Hidden Springs Lane. Guns have been in the news a lot recently. The dialogue, such as it is, is dominated by voices that seem ill disposed to consider the legitimacy of the other side. Some demonize their opponents while others simply shake their heads, unable to comprehend how some could be so blind to facts so obvious. Some want to reduce “gun violence” by reducing access to guns, while others point to their constitutional right to own guns and decry any attempt to limit that right. Between the two positions there appears very little room for compromise. But at the very least, it might be possible to clarify some of the terms and issues surrounding these positions. To begin, however, here are the words of the Second Amendment:

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.

1. It is essential that we recognize that this amendment is not about keeping firearms for target practice or hunting. Plenty of politicians insist that they have no intention of restricting hunting rifles and shotguns. They claim that they love to hunt and even regale us with photos of themselves dressed like they stepped out of a Cabela’s catalog, happily shouldering a shotgun as they trudge through a field with a faithful German Shorthair at their heels. However, anyone who says that the Second Amendment is about hunting is either ignorant or intending to deceive. The Second Amendment is clearly addressing the idea of security, so let’s stop with the business about deer and ducks. That’s simply a rabbit trail.

2. If the Second Amendment is about security, we have to inquire about the nature of that idea. Insecurity comes in a variety of forms. An external threat is one type of insecurity. It is conceivable that armed citizens could help thwart an attack from a foreign power and thereby help preserve the “security of a free state.” It is also possible that a “free state” could be threatened internally by a government that sought to diminish or eliminate the freedom of its citizens. Resistance to that encroachment would be possible by an armed citizenry and it is imaginable that an armed citizenry would provide a disincentive to those tempted to change the nature of the state. It may perhaps be stretching the original meaning, but when individuals are threatened by criminals intending harm, the security of a free state is jeopardized. Armed citizens could protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors while unarmed citizens are ill-equipped to do so.

3. Advances in weapons technology since the time of the American Founding make things more complicated. In 1790, a typical soldier fired a flintlock musket, which could be fired once every 20 seconds by a proficient operator. The smoothbore (as opposed to rifled barrels) made long-range accuracy difficult. Officers also carried a pistol (same technology), which was accurate only at very close range. There were, of course, bayonets and swords along with cannons. At the time, a citizenry armed with muskets could conceivably hold its own against an army equipped with basically the same weapons. Citizens could capture enemy cannon and use them because the technology was essentially the same as the muzzle-loading rifles they wielded.

Consider how things have changed. Today’s armies are equipped with automatic weapons, hand-grenades, and night-vision goggles. They can advance with armored vehicles and tanks against which a shotgun or a hunting rifle is simply ineffective. They have air support from helicopters armed with cannons that can fire hundreds of rounds per minute. They can call in air strikes from bombers carrying armament that can level a city block. They have missile technologies that can deliver payloads to targets hundreds of miles away. There are nuclear devices capable of leveling entire cities. If the Second Amendment is about equipping citizens to resist encroachments by foreign or domestic armies, a 12-guage and some buck shot isn’t going to cut it. Neither will your trusty 30-06 bolt-action rifle with a four round magazine. But what does this imply? If the Second Amendment is about keeping a militia armed in a way that it can legitimately resist a modern army, does this mean that U.S. citizens should be able to own automatic weapons? (Of course, they can now do so with proper permits.) Should they be able to own a tank with accompanying armament? An Apache helicopter with 30-mm Automatic Cannon, 16 Hellfire Anti-Tank Missiles, Seventy-Six 70-mm Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets? How about an F-18? A nuclear device?

Clearly circumstances have changed. First, where in the Revolutionary War soldiers who captured a heavy weapon of the enemy could readily turn it on their enemies, what would a group of citizen soldiers do if they captured an M8 tank or an F-22 fighter? They would need specialized knowledge to operate these complex weapons systems, and most civilians wouldn’t have a clue. The gap between the trained specialist and the civilian soldier is glaring. Second, Red Dawn notwithstanding, the disparity between weapons owned by citizens and those used by a modern military make it unlikely that a citizen army could adequately resist a serious attack. What does this mean for the Second Amendment?

