America’s Gun Crisis Is Foundational But Fixable – Just Like Chicago’s John Hancock Tower

We tell ourselves this every day now: no other country has the gun problem America has. Gun violence happens here the way peace and quiet happen everywhere else. It’s the missing guns that make the difference. Part of why our gun problem feels intractable is because we make it that way. It doesn’t have to be. We can always step back from the brink – of marching further and further into disaster. NOT dealing with our gun and violence problem will not make it go away. It will get worse every day we allow it to continue metastasizing. Reversing this won’t be easy or pleasant but the sure bet outcome of doing nothing is a harder, even less pleasant world. It reminds me of the catastrophic beginnings of Chicago’s John Hancock Center. Like our gun debate, when construction began, it counted on an innovative but ultimately errant design element meant to strengthen the building’s foundation. Instead, with twenty floors already up and half-built, the John Hancock Insurance Company had to make a terrible choice: continue building a skyscraper doomed to fall over or begin a tear down and start over.

That really was the company’s choice: tear down or fall down. Both would be expensive but only one would be survivable.

The guy who ultimately pulled the trigger on that hard, hard choice was named Jerry Wolman. Jerry was an interesting character to begin with. He was one of those people everybody just loved. He was a non-stop party that everyone wanted an invitation to. He started out with absolutely nothing (his family were the town Jews in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania during the Depression, running a fruit stand).

Jerry quit Shenandoah for DC (because that’s where the hitchhiker he picked up was going) and, in time, went from working in a paint store to owning his own painting company to putting up his own apartment buildings to becoming a real estate magnate to owning the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Owning the Eagles was Jerry’s dream and dream job. As a 14 year old kid, he’d hitchhike with his best friend all the way from Shenandoah to Philly on game days just to watch the game from wherever they could and then hitch all the way home again. Jerry had to be back by sunrise Monday morning because he had to work in the family’s fruit store every day before going to school.

Jerry had hoped that the John Hancock Center project (now 875 NORTH MICHIGAN AVENUE) would be one of his last real estate projects. He wanted the Eagles to be his whole life. As a construction contractor and real estate owner, Jerry prided himself on paying his crews a little bit more to get the work done a little bit faster. As I said, people loved working for Jerry. They loved being part of his world.

Knowing that Jerry would pay extra for fast (it still had to be good), his engineers proposed an experimental system for laying the foundation that involved doing it in layers. Jerry went for it and construction on the Hancock Tower began in late 1964. Everything seemed to be copacetic. With the foundation laid, the construction crew began building floors – and ceilings and more floors. As the twentieth floor sat read for the 21st to be built upon it, the engineers discovered something terrible: the experimental foundation-laying design hadn’t worked as expected. They had been laying new concrete layers atop concrete layers that hadn’t yet dried fully. At its core, the foundation remained unset – and would condense as more and more floors were built atop what was there. The building’s foundation was already failing. To build more would guarantee not just failure but catastrophic failure.

Compounding this for Jerry: he wanted out of the construction business. He believed so ardently that the Hancock Project would succeed as everything else he’d done had that he rushed into construction not having secured all the construction financing. Jerry collateralized almost everything else he owned in order to finance the Hancock Center. When the design flaw forced them to halt construction, it put Jerry in an existential crisis. Everything he owned and now was – except the Philadelphia Eagles – was tied up in that building – and that building was going to have to come down.

Jerry had to make that awful decision; he really had no choice. As his world crumbled around him – suddenly everyone called in their loans to Jerry – Jerry did everything to 1) make everyone else whole (he was that kind of guy) and 2) hold onto the Eagles. In the end, Jerry succeeded at the first but failed at the second. In order to make everyone else whole after this disaster, Jerry took the bullet. He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (rather than Chapter 7) because he believed he was obligated to repay everyone he owed money to. Had he filed Chapter 7, he’d have held onto the Eagles, gotten to keep way more and screwed over everyone else.

Even when Jerry had to fire sale the Eagles, he tried to sell the team to someone who’d treat it respectfully not as a carpetbagger – like Ed Snider. Had Ed Snider not screwed over Jerry Wolman (who’d mentored Ed when he was a down-on-his-luck kid), Ed Snider would never have become the guy who owned Comcast Spectator.

It’s amazing how easily corruption gets forgotten…

Our gun debate has a lot of the same qualities because the whole construct of gun rights in America is built on an equally experimental but equally flawed foundation. In our case, there simply IS NO RIGHT TO PRIVATE GUN OWNERSHIP IN AMERICA. It simply doesn’t exist because the word “own” isn’t in the Second Amendment. And that wasn’t by accident.

