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A self-described “Blue-Dog” Democrat, Arizona’s “Gabby” Giffords likely did not know her assailant, nor, ironically, that in 2007, she had written him, as one of her constituents in the state’s 8th Congressional District, a thank you letter for attending one of her events. The ironies here abound: At Sarah Palin’s Political Action Committee(PAC)site, a 2010 map that targeted twenty Democratic Congressmen and women, who supported health care reform, then making its way to ratification, showed Arizona scored with three crosshair configurations (or were they “merely” a surveyor’s symbol, someone inquired), one of them poised over Representative Giffords’s Congressional District.
The historic bill passed the House on a Sunday evening in late March, and shortly after that, the Congresswoman, who supported the reform, was one of ten Democratic lawmakers from different parts of the country who had their offices vandalized. In her case, the front door of her Arizona office was shattered. As a Democratic centrist, Giffords deplored the map at Palin’s site and said it at least twice during interviews with MSNBC hosts. But I suspect that even she would have found it hard to believe that the PAC site and the shattered office door were only the beginning of a nightmare.
By hindsight, we read these events as sporadic flashpoints burning steadily toward the moment of explosion: 1) someone conceptualizes and stylizes a map of the United States, then publishes it in part as a lure to raise money—a symbolic act; 2) someone or someones smash in a door, just a matter of feet away from a standing flag of the United States—the materialization of an implicit threat—and this past Saturday, 3) someone in the city of Tucson picks up an assault weapon and fires a bullet along the left side of Gabrielle Giffords’s head, killing and wounding many others at the same time—an implicit threat translated into flesh. That this enormous fatality occurred eight days into a new year is tantamount to an act of execration.
Today, Congresswoman Giffords is under intensive care at the University of Arizona Medical Center, as her doctors are “cautiously optimistic” that this third day of her severe brain trauma is going fairly well. The nation’s thoughts turn to Arizona once more, as we join Tamura Lomax and Monica Casper at this site in extending prayers and best wishes for the Congresswoman and others of our fellow citizens of Arizona who lost their lives on 8 January and those they leave behind. That prayerful vigil is necessarily shadowed, however, perhaps even shortened, by another thought entirely—over and over and over again, we find ourselves reduced to grief in the “debate” on gun violence that we apparently cannot sustain; if we love our children as much as we say we do, if we honor the Divine Will with as much intensity as we declare, then why (in His Name) do we tolerate such levels of hatred and violence that so plague the country? It has been said that guns kill people; people don’t! But such reasoning is specious and hateful. Guns are not invested with will power, as we know, but people certainly are.
The constitutional question in this case is far more complex than an iron-clad, simple-minded, constitution-pious reading of the Second Amendment would permit. Constitutional scholar and Yale law professor, Akhil Amar1 points to the ill-fit between the two subject-nouns of this incredible, riddling simple sentence as crucial to an understanding of the Amendment’s thick and layered history: “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.” (Amar, 491) When the Framers spoke of the “people,” Amar reminds us, the core of their concern was a political one—the body of public citizens “meeting together in conventions and acting in concert, not as private individuals pursuing their respective hobbies.” (324)
Amar contends that the Founding history of the country “confirms a republican reading of the Second Amendment,” in which case the bearing of arms and references to the militia are usually negotiated and find their meaning in proximity to “rules governing standing armies, troop quartering, martial law, and civilian supremacy.” (324) To read gun-bearing today in its eighteenth-century context, then, as an individual right of private persons essentially privatizes “what is an inherently collective and political right.” (325) A subtle shift in the meaning of the Second Amendment, or we might say the next chapter in its narrative emplotment, occurs after the Civil War in the “transformation of a Founding-era political right into a Reconstruction-era civil right. . . .” (391) In the triumphant restitution of Federalism, conduced by the victory of the Union Army, laws having to do with ” ‘personal liberty,’ ” as well as ” ‘personal security’, …including the constitutional right to bear arms, shall be secured to and enjoyed by all the citizens.” (391;emphasis Amar)
If we think of the Second Amendment as an unfolding series of histories and historicities, its fates and its readings, then we have reached quite another phase of it today in connection with our historical apprenticeship in the life-world of the United States, as we must now strive to bring our current condition to bear in understanding the uses of the Amendment in a country of three hundred million souls (and counting), easy access to guns and a successful propaganda campaign to promote gun culture since the late sixties, as well as a completely destabilized culture, brought on by economic inequities and the collapse of America’s industrial base. Misconstruing “ ‘Militia’ and ‘people’ by imposing twentieth- and twenty-first century definitions on an eighteenth-century text,” (323) “individual-rightists” to gun carrying, especially the National Rifle Association, have simply tied us up in knots and expose us daily, and by the thousands, to the ineluctable regimes of gun violence.
But perhaps the time has come for Americans to stop “hating” Washington and start making actual demands on themselves and their politicians, short of shooting them in the head. The demands would equally apply to women politicians, some of whom appear to think that talking tough is somehow cute. It isn’t. For the Sarah Palins and the Sharron Angles, and the Michele Bachmanns, it is past time that they “woman” up and set an example for the little girls who will soon come of age and help run things. One who might have been among them—9-year old Christina Green, born 11 September 2001—was killed on Saturday.