"To the framers, that phrase 'a well-regulated militia' was really critical," says Michael Waldman.
Less than a month after the December 2012 Newtown massacre, the National Rifle Association's then-president, David Keene, warned that the new White House task force on gun violence would "do everything they can to strip Americans of their right to keep and bear arms, to essentially make the Second Amendment meaningless." Three weeks ago, after a killer shot three people and wounded eight near Santa Barbara, California, conservative activist "Joe the Plumber" posted an open letter to the victims' families. "Your dead kids," he wrote, "don't trump my Constitutional rights."*
As America grapples with a relentless tide of gun violence, pro-gun activists have come to rely on the Second Amendment as their trusty shield when faced with mass-shooting-induced criticism. In their interpretation, the amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms—a reading that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 2008 ruling in District of Columbia. v. Heller. Yet most judges and scholars who debated the clause's awkwardly worded and oddly punctuated 27 words in the decades before Heller almost always arrived at the opposite conclusion, finding that the amendment protects gun ownership for purposes of military duty and collective security. It was drafted, after all, in the first years of post-colonial America, an era of scrappy citizen militias where the idea of a standing army—like that of the just-expelled British—evoked deep mistrust.
In his new book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, digs into this discrepancy. What does the Second Amendment mean today, and what has it meant over time? He traces the history of the contentious clause and the legal reasoning behind it, from the Constitutional Convention to modern courtrooms.
This historical approach is noteworthy. The Heller decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, is rooted in originalism, the concept that the Constitution should be interpreted based on the original intent of the founders. While Waldman emphasizes that we must understand what the framers thought, he argues that giving them the last word is impossible—and impractical. "We're not going to be able to go back in a time machine and tap James Madison on the shoulder and ask him what to do," he says. "How the country has evolved is important. What the country needs now is important. That's certainly the case with something as important and complicated as guns in America."
Mother Jones: What inspired you to write this book?
Michael Waldman: I started the book after Newtown. There was such anguish about gun violence and we were debating, once again, what to do about it. But this was the first time we were having that conversation in the context of a Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment protects individual rights of gun owners. And now every time people debated guns, every time people talked about Newtown, they talked about the Second Amendment. I wanted to see what the real story was: What the amendment had meant over the years, and what we could learn from that.
This week, the rescue of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after his five years held hostage by the Taliban raised big questions: Lawmakers wondered if the trade for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo was worth it, and voiced concern about not being notified properly of the prisoner release. Others grew upset at the possibility that the controversial swap helped free a soldier who may have deserted his post.
The week also marked several anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India, the 25th anniversary of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen square and the one year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey. Syria held elections, despite little doubt that current president Bashar al-Assad would coast to victory. Eight US states also held primary elections.
A new state formed in India, the country's 29th, after a five-decade long campaign. Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko met briefly with Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a D-Day memorial in France. And two shootings, one in Eastern Canada and another in Seattle, made headlines. Here are the week's events, captured in photos:
A woman rides in a car bearing president Bashar al-Assad's portrait and painted the colors of the Syrian flag in Damascus, Syria on June 3. Dusan Vranic/AP Photo
Former paratrooper Fred Glover, 88, of the 9th regiment from Brighton, watches the landing of parachutists in Normandy on June 6, the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Michael Kappeler/DPA/ZUMA Press
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko, and Russia's president Vladimir Putin meet on June 6 at an event in France commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Guido Bergmann/DPA/ZUMA Press
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray speaks on June 2 at a rally outside city hall after Seattle's city council passed a $15 minimum wage measure. Ted S. Warren/AP Photo
On June 1, residents of Hyderabad celebrate the formation of India's 29th state, Telangana, marking the formal division of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Mahesh Kumar A./AP Photo
A man works at a metal factory on World Environment Day, June 5, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The UN-designated holiday aims to raise awareness of environmental issues. A.M. Ahad/AP Photo
Tens of thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on June 4, marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen square crackdown on Beijing's pro-democracy movement. Vincent Yu/AP Photo
A National Transportation Safety Board official looks through wreckage on June 2 in Bedford, Massachusetts, where a plane erupted in flames during a takeoff attempt. Lewis Katz, co-owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and six other people died in the crash. Mark Garfinkel/Boston Herald/Pool/AP Photo
US Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) on June 4 as he leaves a stop on the first day of a three-week campaign. Cochran, 76, is seeking a seventh term, and will face state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a run-off election in late June. Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo
The coal-fired Plant Scherer on June 1 in Juliette, Georgia. The Obama administration unveiled a plan Monday to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by nearly a third over the next 15 years. John Amis/AP Photo
Turkish protesters clash with police during the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests on May 31 in Istanbul, Turkey. Cesare Quinto/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press
Police in New Brunswick, Canada search for a suspect who killed three Canadian police officers and injured two others on June 4. 24-year-old Justin Bourque turned himself in after a massive manhunt. Steve Russell/The Toronto Star/ZUMA Press
President Obama walks back to the Oval Office with the parents of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, after announcing their son's release by the Taliban after five years in captivity. Rex Features/AP Photo
How bad is street harassment in America? Pretty bad, according to a report published this week by Stop Street Harassment, a Virginia-based nonprofit.