James Madison – the Second Amendment’s author – wrote a whole essay on Property. Now, Madison had a broad view of property. He believed thoughts were property and we should be free to own them as any material object. What Madison was really writing about was a religious squabble among Protestant sects here in America. Christians can’t get along with themselves never mind everyone else. But Madison also did believe ardently in private property as an important thing upon which America needed to be built.

Madison understood “ownership” as something where one person was going to take precedence over everyone else in order to become any object’s owner. A firearm’s first “owner” is its maker. The first thing that has to happen in this series of transactions is that the gun maker has to sell it to John Q Citizen. Regardless of how many guns were about when Madison sat down to write the Second Amendment, he wrote what he wrote carefully.

He wasn’t actually worried about or even thinking of individual gun owners. The fire Madison needed to put out had to do with a fight between federalists who wanted centralized power and states’ rights advocates who wanted the individual states to have more power including the right to defend themselves – as states – against a federal government they deemed “hostile”.

For further context, slavery was on the table, too. And some people wanted to make sure that slavery didn’t go away.

Federalist Madison wanted to balance any power the states might have to take up arms against the federal government – especially in defense of things like religious intolerance and slavery. Madison had to find a compromise between federal power and mostly Southern states’ paranoia. The well regulated militia is the context for guns and gun ownership. Madison puts them front and center. They’re “necessary to the security of a free state” (free from federal government interference). And the well regulated militias will be there to make sure that the right of the people “to keep and bear arms” won’t be infringed.

James Madison could just as easily have written “the right of the people to OWN arms shall not be infringed” but he didn’t. He chose the word “keep” instead of “own”. Madison knew as we do that one can keep something without owning it. In our modern context, that would be a rental car. Or a bouncy castle. Sure, sure – for the duration of the contract, you can keep the car or the bouncy castle. But, per the contract, when time’s up, you have to give back the car or the bouncy castle because you don’t own them.

If people could simply claim ownership because they’d been told they could “keep” a thing or because, at that moment, they possessed that thing, then there would be no property rights. It’d be all “might makes right”. Possession itself would be the final arbiter. The arrogant car thief sitting in your car – in your driveway – honking it’s horn at 3 am – is not the car’s owner; his name’s not on the title deed, yours is. But, there he is insisting, no – it’s his car now! And his friends say it is, too.

Trust me on this – that is not the way the white, Christian, land-owning men who wrote up America’s foundational documents envisioned property rights. Ownership was different from “keepership” or “bearership”.

The word “own” isn’t there in the Second Amendment because Madison didn’t want it there. He saw a clear difference between what keeping and bearing a firearm was compared to owning a firearm. As he sat down to pen the Second Amendment, he wasn’t trying to dance around anything except the threat of violence from the antsy, slavery-loving South.

Madison didn’t grant anyone the right to own a gun despite the fact that he easily could have. This is our foundational flaw. Now we’ve gone and built a whole lot of stories atop it – way more than twenty. How do we keep this monstrosity from collapsing in on itself and wiping us all out?

For starters, we have to come clean with ourselves. We have to acknowledge what’s driving America’s gun mania: racism. Absent that, we’ll forever spin our wheels while simultaneously pulling our pud. As this blog’s motto says, if you want to live bullshit free, “START WITH YOURSELF!”

Solving our gun crisis will be painful, hard, unsatisfying and trying in ways we can’t imagine yet. But to do nothing will make that outcome look happy by comparison.

Madison and Scalia both took gun ownership off the table. At least Madison was more honest about it. Scalia needed to make all the noise of a guy who’d liberated guns but he never was that guy. Because the law does not let that guy exist.

Here’s the bottom line – why it matters. If you cannot by law own something then you cannot by law buy it. Getting the guns already on America’s streets off our streets is going to be a generational chore. There are that many guns – and in the hands of people who don’t have the right to own them. My goal is a simple, direct, impossible-to-argue-against legal point that stops the number of guns from growing. That can do this – just like “that”!

I defy any guns right organization including the NRA to beat that argument in court. Even Heller sides with me here. So does Warren Berger.

Just as the John Hancock company did with its flawed skyscraper, America can think outside the box to 1) hold onto as much structure as we need to while 2) demolishing everything else and starting fresh. Fifty-eight years later, the Hancock Center – now renamed 875 North Michigan Avenue – is still standing. It wouldn’t be standing now if Jerry Wolman hadn’t done what he had to.

It broke him. Had he insisted that the builders press on regardless – because he was more concerned for himself than others – there would probably be something other than a highrise sitting where it sits. There’d be a memorial to the dead who’d lost their lives in a catastrophic architectural collapse.

No one ever said that having guts or integrity was easy.

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