mardi 22 juillet 2014

The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman



Opening in the early days of the United States of America, when public fears of government overreach needed to be calmed thanks to the protection of the Constitution, moving through the spread to the Wild West and the days of Prohibition and gangsterism, before ending at the Supreme Court where political expediency led to a radicalized ruling protecting an individual right to gun ownership, The Second Amendment: A Biography is a sweeping exploration of the most controversial and misunderstood provision of the Bill of Rights. As renewed debate caused by recent mass shootings brings the Second Amendment back into the limelight, Michael Waldman gives a historical, contextual view that shows how society’s view of the amendment is coloured not by a historical understanding of the constitution’s context, but by political advocacy and the agitation of radical organisations.

I love reading about the United States. I’m not American and my hands-on experience of the country has been limited to a handful of visits over the years. And yet this vast country of such sweeping contradictions has always fired my imagination. I have an ongoing project to read a biography of every single US President and any time a non-fiction book about the US crosses my path I snap it up. One of the most intriguing (and terrifying) elements of US society, especially for a foreigner looking in at it from outside, is the Second Amendment and the unfortunate consequences that surround it. So when this book, portrayed as a biography of this most controversial of amendments, popped up on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to read it.

The Second Amendment: A Biography turned out to be an absolutely fantastic exploration, not only of the Second Amendment itself, but of the development of the Constitution, the changes that swept through American society in the 19th and 20th centuries and the growing influence of the Supreme Court in modern American life. Although I am certain that some people will disagree, I found it to be not only well-written, with an engaging voice that carries the story from beginning to end, but also a well-balanced look at what is obviously a highly charged subject. While Waldman’s own opinion is obvious, he still gives a fair view of both sides of the debate, always presenting the arguments of those on every side of the divide, while keeping his own commentary to specific passages.

Waldman’s position comes from being president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law – he comes at this both from a legal and a historical point of view, making sure to set out the historical context that should inform any interpretation of the constitution. To understand why the amendment exists and why the Founding Fathers saw the need to include it, Waldman explains, it is vital to understand the world around them, the historical pressures that influenced them, and the society that spawned them. As such, the first part of the biography explores the origins of the amendment. Waldman shows by referring to documents of the period and by pointing just as much to what is absent from these documents than to what is included that the Second Amendment was designed to protect the ownership of a weapon in conjunction with the protection of a militia. This militia was there to do away with the need for a standing army, the first step to the creation of a tyrannical dictatorship as far as those Founding Fathers were concerned. As Waldman points out, the rise of the professional army in the 20th century put paid to those fears – for most people – and thus should be taken into consideration in any discussion of the Second Amendment.

From there, Waldman explores the influence of the Supreme Court and the rise of the National Rifle Association, providing some interesting insight into the history of the NRA. For instance, it is apparent from historical documents that the NRA initially favoured gun control – it is only later that the organisation became radicalised and thus began to take the hard right position that it has taken in recent year.

Throughout, Waldman makes it clear that the debate about the Second Amendment has always been a debate between historians vs. lawyers – a debate that the historians have lost. Instead, the current understanding of the Second Amendment has been decided and imposed not by historical research, nor even by political bodies. Instead it is the Supreme Court, led mainly by Antonin Scalia in the Heller decision of 2008, who have made that distinction. One of the best parts of the book is the way that Waldman takes the Scalia decision apart, showing how the ‘contextual’ understanding the Justice defends is actually anything but. Still, Waldman remains optimistic that the Supreme Court has always followed the moods of the people and as that mood shifts more towards gun control, it is possible that the decisions of the Supreme Court Justices will shift along with it.

The Second Amendment: A Biography is an excellent exploration of a complex subject. Rather than demonising either side in the debate, Waldman presents each side with the historical context, showing how the amendment was forged and how it was interpreted throughout history. While his own political leanings (Waldman was one of Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriters) are clear throughout, he gives the entire debate a fair shake. Still, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions: the current gun control climate is the result of the radicalisation of conservative organisations like the NRA and the influence of law courts instead of the people’s representatives. Still, the book ends on an optimistic note, one that those who have suffered from the lack of common sense gun control laws will hope to see one day. I gave The Second Amendment: A Biography 5 Wild West gun control signs out of 5.

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