though there are 310 million privately owned firearms in a country of 323 million people; even though 46,445 people were killed by firearms between 2012 and 2016; even though an average of 1,300 children die from firearms each year; even though anyone is 30 times more likely to be killed by a firearm in the United States than in the United Kingdom or any other wealthy nation, more or less.
But it’s all okay! The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the one that declares that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” remains intact. This amendment was passed on Dec. 15, 1791, and since then, the firepower of the guns available in American stores and supermarkets has made significant progress. In 1791, a gun could shoot three bullets in a minute and could reliably hit its target from a distance of 164 feet, maximum. The Las Vegas madman shot 90 bullets every 10 seconds and killed people who were 1,312 feet from his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
The world is changing, but those in charge in Washington see no need to change the Constitution. The law is the law. How can such absurdity be explained?
It’s the product of a perfect storm: fanaticism mixed with cynicism. The fanaticism is of the military-religious variety. It makes one think of Miguel de Unamuno, the 20th-century Spanish author, who spoke (in another context) of a political mentality based around “the barracks and the sacristy.” On one hand, soldiers always obey rules, as illogical as they may be; on the other hand, the words of the Constitution are treated as if they were as eternal and irrefutable as the Ten Commandments. The humans who wrote the Constitution weren’t fallible, limited beings; oh no, they were prophets who had a direct line to God.
It’s reminiscent of something an Anglican bishop, Richard Holloway, wrote after losing his faith in God. In his book “Leaving Alexandria,” he explains: “Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake … The mistake was to think religion was more than human … Authority does not prove, it pronounces; rules rather than reasons … It refuses to negotiate … How old is the universe? Science calculates about 14 billion years old. Not so, says religious authority: it is 6,000 years old. Where did you get that from? The Bible! What evidence? The Bible! …[O]n what grounds do you trust the Bible? Because the Bible tells me so!”
These are exactly the mental reflexes that, transferred into the political arena, give the Constitution that “stone-tablet” quality. Cynicism is the cement that hardens the raw material. In this case, we have a Congress and a president who have run the numbers and seen that there may be practical arguments in favor of the electorate for changing the Constitution, but that this would mean running the risk of losing their votes, so: The answer is no. No way. Not at all.
The fanaticism strengthened by self-interested political calculations is a formidable obstacle for those people, located primarily in the northeast part of the country, who propose dialogue, common sense and a vote to amend that useless and anachronistic amendment of the Constitution. I’m talking in particular about The New York Times, an establishment paper with the moral bravery and self-confidence to challenge the establishment. The New York Times has been campaigning all week against an institutional dogmatism that’s not only cruel and counterproductive, but has also embarrassed America in the eyes of the world.
Last week, an opinion column in the Times bemoaned the “absolutism” of political thought and the “abdication of responsibilities” of the leaders of the country. Another column concluded by stating, “[W]e’re no longer a healthy democracy, thanks to the cancer that has grown out of the Constitution.”
The lessons are certainly applicable to other countries, particularly those with democracies that are less mature, courts that are more biased, and politicians suffering from the same destructive mix of cynicism and blind faith.
*Editor's note: The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides: "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."