The Right to Keep and Bear What Arms?

Pistol
Pistol

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. This phenomenon is often referred to as “the tipping point.” It’s probably too early to know for certain, but the wide-spread reactions we are witnessing to the February 14, 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida, may indeed by a sign of a national opinion shift about the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and its unofficial but most vehement advocate, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Of course, the Parkland tragedy was only one in a long list of mass shootings in this country, and gun advocates typically point to almost any other solution than more restrictions on private ownership of firearms. “We should enforce the laws that are already on the books,” they say. However, there are cases where a shooter didn’t break the law until he decided to kill multiple people. I don’t think anyone believes that any action taken now will completely stop mass shootings in America, but can they be decreased? Can the number of casualties be reduced? Is it worth trying to include a discussion about restrictions on types of guns and their capacity? I think so.

We can’t exactly shut down all public events in the country, along with movie theaters, malls, parks, nightclubs, and all other places where people gather. We can hope that there are always good guys with guns around who are better trained than the average law enforcement officer, but how effective will that be against a suicidal maniac who wants to take out as many lives as possible before being taken down or blowing his head off? Let’s make it more difficult for them. Let’s make them choose other weapons that aren’t as efficient in closed spaces, at least. Or, we can just throw up our hands and say that no gun laws will ever slow down the murders. But then we are going to have to explain how stronger gun laws in other countries do impact murder rates.

We can no longer interpret our founding documents, such as the Bill of Rights, as if we were still living in the 18th century. In truth, we have been re-interpreting these documents for over 200 years, and adding to them because they cannot completely address a society that continues to change with every generation with regard to values, beliefs, and technological advancements. I think we can all agree that the weapons available even to the wealthiest nations in the 18th century cannot compare to what the average American can now have in his closet.

Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the 2nd Amendment is not the only one under scrutiny. There are plenty of restrictions on free speech, protected by the 1st Amendment, that we all accept as a society because doing so makes us safer. Those have developed over time and are still in force. Even now there is serious discussion about how electronic communication creates issues that we have never had to address before but probably will, just as we had to do with broadcasting. The result will most likely be more and newer restrictions to free speech. We impose restraints on religious practice too, and for good reason.

Even gun enthusiasts generally agree that fully-automatic weapons don’t belong in the hands of private citizens, and they certainly don’t support individual ownership of advanced weapon systems used by forces around the world. We have a handful of people in this country who are wealthy enough to buy tanks, grenade launchers, and surface-to-air missiles, but no one argues about their right to keep and bear those arms!  Some of our guaranteed rights were never intended to be, nor can they be, absolute rights.

Both 1st and 2nd Amendments are restricted rights. The current debate really comes down to a question of what limitations our society will accept. I have never advocated for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment nor do I, as a gun owner, support taking away all guns from law-abiding, responsible citizens. I hope the country is moving toward finding ways to reduce violence, which may or may not involve more restrictions on firearms. I do maintain that any discussion of reducing violence by people using guns should take into account the type of guns that are made so widely available to individuals.

Schooled by the President

My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch  via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).

The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.

The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.

Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.

On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.

On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

 

President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.

Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.

Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

Pledging Allegiance

I started pledging allegiance to the flag when I was a small child in elementary school, a ritual that I never questioned and that was just as much a part of the daily routine as lunch, recess, and reading from a primer about the riveting adventures of Dick, Jane, and Spot. I can vaguely remember that there were one or two students who were exempt from “saying the pledge,” and we were told that their religion forbade them from participating. At the time, I couldn’t begin to fathom the meaning behind such a religious restriction, having no exposure to any faith traditions outside rural Southern Baptist churches. You can’t get more patriotic than Southern Baptists. I don’t recall reciting the pledge in class when I attended a white-flight, church-sponsored private high school, which strikes me now as most ironic. Maybe we did and I was just too preoccupied with friends, girls, and turbulent hormones to give it any thought at all. Even as young children we could all rattle off the run-on sentence with no regard whatsoever to its intent of inspiring devotion to the homeland. When Francis Bellamy penned the original pledge in 1892, it was generic enough to be adopted by any republic with a flag, not just the United States, and it had no mention of God even though its author was a minister. The pledge was given official recognition by Congress in 1942. The divine creator was inserted in 1954 by a request of President Eisenhower and an act of Congress in reaction to atheism associated with the spread of Communism.

The United States didn’t have an official patriotic song until 1931 when Congress passed a law formally designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Fast forward almost a century and now we find ourselves in a national debate over the proper respect for this song and that waving banner it praises. Of all places, the most high-profile test of true patriotism in this country apparently takes place just before kick-off at televised football games in the National Football League. The suggestion is that respect for a song and respect for the United States are of equal importance. I cannot quite agree with that premise. Should American citizens respect the National Anthem? Perhaps, but I don’t necessarily consider such respect to be a qualification of patriotism. Should they respect the flag? Well, they should be encouraged to respect the flag, although pledging allegiance to it should never be required by law.  Furthermore, I don’t think demonstrations of allegiance to the National Anthem or the American flag should be a requirement of employment either, even for athletes, but that isn’t my decision to make.  Disrespect of the flag is a right protected by our constitutional government and demonstrates the price of democracy and free speech. Without this protection, waving a flag that represents the Confederacy — a failed attempt to disband the government of the United States — would be an illegal act. The mere display of a Confederate flag is a blatant disrespect of the Republic, but we permit it. In certain parts of the country, flying the Confederate flag is encouraged, even by elected officials who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution over and over again. Somehow, this paradox wreaks of hypocrisy to me.