SSH commissioned market research firm GfK to run a nationwide survey of 2,040 American adults—the largest such survey ever—to learn about their experiences with street harassment. The resulting report defines street harassment as "unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that are motivated by a person's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression." The relative ubiquity of street harassment makes it difficult to quantify, author Holly Kearl explains in the report, because many people "may not even identify what happened as wrong."In survey findings, 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men reported experiencing street harassment, but given how normalized the experience is, Kearl notes, "the prevalence statistic might be lower than reality."
The report reveals some other striking data points: Among those surveyed, men were overwhelmingly the harassers of both women and men, and people of color and LGBT people were a lot more likely to say they'd been harassed than white or straight people were. Check out some of the findings below:*
Correction: An earlier version of the second card in this post showed the four bottom percentages as subsets of physically harassed women. In fact, they are percentages of all female respondents.
Following last month's presidential elections in Ukraine, president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to curb the pro-Russian insurgency in the country's eastern region. But violence persists: Rebels attacked a border guard camp near Luhansk, and used a rocket to take down a Ukrainian troop helicopter, killing 14 military personnel.
With the battle for control of Eastern Ukraine waging on, President Obama arrived in Poland for a four-day trip intended to reassure Europe of US support. He met with Poroshenko, and also proposed the formation of a $1 billion security fund to protect US allies in Europe from further Crimea-esque expansion efforts by Russia. Below, some photos take you through this week's developments in the Ukraine conflict: (WARNING: Some graphic images)
US President Barack Obama meets with Ukraine president-elect Petro Poroshenko in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday, June 4. Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
A woman thanks a member of the Vostok Battalion. Earlier, the battalion came to Lenin Square in Donetsk to celebrate the area's boycott of the election by firing shots into the air. Rex Features/AP Photo
Ukrainian soldiers take a rest at a checkpoint outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 29. Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo
Dismantling barricades in the city of Donetsk after members of the Vostok Battalion cleared out the regional administration building, where activists were running the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk. Sandro Maddalena/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP Photo
Pro-Russians in Donetsk, Ukraine hold a mock presidential election in May, choosing which candidate to kill by depositing "ballots" into a box labeled "garbage can." Janos Chiala/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during presidential and mayoral elections in Kiev on Sunday, May, 25. Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo
Vitali Klitschko, Kiev's new mayor, speaks with Euromaidan activists at Kiev's city council about plans for tidying up the city and barricades. Rex Features/AP Photo
Armed militiamen from the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion in Donetsk. Janos Chiala/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP Photo
A jacket belonging to a member of the Vostok Battalion hangs in Donetsk's regional administration building after the battalion ousted the activists occupying the building. Sandro Maddalena/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP Photo
Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian army helicopter outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, on May 29. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo
The bodies of pro-Russian gunmen killed in clashes with Ukrainian government forces around the Donetsk airport at the city morgue, which received at least 30 bodies. Konstantin Sazonchik/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA Press
Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko during a press conference in Kiev. Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo
The Navy's USS Vella Gulf takes a part in a peacekeeping mission in the Black Sea, which borders both Russia and Ukraine. Rex Features/AP Photo
Empty coffins are loaded into a refrigerated truck in Donetsk, Ukraine, on May 29. The coffins will be used to send the bodies of pro-Russian fighters killed at the Donetsk airport to Russia. Jan A. Nicolas/DPA/ZUMA Press
Volunteers pose with a Ukrainian national flag on June 3 as they join the Azov Battalion. It reads "liberty or death." Maxim Nikitin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA Press
Leaders of Donetsk's territorial defense battalion, ''Donbas,'' recruit fighters in Kiev. Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press
A rally in Kiev's Independence Square on June 1, intended to address the future of Maidan. Maxim Nikitin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA Press
A Pro-Russian rebel fires at Ukrainian troop positions from the top level of an apartment building during clashes on the outskirts of Luhansk on June 2. Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo
As Ukrainian troops launch an offensive against pro-Russian insurgents in Slovyansk on June 3, city residents seek refuge in an underground bomb shelter.Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo
Crimean Tatars call for freedom of speech during a protest in Crimea in March.
