The Fingers on the Trigger

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The Fingers on the Trigger

Who is to blame for the epidemic of gun violence in America? (Photo: Elvert Barnes/flickr/cc)

Here we are again.  Another tragedy.  Our souls cry out for justice, in the vain hope of erasing our collective national grief and shame.

In the last decade, there have been 316,545 deaths from gun violence, more than 1,000 times as many as have been caused by terrorism in the same time period.

But who’s crime is it?  The shooter?  Once again, it seems to be another sad and sick individual who had easy access to guns.  He’d apparently sought help from mental health professionals.  He had a history of disturbance.  Just like so may others.

Can we really blame him? No. He is no more guilty than a blind man who’s been given a driver’s license.

This shooter, like those before him, had many accomplices; many other fingers on the trigger. Each bear some of the blame; each must accept the stain on their soul.  

Understanding who these accomplices are is like peeling an onion.  Each layer exposes another party; another level of complicity.  Let’s unpeel this unholy onion.

The Second Amendment is not an impediment to regulating gun ownership: We can start with that fiction about the Second Amendment guaranteeing an individual an unconstrained and inalienable “right to bear arms.” 

For most of our history and through the 20th Century, the introductory clause “A well-regulated militia” was seen by courts to constrain the independent clause “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”  In short, that “right” was contingent on the need to keep a well-regulated militia.

In 2008 that interpretation was shattered by none other the Supreme Court, when Antonia Scalia, writing the majority opinion for District of Columbia v. Heller, maintained that the introductory clause merely announced a purpose, and imposed no constraint on “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Roberts joined Scalia in overturning some 200 years of jurisprudence.  Talk about activist judges!

Linguists dismissed Scalia’s interpretation as nonsense, and legal scholars pointed out that the opinion Scalia wrote was the opposite of  what an originalist – which Scalia claims to be – would conclude.  But it’s not only bad English, it’s bad law, for two reasons. 

First, law is supposed to be defined by previous cases – precedents.  In dismissing the first clause as meaningless, Scalia and his cronies completely disregarded cases such as Miller v. the Untied States (1939) in which the Supreme Court said:

            “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a             [sawed-off] shotgun…has some reasonable relationship to the preservation             or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second             Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”

In another landmark case, Hickman v. Block (1996), which addressed Hickman’s contention that the state had violated his Second Amendment rights when they refused to grant him a concealed carry license, a federal appeals court – basing their decision on a plain reading of the Amendment and the precedent established by Miller v. the United States said:

            Because the Second Amendment guarantees the right of the states to             maintain armed militia, the states alone stand in the position to show legal             injury when this right is infringed.

In short, this decision said that under the Second Amendment only the states could claim injury and seek relief, not individuals.

Scalia’s cavalier dismissal of both linguistic common sense, all but binding legal precedent, and the basis of his own jurisprudence – and the rest of the conservative Justices embrace of it -- ushered in a new and very poorly supported legal interpretation of the Second Amendment. 

But there’s a second reason to suggest that the Court’s interpretation is nonsense.  It presumes that the Second Amendment contained meaningless hortatory language – something that is uncommon in the rest of the Bill of Rights.

So as we peel the onion another layer, we find Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Roberts, Alito and Thomas with their fingers on the trigger of our national disgrace.

Conservative Fear and Hate Mongers

Let’s take a look at the Cato Institute’s role in the Heller decision. Robert Levy, a conservative constitutional lawyer and a senior Fellow at Cato carefully vetted cases and selected and funded the Heller case, with the intent of overturning Washington DC’s strict gun control laws and altering case law to extend coverage of the Second Amendment to individuals.

Cato, but the way, was established by Charles Koch and is funded primarily by the Koch Brothers – who strongly favor limiting government’s ability to regulate … well … anything.

Vetting cases and funding challenges, when you think you have stacked the court with enough activist conservative Justices more interested in political outcomes than consistent jurisprudence for the purpose of getting your own view to prevail, isn’t how the system is suppose to work.

But it’s how the conservative cabal works.  Here again, fanning the flames of hatred, paranoia, greed, jingoism, and bigotry is all part of the conservative playbook designed to keep folks from realizing just how badly the conservatives they’re voting for are screwing them. And eviscerating government so the private sector can run untrammeled over the now powerless people is all part of their plan.

So add the Plutocrats and Oligarchs and the whole Republican clown car and their enablers and hangers on (like Fox News and Sarah Palin, for example) to the list of accomplices.  

Private Profit over Public Interest

Now go to the truly evil core of the issue – the NRA and those in the gun industry who support them.  Selling hate and fear for the purpose of selling guns is their specialty.  So add Wayne Le Pierre, his staff, and those who contribute to this heinous organization to the list of accomplices.

A Special Place In Hell

And now we come to the last layer of the onion.

Dante said there is a special place in Hell reserved for those who do nothing in a time of moral crisis. Edmund Burke said all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

We have men and women in Congress who avert their eyes, and spout empty rhetoric after each mass murder.  A few try to bring Bills to the floor, but most turn  their heads away, and talk about what a “difficult” vote it would be for them. 

Their fingers are on the trigger as surely as the shooters.

But there is one other group – you and I.  We don’t confront this profound evil.  We allow it to become routine, we allow ourselves to become numb to a senseless slaughter of epic proportions.  We sigh and move on.  Yet a majority of us favor background checks, gun registration, bans on assault weapons, bans on high capacity clips, bans on semiautomatic weapons, and bans on the online sale of ammunition. These preferences span both parties and most of the nation geographically.

Until we act on those preferences and make support for insane gun policies political suicide, we, too are enablers, we too, have our fingers on the trigger, and we deserve our own circle in Hell.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and book one of a trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on

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