The Constitution is not a Suicide Pact – unless you choose it to be

That construction has several fathers (Jefferson, Lincoln and Justices Jackson, Goldberg, Posner) but I think Jefferson’s is the best for illustration purposes. He wrote this when the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase was questioned (sounds awfully tea party to question the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase doesn’t it?):  

“[a] strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.”

Essentially, while the law is good, if following it would threaten life, liberty and property then choose life (to mix Jefferson and Frankie Goes to Hollywood for the philosophical win!).

The right and left both observe this on different issues.

Regarding the threat of Islamic terrorism the right have gladly thrown the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th & 8th under the constitutional bus.  Overall, as Jon Stewart has illustrated, their dedication to the Bill of Rights seems rather spotty except for the 2nd amendment and the 10th. Pretty sure they’d hate the 3rd too if it was at all relevant.

To be fair to their argument, Islamic terrorists (but not Christianist terrorists, ok, not that fair to their argument) are such a threat (a noun, a verb & 9/11) that almost anything we do to protect the homeland is okay under Jefferson’s construction. And if the individuals in question are not even American citizens, like those under indefinite detention at Gitmo, then what are we even talking about? Lindsay Graham and neo-cons engaged in anti-Islamic jihad will move heaven and earth to prevent any more high body count tragedies like 9/11, or even low body count tragedies like the Boston Marathon.  No American should ever be killed by a Muslim anywhere and we’ll send our armies anywhere to die for that principal.

The left uses the construction to attack adherence to the 2nd amendment, believing generally that even if you don’t believe the entire amendment is an anachronism, the “well regulated militia” part as well as common sense should allow great latitude in gun/firepower control. The 2nd amendment does not allow for limitless availability to ordnance, automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons, military style weapons, teflon coated bullets, high capacity magazines, etc. etc. etc. The protection of life against the criminal and the insane should allow states and localities to decide what gun control provisions make sense to them.

So it’s just a matter of what threat motivates you, gets under your skin, speaks to your fear.

But fear is irrational unless there is concrete threat. Statistics that back up your fear. And the numbers here are not squishy.  


Number of Americans killed in domestic terrorist attacks, 2002-2011: 30. Hey even if you go back a year and include 9/11 it’s still around 3,000. But if you go back to 1980, 1970, it’s still around 3,000. It just doesn’t happen very much and if not for that one day in 2001 it would be such an anomaly that more people drown in the U.S. every year (around 3700) than were killed by terrorists in 40 years.

Number of Americans murdered by firearms, 2000-2011: 115,997.  Since 1980 it’s over 900,000 Americans killed by gun violence.  In 2010 (a typical recent year, unfortunately) there were 31, 672 injuries by firearm, 11,078 murders by firearm, and 19,392 suicides by firearm.

So with the vast disparity in numbers it’s clear what the very serious people who rule us would choose as their priority, right?  It can’t even be close, right? Yeah, no, it’s not. There’s a 1000 – 1 spending gap on terrorism vs. gun violence.  Andrew Cohen, in the Atlantic even before Newtown asked: 

My question now is simple: Why do we spend at least 1,000 times more money protecting ourselves from terrorism than we do protecting ourselves from gun violence? I’m not necessarily suggesting that we spend less on anti-terrorism programs. Like everyone else, I am grateful there have been no mass casualty terror events since 9/11. I’m just wondering, instead, what possible justification there could be for spending so relatively little to try to reduce the casualties of gun violence.

Surely the Second Amendment alone — and the United States Supreme Court’s recent rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago — cannot explain this contrast. Our government has asked us consistently since 9/11 to sacrifice individual liberties and freedom, constitutional rights to privacy for example, in the name of national security. And we have ceded these liberties. Yet that same government in that same time hasn’t asked anyone to sacrifice some Second Amendment rights to help protect innocent victims from gun violence.

Hard to understand why we have such a disparity in our political view of where the danger is. As the Guardian noted:

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on “others” – jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers etc. But the lurking dangers all around us – the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day – these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will. And so the violence goes, with more Americans dying preventable deaths. But hey, look on the bright side – we got those sons of bitches who blew up the marathon.

