In a galaxy far away and at some far distant time, historians contemplating a place called America on the planet Earth may find an astonishing mix of contrasts, where the most benign activities were strictly regulated while those with a potentially deadly outcome were treated as a sacred right. They might wonder about a society that required its citizens to license their dogs, their fishing access, the automobiles they drove and the peddlers they patronized, but resisted almost any effort to control the manufacture, sale and distribution of lethal firearms.
How strange was this culture that worshipped the gun and held the right to brandish it inviolate, even in the face of mounting examples of its indisputable contribution to senseless violence?
Equally astounding, they might find, was the fact that this idolatry of the firearm was based on the interpretation of a constitutional amendment written by men who had no concept of what the future might bring in the development and power of these objects, which, at the time of the decision to incorporate their protection in the nation's guide for a democracy, were still primitive one-shot affairs needed to supply food and form protective militias in a wilderness with little or no standing army.
Neither did the framers of this policy, the historians might agree, have the prescience to envision that the wilderness ultimately would become a sprawling urban domain where people lived within a few feet of one another, thereby increasing the destructive potential of unregulated weapons that could fire multiple rounds into soft tissue and bone at a rapid pace. Could they have known that at one point a mental defective would use one of these efficient instruments of death to mow down little children and their teachers studying in peaceful bliss, while others would shoot up a movie theater or kill citizens listening to their legislative representative in a shopping mall or plot to destroy their fellow high-school students, and on and on, all of which could have been prevented?
How could these future historians begin to understand that even in the face of such overwhelming tragedy, adoption of the simplest measure to bring order out of the chaos would be met with legislative irresponsibility, that lawmakers fearing for their jobs would even consider voting against a law to help keep these weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of maniacs and criminals?
They could only marvel at the fact that this intransigence by lawmakers persisted, despite national polls showing that a clear majority of citizens overwhelmingly supported the concept of universal background checks for those purchasing firearms. Never mind that anything stronger -- like banning the sale of weapons originally designed for the battlefield or limiting the amount of bullets in a clip -- were nonstarters in this American era of death and destruction. This one chance to take a small step toward sanity was met with fierce opposition.
There was a chance these historians would find that common sense did prevail, at least for a short time, in the upper house of Congress called the Senate. But irrationality and self-service won the day, even on the weakest of measures once thought to have the best chance to pass. That requirement for expanded background checks was given the boot, along with more severe restrictions. As the Senate closed this chapter of the debate, it was clear that threats against re-election carried the day. It turned out the lawmakers were truly owned by the gun lobby, not by those who sent them to Congress.
Those reviewing us from afar, even eons after the fact, might just determine that -- despite the promise of a better life and huge achievements toward that goal -- Americans in the end were undone by a handful of founders who almost 226 years earlier managed somehow, innocently enough, to sow the seeds of mass destruction that ended the great democratic experiment.
They called it the Second Amendment. It has been misinterpreted ever since, most emphatically in 2008 in a 5-4 decision by the highest court in the land, which gave preference to individual gun rights rather than to the collective. Those five justices apparently take no responsibility for the mischief the ruling has caused.opinion_commentary
Dan K. Thomasson is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (firstname.lastname@example.org.)