Thom Hartmann has long written and spoken on the topic of guns in the United States, along with many other topics. Of those topics he’s dealt with that I know anything about, I have not always agreed with him on every detail, but on most I’ve found him highly informative and persuasive. His new book, The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment, is possibly the best book I’ve ever seen on its topic, both to read, and to pass along to anyone in the United States, whatever their current opinion on guns and gun laws may be, as well as to share with anyone else on earth who may be trying to understand why the United States seems to be allowing its own ongoing slaughter, with guns the second-leading cause of death among children in the United States.
This book is not ideal for any reader because it pulls punches or obscures difficult truths or goes out of its way to be respectful of sociopathic cultural traits, but rather because it is honest, straightforward, incredibly concise (covering in few pages vastly more than the title suggests), and because what it proposes ought to strike any open-minded person as ridiculously reasonable and easily accepted. This also makes the book nearly as difficult to review as a poem. Rather than just a summary, let me try to convey what strikes me as most significant to add to current public conversation in light of this book and of the responses I’ve been receiving to recent articles I’ve written. If I note below any fact not documented in Hartmann’s book, I’ll cite or link to a source. Otherwise, my source is that book, which cites important studies throughout.
First of all, there’s the scope and uniqueness of the problem. Over 1,000 people have been killed in the United States in mass-shootings over the years. But this pales in comparison with non-mass shootings, which kill about 34,000 per year, two-thirds of those being suicides, a small percentage being accidents, and a smaller percentage being police killings. Roughly twice the number killed are non-fatally (but often horrifically) injured. The direct financial cost of just the deaths, plus the lost productivity, is some $300 billion per year, but there’s no way to put a number on the cultural poison, the fear, the anxiety, the hatred, the bitterness, the distrust, or the shame. None of this exists in a significant way in any other wealthy (I refuse to say “fully developed”) nation, every one of which has long modeled cultural and legislative solutions that would almost certainly save many thousands of lives and radically benefit the United States if only the U.S. Congress were as open to plagiarism as Joe Biden.
Second of all, there’s the question of factors that correlate with and possibly cause mass shootings and non-mass shootings. A primary factor is the number of guns distributed among society, a measure by which the United States dramatically leads the world. (It’s more dramatic even than imprisonment. The United States has 4% of the world’s people and 25% of its prisoners, but 50% of its civilian-owned guns.) Debating which other factors contribute the most to mass shootings is a fine topic, and taboos on which factors can be mentioned should be shattered. But we should remember how the problem of non-mass-shootings dwarfs that of mass shootings, as well as that the factor of availability of guns dwarfs other possibly contributing factors. We should also, I think, call off the search for the one, single contributing factor so important that it makes all other factors cease to exist. Not even the availability of guns does that.
Another primary factor, in a different sense, may be a U.S. cultural understanding of masculinity. While the United States makes guns far more available than other countries do, and more gun deaths result, and while some U.S. states make guns far more available than other U.S. states do, and more gun deaths result in those states, it is not the case that the United States’ population, or that of particular states, is significantly more made up of males. It is, however, the case that virtually all mass-shooters are male, and 85% of suicides are male. It is also demonstrably the case that U.S. popular culture promotes a model of masculinity that glorifies violence. While people often think of legislative solutions as easier than cultural ones, this is not always the case, and one can follow the other. The legislation of rights for gay people has followed the cultural acceptance of those rights more than the reverse. Other countries may, of course, have equally violent or more violent notions of masculinity, but lack the same availability of guns and/or other contributing factors. That does not mean that improving the U.S. cultural model of a male wouldn’t reduce gun deaths.
The reasons I’ve written about mass shooters being disproportionately military veterans (even accounting for gender and age) include the following. Nobody else mentions it, while an endless stream of articles touch on numerous other factors. Even the Parkland young people refuse to acknowledge that their murderous classmate was trained in their cafeteria at the expense of their parents’ taxes. Making people familiar with guns, training them to effectively use guns, and praising them for learning to commit mass shootings and even for committing mass shootings (of the “right people”) is more self-evidently a causal factor in mass shootings than other correlations are. Generating mass shooters at public expense is both more outrageous and more obviously amenable to correction than other possible factors.
As soon as we begin to discuss any two factors in gun deaths, it should become clear that they are not entirely separable from each other. Mass awareness of mass-shootings undoubtedly contributes to non-mass-shootings (which even include shootings of three or fewer random victims). Military veterans have found guns more accessible. The military has made guns more accessible to all, including non-veterans. Military veterans have been exposed to a particularly pro-violence conception of masculinity.
Other factors worth considering, despite their interlocking and possibly relatively minor role, or the relative difficulty of defining their presence (some of which are far more present among mass shooters than is military veteran status) include mental illness, drug use, misogyny, sexual assault, assault, racism, financial insecurity, unhappiness, and of course contributing factors to a culture of violence such as video games, movies, songs, etc. Some of these (such as violent movies) are hard to measure in influence on shooters versus non-shooters. Other factors correlate with each other, leading advocates of attention for one to dismiss another. Many are easily misunderstood or exaggerated. While the most likely description of the next mass shooter would include his being white, whites are not disproportionately mass shooters. While racism has been an explicit motivation of mass shootings, many countries have racism without having mass shootings. Racism may contribute to the acceptance of weak gun laws which in turn contribute to shootings that don’t involve racism directly. Et cetera.
