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The gun nuts–oh, I mean lovers of the Constitution–are at it again. The response to the latest mass murder included the comment, “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED.” Clearly the author thought this settled the matter.

I’m pretty passionate about the Constitution, myself. So let’s look at a different amendment, the First.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pretty strong language. “No law . . . abridging.”

Have the courts determined that the First Amendment entirely prohibits any overlap between religion and state functions?

No. It is acceptable, for example, for the Congress to invite clergy to give an opening prayer. Some argue that this constitutes establishment of religion; the court finds that it doesn’t.

Have the courts determined that we the people have an absolute right to exercise our religion?

No. If our exercise of religion conflicts with other responsibilities of the state, such as the protection of children, it may be restricted. People have been convicted of child abuse for denying their children medicine on religious grounds, and the Supreme Court has concurred in this “abridgement” of their religious freedom.

Have the courts determined that the press may print absolutely anything?

No. Libel and pornography may be held illegal. Is that abridgement of the freedom of the press? Sure it is. And yet it seems to be acceptable. First Amendment activists believe in balancing freedom of the press with freedom from defamation, not dismissing the latter.

Have the courts determined that freedom of assembly is absolute? It says right here it can’t be abridged.

And yet a crowd may not walk down Market Street at midday without a permit, or even gather in a public park in large numbers without prior permission. It turns out that in consideration of other important principles, such as people being able to move freely around the city, the government may reasonably abridge a right, even one stated as baldly as those of the First Amendment. Even the ACLU doesn’t disagree. It will argue that parade fees can’t be excessive, and so on, but it doesn’t argue against fees per se.

So, what do you think? May the government put reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, or does the Second Amendment–

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.

–mean that everyone must be able to buy any kind of arms, without any restrictions whatsoever? No background checks? No limit on what type of weapon or how many? For example, someone with diagnosed paranoia and a history of making threats cannot constitutionally be prevented from walking into a gun show and buying a weapon of war?

I would like someone to explain to me why not.


June 3 has come around again. Even though I was only not-quite-six years old on this date in 1974, when my aunt, Roslyn Shapiro Lewisohn, died, I think of her each year. She was 38 years old, which means she has now been dead for as long as she was alive. Her four children grew up without her. Her younger sister, my mother, was suddenly rendered an only child, and when their mother died several years later, my mother mourned without a sister to share her sorrow and memories.

Aunt Rozi was shot by her husband. He was drinking–he was often drinking–and they had an argument. At the end of it, she was dead on their kitchen floor. The reason he had a gun, according to what he had said some years earlier, was to defend himself from his enemies. What enemies a poet and college professor might have had to worry about, there in their home on the Maine coast, is hard to imagine. His own demons, I guess, and when those are your enemies, the very last thing you need is a gun. But he certainly didn’t have to prove he had anything rationally to fear in order to own a handgun and keep it loaded. He didn’t have to show that he didn’t abuse substances or his wife. He didn’t even have to show that he didn’t have a criminal record or any dangerous mental illnesses. It was just the way the “no to background checks” people want it to be.

When people talk about how we need to make sure “the good guys” are allowed guns, they are talking about people like my uncle Jimmy. He was a middle-aged, middle-class, white, college-educated poet and English professor. He was Jewish, for crying out loud. If we had decided to arm the good citizens of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, so that they might protect us from machine-gun-wielding drug dealers and mass murderers, Jimmy could have been first in line, and he would have been handed a lethal weapon with a smile. And taken it home and used it exactly the way he did use it.

Twenty-one years after Rozi’s death by handgun, another good guy tried his best to murder my father. This good guy was also middle-aged, middle-class–no, wealthy; white, a college graduate, a member of the Congregational church in town, a respected businessman and pillar of his community: again, just the kind of person who, in the mythical world of black hats and white hats, is supposed to defend us from the bad guys. When his wife left him for my father, Malcolm went berserk. He sought Dad out at the college where he (my father) taught, and stabbed him half a dozen times. Fortunately for Dad, Malcolm was scared of guns; otherwise he would surely have used one. Two very brave students wrestled him off my dad. Would they have dared to if he’d been wielding a gun instead of a knife? Not that it would have mattered. If Dad had been shot even once in some of the places he was stabbed–his chest, his temple–he would have died then and there, instead of arriving at Yale-New Haven Hospital on the brink of death and being dragged back from it by their highly expert trauma team. Not a visit goes by without my being keenly aware how close I came to losing him at age 26. Not a fatal shooting appears in the newspaper without my thinking, That would have been my family, if Malcolm had had a gun.

