Every elected official in the United States of America pledges to defend the Constitution; not the King, or even the President, but the nation’s founding set of laws and amendments. On the surface, this appears to be a more democratic way of running a nation than fealty to the highest official in the land, whether hereditary king or democratically elected president. In fact, one of the reasons why Americans consider their system of government superior to monarchies is precisely the presumed power of a written document to prevent the abuse of power.
But everything has its downside (and for every yin there is a yang, the two constantly passing through momentary equilibrium). The growing power of individuals to assassinate large numbers of people has taken “gangsterism’ to a whole new level, in the name of the constitution’s second amendment, drafted in the nineteenth century: “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.” Never has this amendment been quoted in the context in which it was written: the need for Southern white Americans to be able to pursue and capture runaway black slaves, upon which much of their economy depended.
The National Rifle Association, founded in 1871 by two wealthy New Yorkers, both of whom had been army officers in the Civil War that pitted the slave-owning plantation south against the industrializing north, has since become the poster child for the art of government lobbying. In the early twentieth century, the unregulated possession of guns contributed to the birth of ‘gangsterism’ — which became a major source of scripts for the movie industry whose depictions have largely defined the American ethos of the ‘self made man’. With chapters in every state of the Union, the NRA”s stated purpose is to train people, including children, to shoot, and to properly maintain their equipment, which allows it to claim its usefulness to the armed forces, as well as enabling individuals to protect ‘themselves and their families’ from evil-doers. Its members pay annual dues, which in turn are used to lobby law makers, whose re-election is often dependent on these funds, dispensed according to their ‘pro-gun legislation’ score.
In a ‘democracy’, where the ballot-box is expected to ensure the peace and prosperity of each individual, the NRA is recognized as the most powerful lobby in the land. While many organizations and professions have developed a strangle-hold on law-makers, the NRA is the only one to have achieved national prominence. It needs no introduction when the media reports on killings by individuals with easy access to weapons, including those commonly used on the battlefield, which kill many people in a few seconds. No organization is so taken for granted as the NRA when it comes to evaluating the chances of legislation being passed.
Although there are no longer slaves to justify the holding of guns by their owners, the Second Amendment goes together with hand-on-heart singing of the Star-Spangled Banner as proof of patriotism. (In recent years, many nations have adopted the solemn gesture, without granting access to firepower….)
Although there are hundreds of interest groups that influence congressional votes, the NRA is the only organization that combines a constitutional basis with a modern public relations reach to achieve a unique position. To mount a campaign against the NRA would be to implicitly deny the validity of the American Constitution. In fact, one of the reasons for America’s disdain of other nations is that their constitutions are invariably much younger. Great Britain’s exceptional standing is due to the fact that the Magna Carta, drafted in the thirteenth century has obviated the need for any Constitution at all! It never seems to occur, even to American academics, that as circumstances evolve, so too must basic laws.
Although America’s founding documents are considered sacred, since the nineteen seventies, American women have been unsuccessful in their campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment. Not surprising, since the basic assumption of the Declaration of Independence was relativized beginning almost immediately with the first of several Alien and Seditions Acts, eventually leading to McCarthyism in the nineteen-fifties. It reads:
“To secure [basic] rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; [and] whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”,
For all its emphasis on the rule of law, when it comes to controlling gun violence, which has become a national scourge, legislators are prisoners of the Second Amendment, drafted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights. Although the United States is the only developed nation that has failed to include economic rights in its basic laws, opinion-makers emphasize the constitution’s longevity as evidence of its superiority over the shorter-lived — and thus constantly updated – constitutions of other nations.
P.S. The rational for war is spelled out separately, in regularly updated ‘National Security Doctrines’.
Deena Stryker is a US-born international expert, author and journalist that lived in Eastern and Western Europe and has been writing about the big picture for 50 years. Over the years she penned a number of books, including Russia’s Americans. Her essays can also be found at Otherjones. Especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.