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The Right to Bare Teeth

Daniel Lazare's essay calling for an overhaul of the Constitution to curb gun-related violence ["Your Constitution Is Killing You," October] is a welcome addition to thoughtful debate over gun control, but he stumbles into the National Rifle Association's most successful trap. Not once does Lazare point out that, contrary to popular conception, nowhere in the Second Amendment is the word "gun" mentioned or that the amendment never addresses magazine capacities, barrel calibers, or firing rates. Although the meaning of "arms" has changed little in two centuries, the scope of the definition has expanded far beyond anything the Framers could have imagined. As written, the amendment allows private ownership of machine guns, antiaircraft missiles, hand grenades, nuclear bombs, and nerve gas. Civilian possession of these weapons is banned, yet this has hardly caused a constitutional crisis.

In reality the Second Amendment was overturned, shredded, and trampled long ago. The gun lobby claims to uphold a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment, but it does nothing of the kind. A true believer in that sacred amendment can take one of only two positions: a) the right to bear arms applies to every conceivable weapon, or b) the definition of "arms" must be restricted to weapons that the Framers knew about--muskets, muzzle-loading pistols, and swords.

"Why must Americans remain slaves to the past?" Lazare asks. The answer has nothing to do with the Constitution; it is only our failure to think critically that keeps us enslaved to the self-interested interpretation of a narrow minority.
Peter Gray

"Americans tend to give history short shrift," Daniel Lazare writes. Unfortunately, he proves the assertion by ignoring history himself. Attempting to show that the Second Amendment does indeed guarantee the right to bear arms of an individual (as opposed to the people in general, when gathered in an organized militia), Lazare trots out an eclectic array of witnesses: Englishmen Sir Walter Raleigh and James Burgh, and the pro-American English radical Richard Price, to name a few. But the world of frontier colonists armed to the teeth is simply fantasy. After an exhaustive study, historian Michael A. Bellesiles found that before the Civil War almost no Americans had guns. If anything, the Second Amendment was added to the Constitution for fear that a popularly based military force would dwindle away for a lack of interest and a lack of guns. At the time of the Revolution, fewer than 15 percent of Americans had firearms--and more than half of those weapons were unworkable. After independence, state legislatures had to pass laws forbidding the mockery of the militia on the annual muster day. Samuel Colt faced bankruptcy because no one wanted his revolver. Even hunting was considered a European aristocratic affectation. The Civil War changed everything, arming the populace and creating the weapons-rich society we have today.
T. J. Stiles
New York City

Although it was refreshing to see a writer acknowledge in a mainstream magazine that the Second Amendment establishes the personal right of gun ownership (a position usually dismissed as the ranting of a "gun nut"), Daniel Lazare's argument that we no longer need guns to protect us from tyranny is ridiculous. Past issues of Harper's have featured articles about police brutality, the secret irradiation of medical patients by the military, the growth of the "corrections" segment of the U.S. economy, and the attempt by the U.S. government to restrict the use of encryption. Before Lazare gets too complacent, he should take a look around, at other countries and our own, not to mention the very magazine for which he writes.
Jim Showalter
Los Gatos, Calif.

Daniel Lazare tells us that our Constitution is killing us, but the truth is that our entire past is. Along with the Second Amendment's failure to presage our murderous gun culture, could the best of eighteenth-century political and social science be said to account for any of our twentieth-century life-changing revolutions? Genetic engineering is challenging the spiritual myth of life itself. Instant global communication puts into question the viability of discrete nation-states. When the Framers took their first peek at the Industrial Revolution, could they have intuited the full impact of global blunt-force capitalism on the spirit of mankind?

The gangrenous public debate on guns, crime, violence, abortion, free trade, and more is an endless comparison of what is to what was. Americans have blindly embraced the decaying wisdom of the long dead with wistful metaphors of gutsy pioneers and bigger-than-life Founding Fathers. If we wouldn't stake our lives on eighteenth-century medicine, under what leap of faith do we trust 200-year-old social science to shape our daily lives?
Mark Deneen
San Francisco

I don't believe the Constitution is perfect, but I wonder whom Lazare would choose to write the revision? Scholar statesmen employed by which think tank, funded by which foundation, or endowed by which corporation?
Dave Sams
Fort Myers, Fla.

Daniel Lazare gives a brief history of the "popular" militia, but my understanding is ti-tat militias were typically composed of wealthy, white landowners. The "weaker sex" and the oppressed didn't own firearms. In 1999 the availability of handguns is the great equalizer. My handguns ease my mind. I don't worry about the testosterone-hulking fiend who wants to rape, sodomize, or mutilate me. My Smith & Wesson protects me better than the Constitution, especially since women weren't even acknowledged in that fine document.
Rebecca Tolley-Stokes
Johnson City, Tenn.