We have a myth taking hold in this country, a myth of bad guys vs. good guys. It says that there are violent thugs, or crazed mass-murderers, and then there are fine, upstanding citizens. But as we know, most murders aren’t Aurora or Newtown. They happen in ones and twos, and aren’t planned, but result from the heat of the moment combined with a highly fatal weapon. Most murder victims know their killer; many, in fact, are killed by a relative, or a girlfriend or boyfriend. My aunt’s death and my father’s near-miss were typical: personal dispute + alcohol or other drugs + a person who is prone to irrational thinking and violent behavior. The difference between them was that in one case, the attacker had a gun, and in the other one, he didn’t. You can certainly kill someone with a knife, with a baseball bat, even with your bare hands, but bullets are vastly more likely than any of these to be fatal.

To those who say that good guys with guns could have saved my aunt, or made a more effective rescue of my dad, I have several questions from the real world.

  • Can you imagine my aunt pulling out a gun and telling Jimmy to back off? It would only have confirmed his paranoia, and paranoid people do not surrender their weapons. In a movie, he’d drop the gun, but in real life, he was drunk and enraged and irrational, and he didn’t take any crap from his wife (let me translate that for you: he was in the habit of beating her up). He’d be more likely to pull the trigger than to drop the gun.
  • Can you imagine being a college student who hears cries for help and comes running, to find one man stabbing another over and over? If you have a gun, what do you do with it? Shoot the assailant? Please don’t–that’s my dad a few inches from him, the walls are tile and metal, and the chances of you or Dad getting killed by a ricocheting bullet are high (a hostage was just killed, instead of rescued, by police in such a situation). Or should you yell, “Freeze!”? Great idea, but again, this guy is not exactly in the grip of reason. If he were, he wouldn’t have wrecked his own life by committing a felony just because his wife had had an affair.
  • Now, turning to the mass-murder scenario, where millions of Americans fantasize that an armed security guard or elementary school teacher or heroic passerby will save the day by plugging the bad guy. We’ll set aside the fact that this being the real world, heroes are not protected by the Principle of Evil Marksmanship,  and even trained gun users can’t just pull out their guns and hit their target (and while the linked-to video is not of a scientifically rigorous experiment, the attempts to debunk it are comical in their desperation. The experiment didn’t happen when Diane Sawyer told the subjects it would! The defender was wearing a long shirt over his gun! How unrealistic!). As my brother-in-law points out, if we follow the advice of the NRA and Gun Owners of America, when someone starts shooting in a crowd, what you will have now is a crowd with several people pointing guns. How is anyone–police, terrified bystanders, other would-be heroes–supposed to know which of them is a good guy and which was the original shooter? The scenario resembles nothing so much as the firing squad in the ethnic joke, except with dozens of innocent parade-watchers or elementary school students or moviegoers added to the mix.

There are good guys and bad guys in the world, definitely. But it’s not usually that simple. Often, a bad guy is someone who was a good guy until the moment he had too much liquor in him, too much wounded pride, too little ability to manage his anger, and a deadly weapon in his hands. That is one reason the gun in your house is far more likely to kill you or someone you love than any of your “enemies.” (Another reason is that it’s more likely to become a suicide weapon than anything else, but that’s another subject. So is the Second Amendment, which in my opinion doesn’t mean remotely what the gun-rights advocates, or half the gun-control advocates for that matter, think it does.) Let’s be clear, “armed citizenry” advocates: when you set out to arm the “good guys,” you are talking about handing guns to Jimmy Lewisohn and Malcolm Todt.

Of all the grief and fear that a tragedy like the Newtown massacre instills in me, the most terrifying development is the advance of the notion that arming more citizens will make us safer. It’s a profoundly dangerous idea, based on fiction and fantasy, and it is just plain wrong.

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