As you no doubt have read, the worst mass shooting by a single gunman in US history happened yesterday in Las Vegas. As of Monday evening, fifty-nine people are dead and 527 are wounded. The killer, according to unnamed officials, had at least twenty rifles in his room, including AR-15-style assault rifles. At least one of his weapons apparently was an automatic. Apparently he purchased at least some of the firearms legally. This is just the latest in a long series of mass gun killings in the United States.
I’m an American, and I support our right to bear arms. My grandfather might have been the only Jewish gunsmith in America. The right to bear arms is one of our distinctive ideas (having long been abandoned in England). It’s still radical to say that the humble street-sweeper who immigrated to the United States without a penny in his pocket has as much right to bear arms as the wealthiest and most elite gentleman. But when I think of the right to bear arms, I think of a hunter and a rifle, a homeowner and a handgun, a target shooter, or a craftsman who enjoyed restoring historic firearms, like my grandfather. But what we see so often these days, and especially yesterday, in light of the Supreme Court’s Heller decision on the individual right to bear arms, is an American gunman with an obscene arsenal that far exceeds in lethality what anyone concerned for the right to bear arms could have imagined before the gunman turned it on his innocent, unarmed fellow citizens. Today we have the right to bear arms on steroids.
As an American, of course I support our right of free speech and the free press. If you have something you want to say, there’s nothing more American than printing up some flyers and handing them out on the sidewalk. There’s nothing more American than talking politics with your neighbors and trying to persuade them of your way of thinking. There’s nothing more American than our great American newspapers. Despite recent rumblings, we don’t have a lot of time for European-style restrictions on even outrageous political speech. But with modern media technology and big money, and with the what we see is enormous distortions in our politics caused by the politicians’ perceived need to cater to the big political spenders who have the power to fund today’s expensive media campaigns. Today we see, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on corporate political spending, the right to free speech on steroids.
Heck, look at what has happened in American football. I like football as much as the next guy (Go Pats!) It’s enormously fun to watch. But today’s players are so much bigger and faster than players in the past that the laws of physics more or less guarantee that when a linebacker puts his head down and makes a big tackle, he’s going to damage his brain in ways that, over the course of a career, can be devastating. Even football is on steroids, and the NFL seems unwilling to tackle the problem honestly.
Across many areas of life, it seems to me that modern technology and modern conditions have made traditional problems much more difficult. I fear that the the main actors in our society—judges and lawyers, politicians, business leaders and labor leaders, journalists and opinion writers, academics, clergy—lack the ability to harmonize our traditions and principles with our needs. If you say, “any talk about how we can construe the First Amendment to allow reasonable limits on big money in politics is un-American,” or “any talk about how we can construe the Second Amendment to allow reasonable limits on automatic and semi-automatic weapons is un-American,” you’re part of the problem. If you say “money in politics should be banned,” or “guns should be banned,” you’re part of the problem. If you’re like me and you say, “surely there is some reasonable way to be faithful to the Bill of Rights and to address the problems we face today,” without a plan to persuade partisans on either extreme, then you’re probably part of the problem, too.