Blog | Tuesday, March 22, 2016

People and arms, rights, and reason

Scientists at the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC just published a research letter in JAMA, reporting on a comparison of life expectancy at birth in the U.S. to peer countries, mostly in Western Europe. The U.S. lags behind many, and these researchers analyzed causes of death to explain why. Their data suggest that 3 factors are responsible for denying Americans the full measure of life enjoyed by our European counterparts: car crashes, drug abuse and poisonings, and firearms. Guns made the largest contribution of the 3.

If we were prone to value epidemiology over ideology, that might be a basis for action. As is, any meaningful response is very much in doubt.

Personally, I don't believe that the gun troubles in this country owe all that much to ideology. The ideologues who think they are doing us all a favor defending us and our liberty by hoarding weapons on their ranch in Idaho against the advent of our government running tyrannically amok are not the real concern. At the population level, they are a rounding error. There are other errors related to their thinking, from my perspective, but propriety dissuades me from noting them here.

The main argument is not between dueling sets of idealists, or ideologues. The main argument has little to do with ideology, or idealism. Rather, and inevitably, it has much to do with money. The NRA may cater to idealists, but it is run by devout capitalists.

Looking at NRA-related exchanges over a span of years, I am induced to think of other mighty, self-perpetuating institutions, like the hierarchy attached to any given religion. There are foot soldiers with genuine zeal, but those wielding the real power are much harder to gauge. Some may be true believers, but we have ample to cause to think that many may not.

Guns and bullets represent money, lots of money. Frankly, I think that's what our societal impasse is all about.

Those who want to assault my gun control advocacy as an expression of gullible trust in our government can't assign my distrust of the gun industry's motives to cynicism. There's no such thing as a gullible cynic. It's oxymoronic, give or take the oxy. Gullibility means trusting those you should not; cynicism means doubting everyone.

Sadly, I think I am more cynic than rube. Life has taught me to be less trusting than I would like to be. An excess of trust, in the government or anything, does not tend to be my problem.

I don't trust the gun industry. I think they are using the Second Amendment as a smoke screen, behind which lots of money is changing hands.

But let's pretend that's not the case. Let's pretend this is really a battle of ideals, or ideologies. I think we are getting it wrong even so.

The Second Amendment refers to people, and arms. It does not specify who is meant by the former, or what is meant by the latter.

In other words, no matter how we sanctify the sage counsel of our Founders, we are obligated to interpret it. There is no alternative.

Clearly, we don't take the Second Amendment to mean that the people have a right to nuclear launch codes, or even lesser, private caches of nuclear weapons. Clearly, we don't take the Second Amendment to mean that the people should be allowed to stockpile smallpox in their basements. We have arms the Founders likely never dreamed of, but either way, we are obligated to interpret “arms.”

We are no less obligated to interpret “people.” Surely, although they are people, the right does not extend to inmates in our prisons. Surely it does not extend to any given kindergartner on a playground, or their younger sibling in a crib. Surely, it does not extend to psychiatric in-patients.

But the Second Amendment specifies no such exceptions. These are all people, clearly, and thus part of “the people.” And so, arguably, the right in question extends to them all. Yet, we seem to have decided otherwise. Are we defying the Founders?

That we have decided anything at all, about people or arms, is telling. It tells us that we can't call this all the wisdom of the Founders, and punt. We are interpreting the applications of the Founders to our 21st century reality.

And so it is that the gun debate in America is well advised by an adage from our English progenitors: in for a penny, in for a pound. If the responsibility to interpret the words of the Founders resides with us, even a little, then what we do is not just a product of the Founders' brilliance. It is also a product of our own muddling efforts to interpret, and apply.

The interpretation with which we advocates of gun control are throttled, or shot perhaps, is that the Founders said just what they meant, and there is no counter argument. We should shut up, accordingly.

But that is, in a word, rubbish. They just said “people,” and “arms.” Our interpretations of both are on flagrant display. That we need to interpret is not theoretical; it's a done deal.

All that leaves for us to debate, and determine, is: interpret, based on what? If not all conceivable arms for all people all the time, then what restrictions?

I won't attempt to answer the question here. For one thing, there is no need. The validity of the question is the intended provocation. For another, I have painted a sufficiently bold bullseye on myself already, with predictable effects. But most importantly, I don't know the answer, and no one person does. It should best be based on data, such as the recent assessment in JAMA, and adjudicated by good people spanning the ideological spectrum who are actually willing to work hard, and listen to one another.

What that new analysis suggests is that our current interpretation of which arms for what people is costing us dearly, in the treasure of young people's lives. That seems an invitation to bridge the partisan divide and debate our way to a better interpretation. Instead, the Second Amendment is itself brandished like a loaded gun, and the very idea of interpretation is shot down. But as noted, that part is neither optional nor debatable. We are already interpreting. All that remains is to do so rationally, or irrationally.

Yes, we, the people, have the right to bear arms. But what that means in the real world is that it isn't just rights that reside with us. It is responsibility, too. It is the application of reason.

We may thank our Founders for the wisdom to impart to us Americans certain inalienable rights. We must acknowledge, however, that the renunciation of reason, the denunciation of sense, and the abdication of responsibility for our misapplications of their wisdom are certainly not among them.

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.