Human rights violations, including killings, beatings, harassment of minorities, and abductions of journalists and activists, are escalating in Ukraine, according to a report released this weekend by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The growing tension, the report says, is fueled primarily by the DIY armed groups and self defense units that have sprung up around the country.
The expansive report is based on information gathered by the UN's Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), and concludes that "the continuation of the rhetoric of hatred and propaganda fuels the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, with a potential of spiraling out of control." The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the UN's report for a "complete lack of objectivity, glaring disparities and double standards."
We've gone through the full report and pulled out some of its noteworthy findings:
Deaths and injuries:
Following violent clashes in early December, January, and mid-February, more than 120 activists were killed and hundreds injured.
During clashes in Odessa earlier this month that led to a fire in the city's trade union building, 46 people were killed and 230 injured.
In the initial aftermath of this winter's Maidan protests, 314 people were registered as missing. Most have since been found alive, but some were found dead while the fate of some others is still unknown.
Discrimination against minority groups: The UN's special rapporteur on minority issues visited Ukraine in April. On the issue of minority treatment, she warned that "in some localities the level of tension had reached dangerous levels." Namely:
There have been ongoing reports of hate crimes, threats, and harassment against LGBT people by both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces. Several Ukrainian political parties, including the right-wing Svoboda and Right Sector, state that combating homosexuality is one of their goals. Meanwhile, though, Ukraine's version of a ban on "gay propaganda" was withdrawn from parliament consideration in mid-April, though another law that would have similar effects is still under consideration. (The bill, draft law 0945, would prohibit the production of media, TV, radio, or other products promoting homosexuality.)
The report notes several anti-Semitic episodes in Odessa, Donetsk, and Crimea including one where swastikas were painted onto Jewish tombs, a Holocaust memorial, and houses near the local synagogue.
Opioid substitution therapy, an important element of HIV/AIDS treatment for patients in Ukraine, has been cut in Crimea, leaving approximately 800 patients who are OST users in the region in deteriorating health.
The UN documented ongoing harassment of Crimean Tatars, including vandalism of a memorial and an episode where a self-defense unit stormed the building of the Parliament of the Crimean Tatars, a governing body representing this population in Ukraine. The armed men physically and verbally harassed female employees and tore down the Ukrainian flag. The report also lists numerous instances where Crimean Tatars' ability to move to and from Crimea has been obstructed.
Roma families have also suffered harassment, including attacks on at least seven Roma households in Slovyansk by armed men demanding money and valuables. Many Roma families, the report says, have fled the region altogether.
Problems for Crimeans refusing Russian citizenship:
People in Crimea who chose not to apply for Russian citizenship, the report says, have been facing harassment and intimidation. According to rules agreed upon following the March 18 referendum that brought Crimea under Russian control, the region's residents had until April 18 to apply for an exemption from Russian citizenship, but the process has been made increasingly difficult by authorities.
Detentions of journalists and activists
In April, two student activists and one city councilor were killed by unknown assailants. All three of their bodies were found dumped in the river in Slovaynsk bearing signs of torture.
The Ukraine monitoring mission documented at least 23 abductions of reporters and photographers by armed groups. As of early May, 18 of those journalists have been released, but "the exact number of the journalists still unlawfully detained remains unknown."
Activists, members of law enforcement, and international monitors have been detained and beaten by "self-defense units." The recently detained include at least two members of the anti-Russian Svoboda party, two police officers, a group of foreign military observers, and six residents of a town in the Donetsk region, including town councilors or trade union leaders.
Freedom of the press is faltering:
At least three Crimean media outlets have moved their editorial offices out of the region and to mainland Ukraine, citing concerns around personal safety and the ability to do their jobs.
Broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels has been disconnected in Crimea since March.
In early April, 11 Ukrainian radio stations had to halt their operations in Crimea due to new legal and technical specifications for FM broadcasting in the region.
In late April, the press secretary of the Parliament of the Crimean Tatar people announced that state TV and radio would stop permitting broadcasting about Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov, two leaders of the Crimean Tatar community.
Internally displaced people:
The UNHCR reports that as of late April there are 7,207 internally displaced people in Ukraine, the majority of them women and children who identify as Crimean Tatars. There is no systematic registration process for internally displaced people in Ukraine, which means this figure may not be accurate. Registration with a local authority is also necessary to access basic services like housing and healthcare. The report notes that a number of organizational issues around registering and providing services to IDPs still need to be addressed.