Don’t Let Judges Use ‘History’ to Erode Our Rights

In two controversial decisions this week, the Supreme Court turned to history to justify the political views of an emboldened conservative majority. With haughty condescension, the majority concluded that a New York State law regulating firearm use was unconstitutional because it limited the right to bear arms in ways inconsistent with the Second Amendment and the “traditions and history” of the United States. As historians have shown for the last several years, this is nonsense. Saul Cornell puts it this way: The “historical record not only demonstrates that arms have been closely regulated when carried in dense and populous areas for more than 700 years, and it showed that New York’s own law was part of a constitutional transformation in gun regulation during the era of the 14th Amendment that swept across the nation.” The Supreme Court used a selective reading of history to support a particular strand of gun culture ideology. As a result, public safety will be undermined.

If the perversion of history to justify contemporary tastes in gun ownership wasn’t egregious enough, the decision striking down Roe doubled down on making the past speak the language of a minority of right-wing, religious ideologues. Women will no longer have a right to terminate a pregnancy because such a right is not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Only such rights will be protected. Who gets to decide which ones count? Apparently, it will be the ideologues whose selective reading of the past, public safety and ethics will enable them to find in history whatever they need to justify their current positions. As Wesleyan Professor Victoria Pitts-Taylor has said: “This decision comes after years of assaults on abortion rights that have eroded access to abortion care across the nation. Even so, it is a devastating ruling, one that invites further attacks on reproductive autonomy and will hit the most vulnerable women and girls and their communities the hardest.” No matter that previous Justices, many appointed by Republican presidents, found that a woman should be able to make her own health care decisions. Linda Greenhouse concludes: “In asserting that these justices led the court into grave error from which it must now be rescued, Justice Alito and his majority are necessarily saying that these predecessors, joining the court over a period of four decades, didn’t know enough, or care enough, to use the right methodology and reach the right decision. The arrogance and unapologetic nature of the opinion are breathtaking.”

Breathtaking indeed. We must counter this arrogance with historical research and political organizing. We can recognize the complexities of the debates around abortion and still support a woman’s right to choose her own medical care. We can recognize traditions of gun ownership while also showing the deep history of gun regulation. We are fortunate in Connecticut to have government officials who support common sense legislation about gun safety and who defend a woman’s right to choose the kind of medical care, and the kind of life, she wants for herself. At Wesleyan, we have sponsored research and teaching on gun safety, and many students, faculty and staff have participated in the Doula Project to support women in the process of choosing the health care that is appropriate for them.

We learned this week how fragile our public safety and our rights are. Wherever you stand on these issues, make your voices heard so that they will not be drowned out by unaccountable, ideologically driven judges.

We Don’t Have to Live This Way (2)

It’s Commencement season, and in speech after speech graduates are told that they can change the world, that they can carve their own paths, that their generation will address the massive problems left to them by others. As educators, we want our students to feel hopeful and creative — not complacent or fatalistic.

But it’s also another season of mass shootings. Another season of hearing “there is nothing we can do” because of our Constitution, our politicians and the lobbyists who rule them.

You’ve seen the statistics. The United States has about 5% of the world’s population and roughly 40% of the world’s mass shootings. Across the nation, there are more firearms in the land than there are people to fire them. In every country there is mental illness, alienation, resentment, racism, antisemitism and rage. Only in our country are these things combined with easy access to guns. There are murderous impulses everywhere, but only here are they so easily attached to weapons with gross lethality. “It’s precisely because they cannot legislate murder out of the human heart,” David Frum has underscored, “that civilized societies regulate the instruments of murder in human hands.”

But contrary to the messages we give our students, we hear again and again that efforts at common sense reforms are “a non-starter.” This fatalism can be self-fulfilling, but happily there are now signs from Congress that some significant steps toward gun safety may become law. We must keep the pressure on legislators to make a serious gun safety bill law.

Our Commencement messages should ring true. We don’t have to live this way. America has faced daunting and deadly challenges in the past, and we have enacted laws and regulations in response. Not that long ago, people smoked in trains, movie theaters, classrooms and everywhere else. When smoking bans were being considered, there were protests about personal liberty.  No smoking in restaurants? People shouted, “it couldn’t be done – not in our culture!” Folks were so certain that New Yorkers, for example, would never accept being prohibited from smoking in bars. But research about tobacco smoke was clear, and regulations were passed in New York and all over the country.

Going further back a few decades, there were several cities that were so choked by pollution that cars, buildings and clothing were quickly covered in grime. Lungs, too. It was easy to be fatalistic and assume the air couldn’t be changed. But that was wrong. Research on pollution helped show how to remove from the atmosphere the poison folks thought it was necessary to breathe. Pittsburgh is a great example of a city whose air quality many thought impossible to change. It was Pittsburgh. They were wrong. New laws curtailed the right to pollute, creating a city safer for everyone. There is still pollution, of course, but we didn’t let fatalism prevent us from making things better.

