“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.”
– “Publius”, James Madison
Federalist No. 10
Before we start, take a deep breath. In and out. The world will remain until tomorrow, and the next day, and probably the next after that. We won’t be falling out of orbit any time soon.
Deep breath. Let’s go.
Americans like protesting things. More than that, we like being heard. Speech is for the provocation and advocacy of our own opinions, our ideas, the beliefs that comprise who we are as an individual, our shared ethics and morals. Speech helps us learn better who we are deep down, helps untangle the intangible parts of us we know intimately, and leads to the public expression in the hopes that someone, somewhere, likes what they hear.
It’s difficult to declare that America has the freest speech; of course we’d like to believe that we do, and we certainly have the highest support for freedom of expression, but it’s a tricky thing to prove. What counts? What isn’t? There are numbers, and then there are numbers, and the act of expressing oneself is not a quantifiable thing.
Protests – one of the many means of free speech, to practice civil engagement, to express oneself clearly and firsthand – have been on the rise in America in the 20th and 21st centuries. We’re a nation of protest, born and bred into us and the central values of our country, from the Boston Massacre to the Revolution, Bonus Army to Klansman Parade, Civil Rights to today. A protest, a mass protest, is something visible, something community-wide, with declarative results, something hard to ignore. There’s strength in numbers.
And the numbers came out 24 March 2018, as they did for all the rallies that came before, and the ones that will come after. Over 800 000 people in D.C., and over 836 sister rallies to the main event. Gun violence is inherent in American society. We are not strangers to the latest mass shooting. But after Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas, many have said the response feels different; it feels big.
In Atlanta, statistically 1 in 186 people are victims of violent crime; as of 2016, we rank #10 in gun violence, ahead of Chicago at #14, and with similar firearm homicide rates as South Africa. On Saturday, an estimated 30 000 people joined our other allies and marched for responsible gun control.
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.
Like anything else strictly American, gun control is a complicated issue. We practice our 1st Amendment rights to protest something that is enabled by the 2nd. What constitutes a militia? How do we address the issue that the arms of the 18th century bear few comparisons with the arms of the 21st? What happens when the right to own a gun overrules the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of gun violence victims? It’s not only a school-safety issue, it’s an educational issue, a policy issue, a class issue, it’s racial, economic, and social, as many American issues are.
There’s no one way to it, but policy. March for our Lives was not a rallying challenge to gun owners; it was not daring anyone to hold their loved ones and the Tec-9 closer, although that will most likely be the response, as is anything reactionary. The march was a challenge to the legislators, the policy-makers, the politicians who allow their decisions to be influenced by campaign donations, back room deals, corruption. Our laws should not be mandated by anyone else but the people — that’s what the March was for. Does it threaten to limit the availability of guns? Yes, as far as automatic rifles, bump stocks, and additional adornments go. If going by the theory that a well-regulated militia means the ‘common defense’ as cited in the Constitution, and ‘common defense’ equals one unmodified, working gun per citizen as it was in the 18th century, then the logic follows that anything more is unnecessary. But there are also an estimated 265 million guns in America, with a median of 2 handguns to every licensed holder, and over 9 million being manufactured each year. We have more than enough to spare, but not adequate legislation. The American government is a slow machine; Congressional change begins local before it ever goes federal.
There’s also the question of the accessibility of guns, and how those who are violent and mentally disturbed can take advantage of it. Mental health is often lumped in with gun violence, but not all who are violent are mentally ill — in fact, those who are mentally ill are 3 to 5 times more likely to be victims of violence, rather than perpetrators. There is a narrative in America of the lone, white male with a gun, who attacks indiscriminately for an unknown or unclear motive, usually notoriety, attention, fame; non-Hispanic white men have been accountable for 54% of mass shootings since 1982. Many had a history of being mentally disturbed, suffering from delusions, acute paranoia, depression, and suicidal tendencies, yet they have just as much right under the 2nd Amendment to own a gun — even though their actions deny others the inalienable human right to life.
Yet, when you pull one way, the other side pulls back. The inherent tension is that Americans have a right to the pursuit of happiness, which includes living in safety, yet also gun ownership, should they chose to. We misunderstand the question as a means of attack, and are put on the defensive; “not my guns”. But March for our Lives isn’t a movement that aims to take away guns, but regulate them in a more conductive way; simply put, America needs better legislation to ensure a better future.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
– Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
Where do we go from here? What’s to be done?
We want a more perfect union. Every American, more or less, does, but we become mired in argument, disagreement, partisanship; there are too many of us to agree perfectly on any one thing. How do we solve the situations we find ourselves in? How do 310 million people, of different genders, races, ethnicities, religions, backgrounds, agree on anything?
Perhaps we won’t, perhaps we never will. But one of the enduring elements of America is our ability to agree to disagree; we are an ongoing experiment in how to get along with one another, but this, and so many other things, means so much more than that. Lives are on the line, and we need progressive action, progressive legislation, and to reach that point of understanding that we are working to absolve one another not of responsibility, but of ignorance. That, ultimately, will save us all.