Do we show respect for the country by habitually standing for a song while giving little or no thought to its lyrics? Is there any evidence that daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag by children later produced within their adult hearts and minds some measure of undying loyalty to their country, upstanding moral character, or compliance to the law? I wonder how many people in the stadium seats could actually write the lyrics of the first verse of the National Anthem (much less the other long-forgotten stanzas). I wonder how many Americans think about the fact that this country was not “the land of the free” for over a million people in bondage at the time the song was written. I wonder how many times before April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh stood for the National Anthem and pledged his allegiance to the flag.

Before anyone can honestly be expected to honor the flag, he or she needs to be able to respect the Republic for which it stands. In truth, we all know that recent developments around this issue aren’t really about a 19th-century song or a piece of red, white, and blue cloth. They are just symbols of a collective dream that cannot come true for too many of our citizens who don’t have the privilege afforded those of European descent. Perhaps, some day, when America truly is a unified Republic that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL,” everyone will be proud to pledge allegiance to the flag that waves over a land of free and brave patriots.

Election Obsession

You might have election obsession (with all kinds of apologies to Mr. Foxworthy):

If 9 out of every 10 posts you share on your Facebook page are “breaking news” stories designed to “expose” the “truth” about one of the candidates, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you can’t have a conversation about something as benign as your last vacation without eventually referring to a political party or a candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If your Facebook page has turned into a news feed from sources that have titles including words like liberal, conservative, left, right, progressive, or patriot, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you are convinced that everything that is wrong with America is embodied in one candidate while everything that could be right about the country can be achieved through the efforts of the other candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If photos of candidates show up on your Facebook feed more often than your family members or your pets, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you know more about the personal life and background of a candidate than you do about some of your best friends, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

And finally, if you have contemplated leaving the country if your candidate of choice doesn’t win, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

The Dynamics of Laws

People who break the law are committing a crime, and so by definition, they are criminals. Therefore, people who enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers are illegal immigrants and are criminals. Anyone who doesn’t report income to the IRS is also a criminal. Anyone who downloads commercial, copyrighted music without paying for it is a criminal. Anyone who commits insurance fraud is a criminal. Anyone who engages in insider trading is a criminal. Illegal gamblers are criminals. Most people in the country who smoke or sell marijuana are criminals. People who speed are criminals. Gun laws across the country are routinely ignored, and those who do so are criminals.  Laws are never, absolutely never, static or permanent. They have to evolve with a society. That goes for laws about drugs, guns, speed limits, gambling, prostitution, and yes, immigration.

Should we still have laws in place that make it criminal for a woman to vote in elections? Should Jim Crow laws still be in place to “control” the black population? Laws have changed over and over in our history to reflect how the society evolves. We tend to criminalize activity that isn’t so harmful sometimes while ignoring crimes that are, especially if we consider ourselves “innocent.”

Let’s all pick up some big rocks and throw them at the prostitute and tell Jesus to be quiet. Better yet, let’s try to structure our laws, all of our laws, to reflect how the country works, to protect private property, and to help peaceful people in the U.S. pursue happiness.

How About an Early Election?

Many voting precincts around the country allow people to vote early for elections, which is a dandy idea if you ask me.  I get to avoid a line even if there aren’t any real crowds (sadly), and I take care of my civic responsibility at a time that suits my schedule.  Early voting is a wonderful convenience.  Given the current political climate leading up to what is likely the most controversial and divisive presidential election of my lifetime, I would like to carry the concept one step further.  Let’s get this over with by having an early election.  If social media is any indication of the current volatility of emotion and anxiety surrounding the election, we need to blow the lid off this pressure cooker as soon as possible.  Is there really anybody left out there who hasn’t made a decision about the candidates?

If we’re honest with each other and ourselves, which hardly ever happens on social media, we know that what we all do is accentuate the negative news about the candidate we oppose and ignore the damning news about the one we support. After a while, most of the “breaking news” about the candidates just becomes sound and fury, signifying nothing. The latest scandal is just another bug on the windshield — hit the spray switch and the wipers and in a few seconds it’s gone. It doesn’t change the course, it certainly doesn’t change anybody’s mind, and it doesn’t get us any closer to being one nation indivisible.

Members of Congress will continue to thwart the efforts of the President no matter who wins the White House, and the President will continue to use executive orders and other powers to bypass Congress. With this model now firmly established in Washington, the federal government will get very little good work accomplished, which for some of the remnants of the Tea Party, will be just fine. The chances of the federal government shrinking any time soon are practically nonexistent, so the next best thing for the anti-government crowd is for the train to stall on the tracks. Of course, that means that horrible abuses of the system and wasteful spending of tax money will continue to escalate, and both of the controlling parties are equally out of control with spending.

I don’t know what it will take for Americans to overcome their deep differences. We may be too far gone. Even an attack on our own soil only produces a temporary and superficial sense of unity that is quickly forgotten when the partisan rhetoric machine cranks up again. I certainly don’t hold out any hope that Trump, Clinton, or Johnson will be able to bring the nation together. If the model of Darwinian evolution’s survival of the fittest can be applied to the U.S., perhaps we simply aren’t the fittest.