I’m not going to try to make sense of the latest episode of homicidal violence that took place yesterday in Moneta, Virginia. Nor am I going to use this tragedy as an example of the consequences of lax gun laws. I don’t know if tighter gun control measures could have prevented this most recent slaying. Frankly, this kind of shit has happened so often over the last decade-and-change that you could probably find a case to support whatever conclusion you wish to draw.
What I would like to do is conduct a thought experiment, to think outside the realms of what is and step into the less familiar territory of what could be.
A thought experiment produces no empirical data. Its cerebral laboratory exists outside the realms of reality because the conclusions it produces are often unrealizable. Nevertheless, the results can help us to gain insights that reality itself cannot provide, insights that allow us to act on and alter that reality despite the fact that they are not derived from it.
My thought experiment involves the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution, perhaps more widely recognized as “the right to bear arms.” This amendment not only influences our country’s legislation regarding guns and gun control, but more importantly the way we think about guns. In this country, gun ownership is a right, a right won through a revolutionary struggle in which everyday men took up arms against tyranny and blasted their way to freedom. With this historic backdrop, owning a gun has become not only the exercise of a constitutional right, but an act of the highest patriotism—it is what Americans do to show how American they are. Even if gun ownership is not high on your own list of American values, there is no doubt that there are many Americans for whom it is, and not all of them live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
But this is where the thought experiment begins: What if the Constitution was silent on guns? What if gun ownership wasn’t a constitutional right? What if, instead, it was more of a privilege?
I’m sure there are many who think that gun ownership is already far too representative of a privilege. There are, after all, regulations. No matter what the Constitution says, you cannot buy a gun if you’re a felon or a toddler.
However, regulations aside, the constitutional language of “right” has produced stark differences in all things firearm related between the U.S. and other nations. This includes gun control legislation, general attitudes towards guns, and gun-related behaviors.
But if gun ownership was and had always been an earned and regulated privilege rather than being viewed as an irrefutable right, would the romantic attitudes so many Americans hold towards guns still exist?
My guess is probably not. Gun ownership might still be a privilege that some people would value, but not something as visceral as it is for so many Americans today. Hunting may still be a popular pastime, especially in heavily forested places like my home state of Minnesota, but I do not think it would be farfetched to say that a vast reduction could be expected in the number of machine gun enthusiasts. I also imagine seeing far less signs in the windows of shops and stores that explicitly prohibit firearms and weaponry. In this hypothetical world, such signs would not be necessary, as people would likely not see the need to pack heat when leaving the house to pick up a gallon of milk. And of course, there would be far less guns, which would presumably lead to far less gun deaths.
But let’s take that thought experiment a step further: what if the 2nd Amendment was not eliminated, but replaced? What if rather than “the right to bear arms” the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution read something like “the right to be cared for when sick.” I know that for some even the idea of altering the sacred words of the Constitution is borderline sacrilegious, but the document is a human creation, worthy of both praise and criticism. It is a document that is simultaneously admirable and flawed, just like the men who wrote it. So really, the idea that the Constitution could have been, or could be different if we really wanted to change it, is not that crazy at all.
Back to the thought experiment: As an amendment, we could assume that the right to be cared for when sick, or in other words, the right to free healthcare, would be defended as vehemently as other constitutional freedoms, the same way proponents of the 2nd Amendment vehemently defend the right to bear arms today. The idea that the government could interfere with this constitutional right would be met with indignation. Illness is something that befalls us all. It is our responsibility, society’s responsibility, the government’s responsibility to care for others when illness befalls them, and it is our right to be cared for when illness befalls us. If the government were to infringe on this right by faulting on its responsibility, it would be met with uprisings and protests that would make the likes of Cliven Bundy blush.
Of course this is not the reality. Gun control and single-payer activists are viewed more as evil to be eviscerated than constitutional crusaders. In the real world, even the lightest gun control measures or the most watered-down attempts at healthcare reform are met with fervent resistance, spearheaded by those who claim to be defending that which makes America great.
But what are the results of the thought experiment? That depends on the brain that you conduct it in. It depends on your beliefs and values, on how you see the world, on your interpretations and misconceptions. You may think that more gun control will lead to an Obama-led government assault on our remaining civil liberties, or that free government healthcare is the first step in our transformation into the 21st century version of Communist Russia. But when I conducted the experiment in my brain, the only results I found were a lot less bodies in our hospitals and cemeteries.