A determined looking man bulls his way into a busy office. He ignores the receptionist calling after him, makes his way to a couple talking at a rear desk, pulls out a rifle and fires.
Office workers cry out in panic and scatter, leaving the man, in total silence in an empty office, methodically inserting a new cartridge into his muzzleloader and jamming it home with a ramrod.
The message on the TV screen says, “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”
The ad, from States United to Prevent Gun Violence, makes a painfully obvious point that is utterly lost on the U.S. Congress. There, it is not only impossible to change gun laws, it is impossible to have a real debate about them.
Even the feeble gun control bill rejected by the Senate last month could not pass despite support for expanded background checks from solid majorities of Americans, U.S. senators, Republicans and even National Rifle Association members. As Bill Maher put it, even people who couldn’t pass background checks wanted background checks.
But in some quarters of Congress the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, untouchable Holy Writ from infallible founders. That sort of thinking would be anathema to the founders themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, who argued that constitutions should expire naturally every 19 or 20 years, wrote in 1816: “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.”
Second Amendment worshippers imagine that the founders would have unhesitatingly ascribed constitutional protection to the array of weapons available today, but there is no way to know that. I long to hear the founders’ debate whether “the right to bear arms” should include assault weapons, Stinger missiles, bazookas and machine guns. I would love to hear them explain exactly why they thought it important to insert the phrase “well regulated militia” into that admirably succinct document.
The founders were big believers in science and technology, but they never dealt with those questions, just as they never considered whether government should be involved in the healthcare business. Medicine in the 18th century was a shortcut to an early grave, but surely the founders would at least have found room in the Constitution to somewhere mention modern medicine, had it existed, since nothing in human experience touches more intimately on all three of those Creator-endowed rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The founders didn’t ignore these issues because they were idiots; that distinction was reserved for future politicians. They did it because they had confidence that Congress in generations to come would have the wisdom and flexibility to adjust the Constitution as needed to fit a changing world. That may have been the founders’ worst mistake.
So rockbound is today’s political climate that even talking about changing the Second Amendment or adding healthcare to the Constitution reduces the speaker to a pariah. We lack the political will to amend the Constitution, but we readily ignore it when it becomes inconvenient.
The founders, for example, concluded after careful consideration that majority rule should govern Congress, and they limited super-majority requirements to only five circumstances. But the modern Senate requires 60 votes for even the most routine business, a bungle that, as the founders envisioned, has rendered Congress all but inoperable.
And it’s a given these days that, no matter what the Constitution says, presidents have virtually unlimited powers to start and wage wars without congressional approval. Nothing would have appalled the founders more.
Some parts of the Constitution may be too awkward to obey, but we adhere to the Second Amendment as if it were written on stone tablets. Gun control laws aren’t needed, Republicans say; we need instead to focus on mental health.
But they don’t mean it. The number of mentally ill people who are incarcerated quadrupled between 1998 and 2006. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that, thanks to the recession and budget-cutting fervor, six states, plus the District of Columbia, have cut public mental-health spending by more than 20 percent since 2009.
Montana isn’t on that list, but the Montana Legislature did take a bite out of the poor this session by refusing to expand Medicaid to cover another 70,000 or so low-income Montanans. Neither the federal government nor the state can afford the expense, they argued.
Of course, the money will be spent anyway. The Legislature’s inaction just means that some other state will get our tax dollars.
And refusing to insure the poor won’t make their medical expenses disappear. People will still get sick, and while we will save money on those who die before they get medical help, most will see a doctor when they can’t stand the pain anymore.
Who will pay for that? The same people who pay now. Some of the working poor will go into bankruptcy, and their creditors will pick up their tab. Hospitals will write off millions of dollars in debt and increase costs to the rest of us to stay solvent. Generous souls will chip in a few dollars at church, or at chili suppers and silent auctions, as the community rallies to save a life here and there.
We will all be a little poorer, but somehow, we will muddle through, imposing our 18th century mindset on a 21st century problem because we lack the political courage to change with the times.
Jefferson wrote, “I am not afraid of new inventions or improvements, nor bigoted to the practices of our forefathers.” He must be grateful that medical science did not permit him to see an America ruled by bigotry and fear.