None of these factors works as grounds for bigotry or profiling. The vast, vast majority of people who fit any of the factors are not going to shoot anybody, not even themselves. But some of the factors, or their combination, could help to explain the difference between the United States and other nations. The availability of guns all on its own almost certainly explains much of the difference in gun deaths between the United States and other nations, in the sense that reducing the gun presence in the United States would reduce the gun deaths. But reducing various other factors could also reduce gun deaths with or without reducing gun presence, which is significant in some other countries, even if nowhere near what it is in the United States. The United States is economically the most unequal wealthy country on earth. It fights the most wars. It prescribes and illegally uses the most drugs. Et cetera.
Part of the culture of violent masculinity is the culture of the proliferation of guns, and vice versa. Ending the financial corruption of the U.S. government would probably be enough to significantly restrict the proliferation of guns, but so might ending the cultural acceptance of owning guns (and all types of guns) as a fundamental human right. Ending the corporate monopolization of communications systems might be enough to end the cultural acceptance of the human right to a semi-automatic weapon. Ending the legal acceptance of human rights for corporations might be enough to end both the financial corruption of the U.S. government and the corporate monopolization of the media. There are many ways to tackle what we’re up against. A lot of them could benefit from an historically accurate understanding of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or what I’ve previously called the Wait-Just-A-Goddam-Second Amendment.
This is one of many areas in which Thom Hartmann’s book shines. Hartmann documents overwhelmingly that the thinking behind the Second Amendment, and the original understanding of it, and the general understanding of it until very recently, have had nothing to do with a personal right to own guns. Among the rights that Jefferson, Madison, and others hoped to see in a Bill of Rights was a prohibition on a standing army (as well as a prohibition on corporate monopolies, but that’s another story). The reason that the Constitution limits funding of an army to two years (and limits nothing else in that way) is an intention to avoid a permanent military. The same idea was found explicitly in early drafts of the Second Amendment, as was the right to conscientious objection to military service. The reason that a ban (or virtually a ban) on a standing military and a right to refuse to participate in a military, as well as the subordination of the military to civilian control, were all included in early drafts of the Second Amendment was that the Second Amendment was about exactly what it says it is about, namely a right to form well-regulated militias. The re-writing of the Second Amendment into its final form was driven by the fears of slave owners. The valuing of militias in the first place was driven by the desire to steal land from Native Americans and to maintain slavery.
Last year, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz published a book called Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. In it, she claims that the Bill of Rights was a bill of individual rights, and that it provided the individual right to own guns in plain English, and that doing so (owning guns) was very common at the time. In fact, some colonies had required white men to own guns and to never travel without them. Dunbar-Ortiz associates this position on the Second Amendment and the individual right to own guns with acknowledgement of ugly truths about U.S. history, namely the Second Amendment’s basis in genocide and slavery. But Hartmann and I agree with her on that, as I think anyone who looks honestly at history must. The question is what was meant by the Second Amendment.
We can all, of course, agree that by “arms” this ancient law did not mean semi-automatic weapons. Many of us can probably agree that, no matter what it meant, we ought to be able to create better laws now and cease caring so much what it meant. But did it mean to create a personal right to own an ancient relatively harmless weapon?
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court claimed as much in a 5-4 decision. No U.S. court had claimed that in the previous 230 years. Four justices published a dissent rejecting the claim as nonsense and self-contradictory. The majority argued that “people” in the Second Amendment must mean the same thing as “people” in the First and Fourth Amendments. The minority pointed out that, in fact, the majority intended “people” in the Second Amendment to mean only “law-abiding, responsible citizens,” whereas even felons and irresponsible citizens (and, I would note, non-citizens) can appeal to the First and Fourth Amendments. I would add that “people” shows up in the First Amendment only for the right to assemble, which is done only by multiple people, and in the Fourth Amendment only in discussion of the violation of the rights of “persons” (plural), whereas other amendments refer to individual rights without using the term “people” (the Third Amendment on the “Owner” of a house, the Fifth Amendment on the rights of a “person,” the Sixth Amendment on the rights of “the accused”) but the use of “people” in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with individual rights.
The 2008 Supreme Court majority also invented the idea that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms “to defend hearth and home,” a phrase and concept not documented to have ever entered into any discussion of the Amendment’s creation or ratification.
Equally nonexistent in the creation and ratification of the Bill of Rights is any notion of the need for guns in order to rebel against the government, likewise a modern creation.
So, what, beyond proper understanding of the facts, does Hartmann propose? Well, undoing corporate personhood and money as speech, through a new Supreme Court, new legislation, or Constitutional Amendment. And these two steps: treating semi-automatic weapons like automatics, and regulating gun ownership like car ownership, meaning registration and title, a license one must qualify for, and mandatory liability insurance. How a fact-based analysis can find such proposals unreasonable is beyond me.
And by “fact-based” I mean to include, as Hartmann does, consideration of what other nations on earth have done, rather than engagement in the pretense that all is hypothetical speculation. Australia decided to require a license for a gun, to regulate semi-automatics as tightly as automatics, and to provide amnesty and funds to buy up guns. A hunter in Australia who passes a background test and regularly shows that he or she is using the gun for hunting can still get a gun. That supposedly important need is still completely fulfilled. Yet, in the years just after these laws were created in Australia in 1996, gun deaths dropped by over 40% and suicides by 77%. Who can possibly be against that who hasn’t been paid to be?