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The Right to Regulate Arms

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Watching the horror in Connecticut and its aftermath of deep sadness, we are inevitably drawn to a search for meaning and explanation. Other nations have sick people who do horrible things but in those places we rarely see the mass killings we saw last week. It is undeniably true that access to weapons intensifies the impact of these acts of madness. I see little benefit in belaboring that obvious point, although the NRA and its allies will continue to deny it.

Instead, I wonder about the two worlds that we seem to be developing here in America. One recognizes the complex interconnectivity of modern life. The other does not. If you compare the way we live today to life one hundred or one hundred and fifty years ago, America's middle class lives with amazing plenty and luxury. Our technology delivers climate control, food, light, information and entertainment at the touch of a button. But this miraculous lifestyle brings with it the cost of interdependence. We no longer live alone on our farms charged with our own defense. Most of us are urban and only around one percent of us engage in farming. The world is too crowded and too complicated to live by the code of the Old West. While we seek the security and the personal comfort and control of small scale and community based life, we require the production of an interconnected web of industry, government and nonprofit institutions. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, sales of home power generators skyrocketed, as homeowners sought protection from the insecurity of the highly centralized power grid. Some people's homes are protected by security systems in gated communities and many Americans own their own weapons. Nevertheless, most people know that in the long run they cannot go it alone.

Weapon manufacturers, gun stores, hunters and conservative ideologues have given America something you do not see in other parts of the developed world: a virtually unregulated market in weaponry. The technology of destruction advances at an impressive pace, and were it not for similar advances in the technology of emergency response and emergency medicine, America's homicide rate would be rapidly increasing. As Gary Fields and Cameron McWhirter reported recently in the Wall Street Journal:

The number of U.S. homicides has been falling for two decades, but America has become no less violent. Crime experts who attribute the drop in killings to better policing or an aging population fail to square the image of a more tranquil nation with this statistic: The reported number of people treated for gunshot attacks from 2001 to 2011 has grown by nearly half....more people in the U.S. are getting shot, but doctors have gotten better at patching them up. Improved medical care doesn't account for the entire decline in homicides but experts say it is a major factor...The estimated number of people wounded seriously enough by gunshots to require a hospital stay, rather than treatment and release, rose 47% to 30,759 in 2011 from 20,844 in 2001, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-All Injury Program.

America once banned assault weapons and feeble efforts to regulate weapons occasionally reach our political agenda; but our Congress seems incapable of having a serious discussion about gun control. Of course, they don't seem to do much better on issues of taxation, infrastructure, environmental sustainability or America's role in the now globalized economy. The conversations we need to have are about the policies we need to enact if we are to maintain our principles and values in a more crowded, interconnected and interdependent world. It is a world where ideas and images spread across the planet so quickly we say they have gone "viral." Other than in the hands of trained police and military officers, automatic weapons have no place in that world. And please, do not insult the legacy of America's founders by maintaining that the right to buy automatic weapons was their idea. This is the text of the Second Amendment to the Constitution:

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.

It's been a long time since any of us felt we needed a "well regulated militia" to ensure our rights as Americans. Why is the right to keep a gun in your closet any more relevant to life in modern America? Armed insurrection is no longer how Americans exercise their freedom. That was tried during the Civil War and hasn't been seriously attempted since. It didn't work then and it is of even less relevance today.

The technology of production- of food, energy, water and all the necessities of life requires that we live and work together in a global community. Our survival as a species requires that we forgo use of the technology of mass destruction to ensure that we can live together. Nearly half a century ago, John F. Kennedy spoke of this very issue as he struggled to dial down the rhetoric and the reality of the Cold War when he declared:

So, let us not be blind to our differences -- but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.

JFK had come to understand that technology had made our home planet more interconnected and more vulnerable. We now need to apply that lesson to the "right to bear arms." We may have that right, but it can be regulated without being infringed. Back at American University in June, 1963 JFK was cherishing the future of his children John and Caroline. At his news briefing last Friday, President Obama was cherishing Malia, Sasha and the memory of twenty innocent children as he wiped away tears and found himself unable to complete his prepared remarks. On that day in 1963 Kennedy unilaterally stopped above ground tests of nuclear weapons. President Obama must take a similar and if necessary, unilateral, step to halt the escalation of gun violence in our country.

It is time to move past the fictions pushed on us by the gun lobby. If we are to sustain this planet and its ability to provide us with the air, water and food required for human life, we need to build a community that understands the modern world. We do not want to live in a world without freedom of thought, expression, and action. But we need to make it much harder for people to accumulate personal arsenals, like the one deployed so tragically in Newtown last week. If some people have the right to bear arms, the rest of us have the right, indeed the obligation, to regulate the ownership of those arms.