Re-Framing the Gun Conversation

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

Today in America we continue to define, weigh, and measure these three “unalienable Rights”.

Original American Declaration of Independence

Original American Declaration of Independence

No matter whether the Declaration’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson, and the Committee of Five of the Second Continental Congress assumed these three Rights to be mutually compatible or whether they saw them in tension with each other, today in America there is little agreement about the meaning of, or the relations among, Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Instead we are locked in a heated debate about one of the three – Liberty – focused  on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791.

Lost in the debate is the more reflective philosophical, moral, and religious pondering of the “unalienable Rights” which, in the eyes of Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress were essential virtues of a new republic. Then, as now, the way we understand life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is shaped, to some extent, by different cultural experiences. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the differences were often between northern and southern colonies. Today the differences are still sectional, but perhaps even more, they are between rural and small town, urban, and suburban cultures and settings.

Rural and small town populations, especially those who plow the fields and grow our food, tend to view guns as instruments that support life and the pursuit of happiness. A gun is used for hunting, protecting the animals from coyotes, or for skeet shooting. The rifle by the back door is part of rural life, not meant to be used on another human being, except in the unlikely event of a burglary. The right to own and use a gun is a matter not only of liberty but of life and the ability to pursue happiness. The gun is a family friend.

Urban populations, especially those living in densely populated centers with the high crime rates that accompany economic deprivation, see guns differently. Guns in their neighborhoods are not for hunting, protecting animals, or shooting coyotes. They are threats to Life and the pursuit of Happiness. The cities are divided between very wealthy, middle class, and the economically impoverished neighborhoods where gun shots are heard while putting children to bed. Residents who can afford to leave for the suburbs to pursue Happiness sometimes do.

Suburban populations are a blend of former rural and urban dwellers with native suburbanites. Some grew up on the farm or in small towns where there was little or no tension among the three unalienable rights. Some left the city in pursuit of happiness or in search of a safe place to live. Some, born and raised in the suburb, can imagine neither the farm, small town, nor the city as a preferred place to live. In the suburbs it is a matter of some confusion and debate whether Liberty, as in gun rights, supports or conflicts with, Life and the pursuit of Happiness.

The National Sheriffs Association, serving rural and small town America, takes a conservative position on gun rights and gun control, while the National Association Chiefs of Police and International Association of Chiefs of Police, serving urban, small cities, and large suburban communities, call for improved gun control legislation.

Although informed debate about the origins and intent of the Second Amendment is good and necessary, a preoccupation with the Second Amendment all but insures the demise of a productive national conversation.

We would do better to look earlier in our history to the Declaration of Independence which defined the goals of a soon-to-be-born American republic. To this writer’s knowledge, there has been little if any discussion of gun rights and regulation in the context of the three unalienable rights explicitly lifted up in the document we all celebrate on July 4th.

Those who declared American independence from Great Britain in 1776 could not have imagined that one of the three named unalienable Rights — Liberty — would stand as the sole Right without reference to Life and the pursuit of Happiness.

Few venues lend themselves to a mature discussion among rural/small town, urban, and suburban American experiences. In theory, the 50 state legislatures and the United States Congress provide the forums for thoughtful discussion and the search for solutions by representatives of rural, urban, and suburban constituents. But in today’s America where representative government itself is often viewed with distrust and even fear, the likelihood of success is far less than the Founders might have hoped.

Where and how, then, do we, the people — rural and small town, urban, and suburban — citizens of the diverse country we all love, come together to discuss our life in light of the creative tension of the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness in 2015?

Aristotle (right) talking with Plato in The School of Athens by Raphael

Aristotle (right) talking with Plato in The School of Athens by Raphael

In 2015 one could hardly say we in America are happy. In the light of current tragedies of gun violence and our socio-poliictal history, we might do well to remember the wisdom of Aristotle (384—322 B.C.E) to help guide citizens of a constitutional republic:

Happiness depends upon ourselves.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 20, 2015

4 thoughts on “Re-Framing the Gun Conversation

  1. And you’ve added even more reasonable stuff to the discussion. Unfortunately intelligence and knowledge have joined science in the “despised and unworthy” pile of those who would prefer to enjoy the simplicity of irrationality and, may I say, hate. (Oh my! What a powerful word .. maybe I should have played it safe.)

    Like

  2. So well-reasoned and sensible!

    Maybe Jefferson imagined we would actually discuss options when problems arose? Or were our founders even then controlled by a “shoot from the hip” [metaphor deliberate] mentality that drowned reason with emotional response to the most effective propaganda? Even then, I understand, there was fear that a centralized government would ultimately take control of our lives and undermine our freedom. Fertile soil for the current demonizers of our own government magnified by the conspiracy business. And once we talk conspiracy, we remove the subject from the possibility for open discussion. Panicky fear prevails with the attendant focus on one’s own life at the expense of community concern.

    And so here we are flung about in the maelstrom. Maybe some of us will be ejected from the storm and there will begin a focus on reasonable discussion. One can only hope, or, in your business, keep watch, be ready, and pray.

    Like

    • Mona, this post is getting very little attention, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Attempts at more dispassionate reflections on hot issues like gun rights and gun control do not capture the attention the way diatribes do. The Founders were primarily Deists for whom Reason was as close to God as one can get. They believed in Reason, steeped in the likes of Cicero and Diogenes, reading the Greek and Roman classics in Latin and in Greek. Their education was steeped in these writings, including the exercise of translating the Gospel of John from the Greek into Latin and English. They were far more learned than we are today. They were also highly cautious of government exceeding its rightful bounds, and their ethics seemed to place individual rights as the center of the good life – the fulfillment of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. In our time this narrow individualism and the emphasis on the second Right – Liberty (“freedom”) – does not serve us well in the less agrarian world of 2015 America.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s