Like most head scratchers in the political sphere the answer is to follow the money. Nobody ever lost an election by demagoguing against foreign evildoers. While actual safety is not all that motivating a factor to Americans given the real threat of guns, climate change, high fructose corn sugar, ammonium nitrate, etc.  In every case there is a lobby that stands to lose money, whether it’s the defense and security industry, the gun industry, the fossil fuel industry and the corporate food industry.

So I suppose, perhaps naively, that if the money were taken out of politics we would suddenly find our priorities actually making sense. Which is also not rational, but I believe it nevertheless.

2 thoughts on “The Constitution is not a Suicide Pact – unless you choose it to be

  1. I actually believe the 2d amendment should be limited by the reference to the need for a militia and , thus, be irrelevant today, but that argument lost . To be sure, money influences the debate on guns. But beyond that, the issue becomes a proxy for those who resent those perceived as elites . This take on the issue is particularly strong in the South and West , where many believe , with some justification, that NE liberals don’t value guns because they don’t hunt , whereas guns are part of the culture in those regions. Add to that group the recent throngs of anti-government activists, who range from some rational anti- tax folks to lunatics who think they need their guns to shoot down the black helicopters that are coming to get them. The combination of these various groups -and the lobbyists for whom every slope is slippery and for whom money is fuel – constitutes a very potent political force. One could, moreover, argue that tied to the corrosive influence of money is the banality of any one issue group, left or right, because such groups view compromise as defeat.

  2. Firstly, Hey! Thanks for commenting!

    Yeah, the present extreme supreme court ignores “well regulated militia” and is a loser… for now, But even they, in Heller, recognized that some limitations are in society’s interests. If the NRA were even remotely interested in being a responsible party to the debate they’d recognize that and stop lying to the hard core band of gun fetishists they’ve (in)bred. But noooooo!

    The present debate has at least gotten a few people to read the amendment, which is an anachronism. Any change to the constitution seems so ridiculously difficult now, but that can change, it’s up to us. Although I’d start with reanimating the ERA, get women actually on the record finally as having equal rights (and finally bury the moldering corpse of Phyllis Schlafly). Then, with that practice under our belts, get “money is not speech and corporations are not people” ratified. Then bringing the 2nd amendment into the 21st century might be possible. It’ll take time.

    I have always found the argument that “East Coast Elites” need to understand the gun culture particularly infuriating: 1. We’re the ones dying of gun violence and 2. nobody, no elected or unelected official or political party activist of any shape or size has advocated what the NRA is fearmongering about. No one in NY gives any thought at all to a Montanan’s hunting weapons. The idea that we need to “understand” them is so misguided because we simply don’t care if they hunt or not and how many guns they have to do so. Nobody even wants to register long guns. But if they want to claim that they need AR-15s to hunt and that we cannot regulate them the way we do automatic weapons then we have a problem. When they claim that the right to a handgun is unlimited, everywhere, and you can’t limit the types of ammo for sale and you can’t register them and you can’t force people to keep them locked up and unloaded – to protect them! We have a problem. They hide behind their “gun culture” (that, by the way, started on the East Coast, when all of America WAS the East Coast) to protect guns and ammunition that have neither a legitimate hunting purpose nor a legitimate protection from the government purpose either. Any elected official that takes anti-government paranoia seriously should show the guts to forego their government paychecks. I have a blog post somewhere about how the slippery slope is always a bad argument and even more so when it’s about protecting from “Z” when the proposals are still hovering around “A” – there ain’t no slope, slippery or not.

    The NRA is the most pernicious purveyor of lies in a corrupt system of lie purveyors that includes the climate deniers. It’s just about time that they were exposed. Even Alaska is 60% in favor of the expanded background checks. For a lobbying group to keep pushing that rock uphill is going to take more juice than they actually have. They’ve bet that everyone will just go back to sleep for another 20 years, but that ain’t happening. They could choose to be a responsible part of the solution, but they choose to excite their shrinking base of fewer people with more guns – they choose their own bleak future with that kind of thinking.

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