[The second in a series on some of the broader American Studies issues and stakes in the 2012 presidential election. As always, and doubly so with controversial topics like these, your takes are very welcome!]
On the stakes of 2012 for the newest phase in our longstanding, conflicted national relationship to guns.
When you remember how the American Revolution—or at least the military portion of it—got started, the 2nd Amendment sure makes a lot of sense. After all, the Minutemen who fought the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord, who fired that shot heard ‘round the world, were a militia in the truest sense of the word: farmers and other locals who brought nothing more than their own lives—and their own guns—to those crucial first conflicts. And for many decades after the Revolution, state and local militias continued to serve as the nation’s primary armed forces, with a standing army being assembled as necessary (during military conflicts such as the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War, for example) but not consistently maintained. Given those contexts, the syntax and logic of the 2nd Amendment—which reads in full “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”—seem perfectly natural and uncontroversial.
But the term “militia” has of course come to mean something completely different in early 21st century America, and the shift to my mind signifies the other side to our national relationship to guns. These contemporary militias, comprising communities of heavily armed resistance to perceived threats (from the government, from the United Nations, from ethnic or racial “others”), see their guns, and their right to bear them, not as a part of our shared national community, but as a way to defend their own lives and security within, and yet fundamentally outside of, that nation. For these Americans, it seems to me, the key words in the 2nd Amendment are “free” and “the people,” since in this reading of the Amendment its guarantees have nothing to do with the government (which would presumably do the regulating of militias) nor the nation (the State) and everything to do with every individual gunowner. There is of course no necessary conflict between individual gunowners and the national community—again, the Minutemen were composed precisely of such individuals, coming together to fight for their fledgling nation’s interests—but such conflicts have without question come to form a complex, controversial, and crucial part of gun culture in America.
Which brings me to today, and specifically to the “Stand Your Ground” laws that have, in response to pressure from the NRA and ALEC and other conservative organizations, been passed by numerous state legislatures since the ascendance of Tea Party majorities in the 2010 elections. How we analyze these controversial pro-gun laws—which factored directly into the Travyon Martin shooting and other recent tragedies—depends precisely on whether we see them as part of our nation’s founding identity, a legacy of the Concord Minutemen; or part of the contemporary militia movement, tied to the 21st century Minutemen and their ilk. But in any case, there’s no doubt that the 2012 election—which NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre has called “a turning point for gun rights”—will greatly influence these narratives moving forward; there’s less than no evidence that a second-term President Obama would ban guns or dismantle the 2nd Amendment (as LaPierre warns), but certainly an empowered Republican majority (nationally and at that state level) could continue to pass more laws like “Stand Your Ground,” and otherwise to push forward this extremely pro-gun agenda. Which would be a very American thing to do—but what version of America it would embody is an entirely open and significant question.
Next election and American issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
6/19 Memory Day nominee: Pauline Kael, perhaps America’s greatest and most influential film critic, and a cultural commentator and critic whose voice and perspective helped shape our conversations and community throughout the late 20th century.