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A Nation of Wildebeest

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This article cross-posted from Consortium News

Wildebeest charging into a river during a migration.

Whenever some deranged gunman, armed with an assault rifle or some other combat weapon, slaughters young Americans -- at a college or a high school or a mall or, now, a movie theater -- I think of those documentaries showing Wildebeest on their migrations through crocodile-infested rivers.

In their frightened eyes, you can see that the herd knows that each crocodile will pick off an individual Wildebeest, flip it in the air, break its back and then drag it away to be devoured. But the herd still crashes through the river presumably with the understanding that most of them will survive. The Wildebeest may even be emotionally numbed to the fate of the unlucky ones.

In a way, that is what Americans have become. As we send our children off to school or off to a party or off to the movies, we know instinctively that some of them may well die at the hands of some troubled person who has obtained a powerful weapon and has decided to avenge some imagined slight by murdering strangers.

Sometimes, the dead are in large numbers (like at the Aurora, Colorado, multi-plex theater), but usually it's just one or two at a time. We just hope that it's not our kids.

We weep over the tragedy of strangers, but our secret thought is thank goodness it wasn't my son or daughter. We are like the Wildebeest continuing the migration hoping that at the next river it won't be our turn.

At such moments, it's also typical for news media pundits to wave their fingers at politicians for not having the "courage" to stop this mayhem by standing up to the ruthless National Rifle Association and its gun-obsessed fringe. But the harder truth is that the problem is not with America's politicians; it's with the American voters.

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There have been politicians who have favored common-sense gun control, but most of them are now former politicians. Remember Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. He favored strong gun control, and his Republican rival, George H.W. Bush, clobbered him over the issue.

Bush accused Dukakis of wanting to disarm all private citizens. "That is not the American way," declared Bush at one campaign rally. "I feel just the opposite."

Some political observers believe that Dukakis's brave stand for gun control was a key factor in his landslide defeat. And, today, Dukakis is a punch line synonymous with "loser" while Bush is revered by Official Washington, recently honored with a flattering documentary on HBO.

Bush and other pro-gun Republican presidents then packed the U.S. Supreme Court with like-minded justices who reversed long-standing precedents and reinterpreted the Second Amendment as an individual right to bear arms, rather than a communal need to have a "well-regulated Militia."

There is merit to both sides of that argument. When the Second Amendment was adopted by the First Congress (and was then ratified in 1791), the young United States was a frontier nation where firearms also were important for hunting and for protection from such threats as outlaws, European rivals disputing America's boundaries, and Native Americans resisting encroachment into their lands.

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But the Founders' real intent for the Second Amendment can be better understood from their actions in the Second Congress when the Militia Acts were passed, mandating that every white man of military age must purchase a musket and other equipment. Black men were excluded from this provision.

In those early decades, the Second Amendment also wasn't regarded as a universal right. African-American slaves and even many free blacks were denied the right to own guns in Southern and border states under the so-called "Black Codes," laws largely affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.

As the United States became more urban -- and even in some frontiers towns of the Wild West -- laws were passed to reduce violence by placing restrictions on guns. During the Prohibition Era, when gangsters began using machineguns, the federal government stepped in with legislation to restrict these dangerous weapons.

However, the political tide began to turn in the 1980s as a resurgent Right saw a potent issue championing broader "gun rights." The National Rifle Association evolved from being mostly a gun club training young people in the safe use of firearms into a ruthless and feared political lobby.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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"We may never understand what leads anybody to ter... by Jim Miles on Sunday, Jul 22, 2012 at 10:01:35 PM