These public health efforts were resisted at every turn by special interests determined to protect their profits. Tobacco companies and industrial polluters hijacked the language of liberty to defend their right to inflict massive harm. But in the end, scientific research showed how we could clean up our public spaces, and that we could do so without destroying freedom or economic development. Breathing in America became safer, and universities helped make that happen.

Today, guns are making Americans unsafe, and once again we hear the claim that there is nothing we can do. The gun lobby has in the past succeeded in blocking research that might show there are regulations that would make our communities safer. Once again, we hear the defense of personal freedom even as racist extremists target black communities, even as children and their teachers are gunned down by people who could have been prevented from having easy access to massively murderous weapons. Some business leaders stepped up after the Parkland school shootings, and they are being urged to do so again. Special interests encourage complacency. As Michael Tomasky underscores, gun violence “is happening, over and over, because certain people who very obviously have the power to try to stop it are refusing to do so and letting it happen.”

In Texas, “letting it happen” is too weak an expression for its government’s abetting of gun violence. According to the state’s Attorney General, public universities would “exceed their authority” if they prohibit concealed handguns on campus. Professors would be “exceeding their authority” if they forbade students from packing heat in their classrooms.

We don’t have to live this way. When confronted with overwhelming pollution, researchers showed how this was cutting lives short and how we could start cleaning up the atmosphere. Scientists at universities showed skeptics (some of whom were funded by tobacco companies) that second-hand smoke kills, and then public policy researchers showed how common-sense regulations could reduce the lethal affects that someone’s “freedom to smoke” had on others.

Now, universities should double down on research on guns as a public health issue – an issue we can address. We already know from historical scholarship,  that gun regulations go way back to colonial times in North America and beyond that to English common law. We know that the weapons that the framers of the constitution had in mind when thinking of “well-ordered militias” have little in common with the lethality of today’s killing machines. We know that the risk of suicide is magnified because of easy access to guns. Scholars at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, DukeWesleyan and the University of Wyoming are already working on these matters and we need more research on the effectiveness of age restrictions and the potential for “smart guns.” Research and public policy development are key, and universities should do their part. Universities should address guns as a public health issue energetically, just as they have with the work on vaccines, genomics, or….weapons development. 

We don’t have to live this way. We know how to create regulations that reduce risk. This is not a call for banning guns; it is a call for universities to use their resources to target the most pressing public health issues created by open access to massive lethality. “Helplessness,” Jay Caspian King underscored, “is the sense that we will keep reliving the brutality of history over and over again.”  But we are not helpless. We showed we could significantly reduce pollution, and we showed we could change personal habits embedded in culture and even addiction. University sponsored research can help us reduce the risks of gun violence.

We all should have learned in the last two years that fatalism is deadly. In concert with a variety of institutions, universities must support research that will contribute to the crafting of regulations to clean up this horrid, heartbreaking mess.


Nothing Inevitable about Latest Tragedy

Last night the country was again shocked to learn of yet another mass killing. Even churches provide no sanctuary against people filled with hate who have access to deadly force. While the pace of American mass murder has increased, the political energy to do something about gun safety is harder to detect than ever. At Wesleyan within recent weeks, we heard from a variety of scholars about the history of guns in America, and we learned that a large majority of our fellow citizens favor regulations to promote gun safety. There is nothing, nothing inevitable about our rash of killing. Again, I quote from a statement from Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy:

“The paralysis you feel right now — the impotent helplessness that washes over you as news of another mass slaughter scrolls across the television screen — isn’t real. It’s a fiction created and methodically cultivated by the gun lobby, designed to assure that no laws are passed to make America safer, because those laws would cut into their profits. My heart sunk to the pit of my stomach, once again, when I heard of today’s shooting in Texas. My heart dropped further when I thought about the growing macabre club of families in Las Vegas and Orlando and Charleston and Newtown, who have to relive their own day of horror every time another mass killing occurs.

“None of this is inevitable. I know this because no other country endures this pace of mass carnage like America. It is uniquely and tragically American. As long as our nation chooses to flood the county with dangerous weapons and consciously let those weapons fall into the hands of dangerous people, these killings will not abate.

“As my colleagues go to sleep tonight, they need to think about whether the political support of the gun industry is worth the blood that flows endlessly onto the floors of American churches, elementary schools, movie theaters, and city streets. Ask yourself — how can you claim that you respect human life while choosing fealty to weapons-makers over support for measures favored by the vast majority of your constituents.

“My heart breaks for Sutherland Springs. Just like it still does for Las Vegas. And Orlando. And Charleston. And Aurora. And Blacksburg. And Newtown. Just like it does every night for Chicago. And New Orleans. And Baltimore. And Bridgeport. The terrifying fact is that no one is safe so long as Congress chooses to do absolutely nothing in the face of this epidemic. The time is now for Congress to shed its cowardly cover and do something.”