With many friends, colleagues, and neighbors in the past couple of years I have participated in forums, marches, and vigils to honor victims of gun violence and to protest against the influence of the arms industry, and its principal lobbyist, the NRA, on our elected officials.
I will probably continue to participate in such activities. But there is one thing I have stopped doing. I will no longer pray to ask God to relieve American society from the plague of gun violence.
My God, the God of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, gave us the capacity to reason, to make choices, to distinguish between policies and actions that benefit our communities and those that do us harm. Instead of praying for miracles, we need to use our God-given capacity to understand how we got where we are.
The origins of America’s gun culture are clear. In colonial times, our ancestors used weapons, including guns, to tame an enormous wilderness, killing indigenous humans and animals that stood in their way.
At the end of the 18th century, our ancestors took up weapons against the British monarchy. The insurgents were successful not only in gaining independence from Britain but also in crafting a new political order. The new American government, however, was broke, in debt to European allies, and unable to organize and finance a standing army.
The Second Amendment of the new Constitution addressed this issue. A “well regulated militia” of citizens bearing arms (and hopefully trained to use them) would protect the fragile new republic from foreign powers and from insurgencies within. In the absence of a standing army accountable to “the commander in chief” and the Congress, this was a practical way to protect the new republic.
Today, the American Republic is protected from external enemies by a gigantic arsenal, placed strategically across the globe. Each of the states has its own “well regulated militia,” the National Guard, and numerous intelligence and law-enforcement agencies that identify potential threats to the common welfare from crime syndicates and terrorist networks.
The Second Amendment has outlived its raison d’etre. Worse, it has become a shield for an industry that invokes its original intent, the protection of the common welfare, to attract consumers eager to own its most advanced, glamorous and lethal products.
Instead of asking for divine intervention against our national scourge, we should focus on understanding why the Founding Fathers felt the need for “a well regulated militia” and for citizens bearing arms. Historians who know why and how the American Constitution reads the way it does, and why it can be amended to fit changing times, must take the lead. I wish them Godspeed!