What is freedom?

I’ve struggled with the decision to write this post. But since I cannot wipe these thoughts from my mind, nor can I continue to tweet incessantly on the topic until someone does something about the problem, I know I just need to get these thoughts out, and then maybe I can do something constructive with them.

First, some background. I don’t like guns. I’ve never liked guns, even toy guns as a kid. I’ve never held a real gun, and I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve even seen a real gun in person.

I recognize the luxury of my position. I grew up in an era without military conscription. There was no war that I was sent off to fight in, voluntarily or otherwise. Though my upbringing was modest, it was comfortable, and I excelled academically, so I was able to attend the college of my choice on scholarship; enlisting in the military wasn’t a necessary choice for me after high school.

I grew up in a small town, but my childhood was definitely a town experience. I was not a rural kid. I spent very little time in the country, and hunting was the furthest thing from my mind. I have never lived in conditions where I needed to hunt for survival, nor been involved with the portion of our society that does it for sport.

I grew up with the privilege of being white and middle class. I did not live in conditions where I was likely to encounter violent crime, and I have continued to live in relatively “safe” places, by choice but also by privilege, as an adult. I have never felt the need to own a gun to protect myself or my family. (Maybe I am naive in that thought, but so far experience has borne it out, and with luck and prudence that will continue. At any rate, I do not believe my owning a gun would make me or my family safer.)

All of this background is simply to help explain how my view of guns in our society has been shaped. I have never seen them as necessary; I have only seen them as dangerous and destructive. And I have never wanted to have anything to do with them.

I am well aware of the Second Amendment. It is probably the only amendment whose text I have memorized:

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 exact meaning of that text has been debated since well before I was born. Gun rights advocates focus on the second clause; gun control advocates focus on the first. But the whole needs to be considered to be properly understood. And it’s important to factor in the numerous Supreme Court cases on the matter, which seem to have settled once and for all that the amendment does grant individuals the right to “keep and bear arms.”

I guess the operative word in all of this is “infringed.” Where does regulation become infringement? And beyond that, is the amendment really good for the country? Can it not be altered or repealed? (Remember prohibition?)

I’m getting ahead of myself. With my personal distaste for guns, and my beliefs that a) the “well regulated militia” clause is both key to the amendment’s meaning and indicative of its modern irrelevance, and b) the amendment’s original purpose is not only antiquated, but not at all effective in a modern context, with modern weaponry; it’s time to look beyond this singular fixation on the meaning and purpose of the Second Amendment, and start talking honestly and practically about what the proliferation of massive, military-grade firepower into the hands of (a small subset of) the American civilian populace really means for us as individuals and as a nation.

In short, what is freedom? What are rights? And how long can we sustain the dangerous imbalance between the “right to keep and bear arms” — even semi-automatic, combat-grade assault rifles — and all of the rest of the rights We the People are entitled to?

Surely, on a level deeper than any of the specific rights afforded in the first ten amendments to the constitution, are the rights cited in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What freedom can be more fundamental than the freedom to exist? And yet that is precisely the freedom that is being put at risk by the stubborn, illogical adherence to the notion that any and all guns should be freely available to anyone who wants them, and the disturbing trend among state legislatures recently to pass laws allowing these weapons to be carried (concealed, no less) in places like elementary schools.

There are people making (somewhat) reasoned arguments that teachers should be armed in the classroom. I find plenty of counterarguments for why that is absolutely ludicrous, but beyond that debate itself, don’t we need to step back and seriously question how we’ve allowed ourselves to get to a place where that’s even a consideration? Teachers packing heat in the classroom? Seriously?

I think a big part of this problem is the idea of “American exceptionalism.” You may infer that I am not a proponent of this concept, and I am not. It’s harmful in two ways: first, it allows us to be foolishly insular in our thinking. We ignore the rest of the world because we are “exceptional.” We have nothing to learn from the rest of the world because we are somehow, and in ways that go without explanation, superior to them. And second, because we ignore the rest of the world, we both miss out on the opportunity to learn from other countries and we fail to see the many ways in which we are not superior. It’s a cyclical problem, and it leads to the kind of spiraling nightmare we’re seeing with gun violence.

I’ve looked at too many depressing statistics over the past weekend to even begin to try to track them all down and cite them here. Suffice to say, while in most other “industrialized” countries the number of gun deaths annually are in double digits, in the U.S. the number is 1000 times that. And consider this: two of the countries I saw gun rights advocates comparing the U.S. to in defending our gun laws were Mexico and Israel. Not exactly the paragons of peace and stability I think we should aspire to. I prefer to look at countries like Canada or, for a more pointed comparison, Norway. Norway had a gun massacre last year. But instead of anyone arguing that more people needed more guns in more places, Norway did what most other politically stable, industrialized countries like it had in the face of such a tragedy: tightened gun restrictions, with the result of fewer gun deaths.

The numbers don’t lie. If more guns makes for a safer populace, the U.S. should be the safest place on earth. One statistic I saw this weekend said there are 270,000,000 privately owned guns in the United States. That’s almost 1-to-1 for every person (children included). And yet our number of gun deaths compared to other countries is literally off the charts (at least depending on how you draw your charts).

I’m not advocating for repeal of the Second Amendment. That will never happen. (For what it’s worth, I think it should happen not because I think all guns should be illegal, but because I think it needs to be rewritten.) I don’t think we need to take away people’s hunting rifles, and I will grudgingly accept that people may feel the need to own a single-shot handgun for protection (even though I would still prefer if they didn’t). But there is simply no explanation I can accept for why any civilian would need or should be allowed to own military-grade weaponry. Nor should they be allowed to store or carry it anywhere near other civilians. No explanation.

Taking away your (recently granted, through the 2005 lapse of the assault weapons ban) “right” to own a combat rifle is not taking away your freedom. But your owning one may very well take away mine.

I could go on for another 1400+ words and barely scratch the surface on this topic, but I think one tweet I composed this weekend said it best: