“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” evolved from a Southern gospel song to become an anthem of the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties. It’s a phrase that frequently pops into my head when I am frustrated with my progress against a goal. It comes to mind now with the frustrations associated with both the slow progress of healthcare reform and the sickening realization that as a society we are unable to come to consensus around any strategy that offers us collective protection against a madman with a gun.

Last week I referenced Atul Gawande’s article in The New Yorker about whether healthcare is a right. He was clear about the fact that at this moment it may be the opinion of a majority of Americans that healthcare should be a right, but a law to make healthcare a right has never been passed. One reason is made manifest in a YouTube clip of Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin answering the question from a high school girl about whether healthcare is a right or a privilege. The link is from an article in the Daily Beast by Michael Tomasky contrasting GOP opinions about gun rights and healthcare. Click here for a serious discussion by fellow Americans that outline their logic behind the concept that healthcare is not a right although gun ownership is.

You probably know that when the founding fathers completed their imperfect (for example a black slave counted as 60% of a person for census purposes and only men could vote) negotiations on the issues and structure of our government covered in the Constitution, they suddenly realized that they had failed to make a list of “rights” for citizens. The correction of the oversight was produced as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution which collectively are  also known as the Bill of Rights. It is the rare election in recent times that has failed to touch on issues related to the Second Amendment. Just so you will have the whole list here it is. Click on any “right” to learn more.

The Bill of Rights (Amendments 1 – 10)

Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Speech, and the Press

Amendment 2 – The Right to Bear Arms

Amendment 3 – The Housing of Soldiers

Amendment 4 – Protection from Unreasonable Searches and Seizures

Amendment 5 – Protection of Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property

Amendment 6 – Rights of Accused Persons in Criminal Cases

Amendment 7 – Rights in Civil Cases

Amendment 8 – Excessive Bail, Fines, and Punishments Forbidden

Amendment 9 – Other Rights Kept by the People

Amendment 10 – Undelegated Powers Kept by the States and the People

Clicking on Amendment 2 we read:

A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

That’s it. The second amendment does not even grant the privilege of recreational gun ownership. We are learning more than we would otherwise care to know about Stephen Paddock. So far nothing suggests that he purchased any of his dozens of guns in preparation for participation in the militia. Following a revolution by armed citizens against a foreign power it would make sense that people would be reluctant to give up their weapons, because the next government could be equally oppressive. Gun ownership on the frontier was such a necessity it did not need to be listed as a rationale for the amendment. In late 1791 when the Bill of Rights was passed we did not have semiautomatic rifles that could be modified to function as an automatic weapon capable of firing hundreds of rounds a minute.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 actually outlawed “machine guns” and silencers following such horrific gangland activities as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and an attempt on the life of President Roosevelt. That act was gutted by the Supreme Court in 1968. Congress repaired some of those losses in subsequent statutes like the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. We had legislation that outlawed semiautomatic rifles until the law expired on September 13, 2004. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was passed by a close vote, 52-48, in 1994 against great resistance and was good for only ten years without renewal. Needless to say it was not renewed. It is interesting to speculate whether or not the tragedies of October 1, 2017 could have occurred if the law had still been in place. This incomplete and brief history of gun control legislation is meant to provide perspective on the reality that we have been struggling with the issue of gun control for about as long as we have been struggling with the issue of whether or not healthcare is right or a privilege.

Early in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari divides human history into several sections. The interesting distinction that defined us as different from the other members of the genus Homo emerged between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. He labels the development that occurred during that period as the “Cognitive Revolution.” For reasons that are unknown during that 40,000 year period we developed new ways of thinking and communicating that resulted, for better or for worse, in the elimination of all other members of the genus Homo. Now we have evolved our ability to push almost any animal or plant, and perhaps our planet to extinction.

The shocker that Harari introduces is that the specific ability that enables our dominance is our ability to create and dispose of “fictions.” We can believe in ideas and concepts that are about things that really do not exist as hard realities in the real world. An example is money which enables trade. Another is  a concept of laws or religious constructs that “order” our lives and allow us to function in groups of millions rather than in bands of dozens. One example of such a fiction that he uses is an old one that has long been discarded which is “the divine right of kings.” That fiction did not survive the guillotine of the French Revolution. It took a while but monarchies gave way to democracies in a process of social evolution at a much faster pace than biological evolution.

We are currently in the process of disposing of many fictions from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at an amazing pace although many of the transitions are not yet complete or the resistance to the ultimate change completely quieted. In my lifetime we have made great progress in the transformation of our fictions about race, gender, marriage, family, our responsibilities to the environment, and even to the appropriate use of bathrooms. We no longer believe in the fiction of slavery.  At least at a collective level much of the world no longer  considers children and women to be the property of men. All of these issues and fictions that are on the way out remain active, but despite pockets of resistance they are fading. In every case the old “fictions” or mental configurations have given way to new ideas and ways of viewing the world that are less violent, more inclusive, and more empathetic. We are quickly moving to new formulations and attitudes as we give up “the way it was.”

I believe that our government was constructed to preserve the rights of the minority and smooth the transitions that are inevitable. Because of the structure of our legislative processes the process of change can feel very slow to those who suffer, but change does happen. We have seen the slow but fast dichotomy with issues of race and gender. In the same week that we see a mass shooting we see an NFL star castigated and loose endorsements worth millions of dollars over a comment that relates to the previous fiction about the appropriate status of women. The pace of change can be faster than we sometimes realize. A day after Cam Newton’s verbal indiscretion, a powerful movie mogul is finally outed for decades of sexual harassment while saying that he was a product of the 60s and 70s, a time before “things changed.”  His complaint is testimony to the reality that we create new “fictions” or social agreements that enable progress and we eventually dispose of the ones that do not promote the greatest good of social change at a speed that seems like a rocket launch compared to the creep of biological evolution.

Bipartisan discussions are negotiations. They are an attempt at finding “non zero” solutions to complex social problems. Sometimes, as with the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, it seems like very little was accomplished, but it is unlikely that the more transformative Civil Rights Act of 1964 could have passed without the lessons learned from the inferior act of 1957. The time between 1957 and 1964 probably seemed like an eternity for many, and we all know that the struggle has continued for more than 50 years as incremental change erodes centuries of oppression.

The Second Amendment is not a law of the natural universe. Other advanced societies do just fine without it and enjoy the recreational use of firearms without coexisting with hundreds of millions of privately owned assault rifles. We will get there. Likewise, every other advanced economy sees the health of its population as a critical issue to be protected as a competitive advantage, if not a moral obligation. We will get there. We just need to keep our eyes on the prize and stay active at the ballot box and in the venues of public discussion until our elected leaders get the message. I believe that bipartisanship needs the assistance of external pressure as a catalyst. The right to speak your mind is the first amendment. It may be a “fiction” also, but it is one that has not yet lost its punch. We can use our voices to demote gun ownership from a right to a privilege and elevate healthcare from a privilege to a right.