Today, NPR’s relatively new nationally syndicated program 1A (a great breath of fresh air that has replaced the Diane Rehm Show), it thoughtfully explored, ‘Why can’t we talk about guns?’
The thing of it is, though, we can. We the people do. All the time. It just escapes notice of the major media. We do it via our Constitution Cafe and Democracy Cafe inquiries all across the fruited plain.
And we talk to one another about it as equals, thoughtfully, reasonably, respectfully, with a sense of connectedness, even if and as we disagree — a far cry from the pretentious two(or more)-experts-on-a-stage-approach that Ideas Festivals take on this.
At our Constitution Cafes, for instance, as we explore Second Amendment matters, we may well not achieve total common ground over the short haul. But even if the twain does not mean right away, we nonetheless clarify what we’d like a modern-day version of the Second Amendment to look like, so we can then examine how we might bridge ostensibly intractable differences.
Here are two versions that participants have come up with at our Democracy Cafe and Constitution Cafe gatherings across the country (I recently wrote about these projects, in the context of our overarching quest for unrigging and unleashing our entire system of democratic constitutional republican governance, for the San Francisco Chronicle and for Swiss Broadcasting, so we can achieve a far far more perfect union):
- Revised Second Amendment, Version 1: The right of individuals to keep and bear arms on their property shall not be infringed.
Revised Second Amendment, Version 2: Because a well-regulated National Guard and Reserve, and well-regulated federal, state and local public safety departments, are necessary to the security of our free states and of our free nation, the right of citizens, while serving in their capacity in the aforesaid organizations, to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
As you can see, these two proposed revisions to our existing Second Amendment are at least on the face of it diametrically opposed.
But I’ve found there is wiggle room among some of our modern would-be Framers. Ordinary Americans are willing to be far more flexible than those they elect (and those they don’t elect, like the Supreme Court) on this. For instance, a goodly number of those who prefer Version 2 above are open to moving towards a compromise about Version 1, if there is strict clarification of what “on their property” might mean.
Even if they’d prefer a total farewell to the right to bear arms, they are open to confining where arms can be held.
They are ‘Jeffersonian,’ in the sense that what they propose as a compromise — or really, an attainment of higher ground — is in line with what Thomas Jefferson proposed, but failed to bring to fruition, in his time in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Here’s how I put it in my book Constitution Cafe: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution:
When Virginia’s general assembly held a convention in 1776 to write a new constitution, Jefferson proposed an article that granted a universal right to bear arms, rather than limiting this right to those serving in a well-regulated militia, as was the norm with other state constitutions. Jefferson’s proposed article stated that “no man shall be debarred the use of arms” – and he appended in brackets in his final two drafts “within his own lands or tenements,” as if his article might stand a better chance with the legislature if it specified where one might keep and bear arms.
Don B. Kates Jr., a scholar of constitutional and criminal law, argues that Jefferson’s view is based on the tenet that “arming the good citizen minimized the likelihood of violence by deterring the wrongs that would provoke it.” To Jefferson, constitutionally sanctioning the universal right to bear arms would put the gentry on notice that even the poorest citizen had the means to defend himself against encroachments by the powerful. “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” Jefferson told Colonel William Stephens Smith, an American diplomat who would eventually become a Congressman for a district in New York. “Let them take arms.”
Jefferson’s proposed article was defeated. According to Saul Cornell, a professor of history who specializes in the American Revolution, the defeat of the universal right to keep and bear arms on one’s property reflected “a view common among members of Virginia’s gentry elite” “that it was dangerous to arm the ‘rabble.’”
If many of the people today in America had their way, here’s what a new Second Amendment would look like:
Revised Second Amendment (Version 3): The right of individuals to keep and bear arms on their property — their own lands or tenements — shall not be infringed.
A reasonable compromise? It can sometimes take days to achieve something like this, but for Americans like those who take part in our Democracy Cafes and Constitution Cafes who strive to join us in resuscitating the truly American traditions of genuine exploration and inquiry, rather than self-defeating argument and debate, achieving this is highly possible and likely.
Contrary to how they’re too often depicted, most Americans in my experience get that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, one “cannot have his way in all things” when engaged in such democratic deliberations, but must “acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at other times.” Indeed, “(w)ithout this mutual disposition,” Jefferson asserted shortly after he became president — at a time when deep political rifts already were developing among Americans — “we are disjointed individuals, but not a society” if we insist on the ‘my way or the highway’ approach.
Americans today are ready to create an entirely new road, if only given half the chance. Take it from one who has his ear to the ground and his finger on their pulse.