In his discussion on gun control Daniel Lazare ignores why the British army originally marched on Lexington and Concord (to confiscate the colonists' guns) and why the colonists fought back (to keep them). The English king was only too willing to reach an agreement with the colonists, but the powerful commercial interests of the day fomented the war to protect their profits. Governments using military strength to secure markets for big business continue to this day. The Second Amendment stands as our ultimate guarantee against just such abuse of power.

Lazare also fails to mention that, according to the National Vital Statistics report issued in June, the age-adjusted death rate for all firearm injuries declined by more than 20 percent between 1993 and 1997, and continues to fall. Well over half of the 32,436 firearms fatalities in 1997 were suicides, which presumably would have occurred by some other method were firearms not available. Yet according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, media coverage of murder has nearly quadrupled in the same time period.

If education is in fact the foundation of a successful democracy, this trend poses a far greater threat than the guns we are told are the problem.
David Grafe
Portland, Oreg.

The Lives of Boys

Coming of age in 1970s New York City, I always felt that one of feminism's noble aims--to create a society in which success is measured not by dollar signs and muscle size but by a standard of care and sensitivity--was not just for women but for me too. JoAnn Wypijewski's nuanced exploration of the nooks and crannies of masculine identity in Laramie, Wyoming, through the lens of the Matthew Shepard murder ["A Boy's Life," September] serves as an important reminder that maleness is a tough nut that's still left to crack if the best of feminism's goals are ever to be realized. If boys continue to come of age in a world where there is no place for their sadness and longing, they will surely continue t6 fortify the castles of their bleak and repressed world as they foray into adulthood.

It is important to remember, however, that gay America today is not some army seeking to overthrow the regime of masculinity. The gay culture in New York and other cities formed by exiles from a thousand Laramies displays a decidedly unironic tendency to internalize the very macho ethic Wypijewski decries. I'd pit the buffed gay gym addicts of Chelsea against Laramie's stoic heterosexual cowboys any day in the war of repressive male icons. Just as feminists have often settled for reproducing traditionally male power plays, so too has the urban, visible gay community abandoned the more difficult and noble aspects of earlier agendas. In the end, it's easier to make. a million dollars or beef up our muscles than it is to make the world safe for boys' tears.
Peter Cenedella
New York City

Your Brain on Propaganda

Before we snicker and guffaw at the Chinese government's propaganda on the Falun Gong movement ["The Falun Gong Show," Readings, October], it would not hurt to take a quick look at our own government's propaganda about the effects of illegal drugs. There is more than a passing similarity: fantastic tales of death, destruction, and chromosomal damage, people going blind from staring into the sun while under the influence of LSD, the unrelenting criminality of drug users, etc. We are urged to label Chinese propaganda absurd, but our own propaganda is meant to be taken at face value. Can anyone rightly argue that the Chinese government is steeped in lies while our own is the unparalleled repository of purity and truth?
Harry D. Fisher
Los Angeles

Kingdom of Berries

Reading Henry David Thoreau's essay on berry picking in New England in the mid-1800s ["Black Huckleberries," Readings, October], I realized that he could have been writing about Newfoundland in 1999. We, too, watch the growth of the wild berries and prize the first mouthfuls as they ripen one after the other. The strawberries begin around the end of June, followed by skunk currants, raspberries, bakeapples (cloud-berries), blueberries, squashberries, partridgeberries (foxberries or lingonberries), blackberries, and finally marsh berries and cranberries in October. All grow wild within a ten-minute drive from the center of St. John's, the province's capital, on publicly accessible crown land. Newfoundland is commonly portrayed as one of Canada's "have not" provinces, but its natural bounty gives equal access to all its citizens. Anyone can pick a barrel of berries here.
Mary Bridson
Portugal Cove, Newfoundland


The December 1999 annotation, "This Is Your Bill of Rights, on Drugs" by Graham Boyd and Jack Hitt, neglected to distinguish between the text being annotated--one of the extant facsimiles of the document containing twelve articles submitted by Congress for ratification by the states in 1789--and the first ten amendments of the Constitution, which are generally known as the Bill of Rights. In 1787, when the Framers submitted the Constitution to the states, several ratifying conventions demanded that the rights of individuals be more explicitly enumerated and protected. In 1789, the First Congress of the United States convened to address these demands. The resulting document--the one reproduced in December's annotation--has come to be iconically recognized, by the National Archives and others, as the Bill of Rights. However, its first two articles, pertaining to the size of Congress and the compensation of its members, were rejected by state legislatures and thus consigned to historical obscurity. Article the Third through Article the Twelfth were successfully ratified and, on September 25, 1791, adopted as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. These are the amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

Harper's Magazine welcomes reader response. Please address mail to Letters, Harper's Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, NY, 10012, or e-mail us at Short letters are more likely to be published, and all letters are subject to editing. Volume precludes individual acknowledgment.
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Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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