4. Rights are not unlimited. Just as the right to free speech has limits—there is no right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater—so, too, there must be some limits to the ownership of arms. What are those limits? By what principles are those rights limited? Can those limits change over time? How?

5. In recent years, the focus has been on violence perpetrated by those wielding firearms. “Gun violence” has emerged as the term used to describe acts—both criminal and accidental—in which firearms have been used to cause harm. For many, the Second Amendment’s aspiration for the “security” that gun ownership affords has been overshadowed by the insecurity of living in a world where firearms are readily available. The need for a well-armed citizenry to protect against foreign and domestic encroachments on liberty has receded: a standing, professional army has dissipated the fear of the former, and the reality of the latter appears the low, except to those conspiracy theorists who see totalitarianism behind every Bush or Obama. The NRA today emphasizes personal security as the primary reason for gun ownership. Its magazine includes accounts of citizens who have prevented crimes or saved lives by brandishing or using their personal firearms. Is this a good strategy or evidence that the Second Amendment is outdated? In other words, is the Second Amendment intended for the protection of persons and property or of political freedom? Are the two related?

6. So-called “assault rifles” are not a significant problem. The assault weapon ban did little to reduce “gun violence” because relatively few crimes are committed with rifles of any sort. According to the FBI, in 2011 more murders were committed with knives than with rifles.

Furthermore, a true assault rifle must have the capacity for automatic fire (as distinguished from semi-automatic fire). In other words, an assault rifle is a machine gun, and these are already heavily regulated. The so-called “assault weapon ban” goes after rifles that look like military rifles but don’t have the capacity for automatic fire: assault-style rifles is the better designation. This is a perfect case of appearance trumping any real substance. The push to ban “assault rifles” is really nothing more than political hot air. If we want to address “gun violence” handguns are the issue.

7. Does the term “gun violence” bother anyone? If a person murders another person with a knife, we don’t call it “knife violence.” We call it a brutal murder. We don’t speak of “car violence” even though many times more people are killed every year by cars (33,000 in 2010) than are murdered by people using firearms. Identifying the tool involved creates the impression that the tool is to blame rather than the person. At the same time, I realize that one of the main purposes of a firearm is to kill; however, let’s not forget that firearms don’t fire themselves. A person with free will is a necessary element.

8. We have recently heard tragic stories of murders in Chicago, where innocent children have been gunned down in the street. Something is clearly wrong and it is surely temping (and perhaps easy) to blame the weapon rather than the real cause, which is a flesh and blood man (yes, it is generally a male who pulls the trigger). Are there social and cultural factors that help foster such behavior? Will taking away their guns make these men more peaceful? Does it seem odd that Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, yet the shooting continues?

9. Not all communities are the same when it comes to guns. In some rural areas, guns are a common tool. Trucks have gun racks with rifles in them and often a handgun is shoved in the glovebox or under the seat. In some states, people are allowed to carry a gun without a permit. To put matters in perspective, would you feel safer walking down a street in South Chicago, where firearms are severely restricted or in Helena, Montana, where they are not? Where do you think you are more likely to suffer from “gun violence”? If the guns were removed from both places, would you feel equally safe in both places? If you answered “no” to the last question, it’s clear that guns are not the real problem. It may be the case, however, that some violent crimes could be stopped by limiting access to firearms, but if the root causes of violence are not addressed, we’re only playing games.

10. Because all places are not the same, perhaps gun laws should reflect those differences rather than attempting a one-size-fits-all solution that won’t be adequate for any particular place. Let the states and local governments determine what is needed given their particular circumstances. At the same time, this federalist solution is not perfect, for a resident of one place could conceivably drive to a place where restrictions are less severe, purchase a firearm, and return home: thug in Chicago could drive to North Dakota, purchase a handgun and return to Chicago. Of course, by doing so, he would be breaking the state law of Illinois as well as Chicago ordinances. If such a person is willing to break the law to obtain a handgun, is there any practical way to stop him? Sweeping federal laws that limit the production and sale of firearms would be a start. Limiting access to ammunition would be another possibility. But the Second Amendment is an impediment to radical restrictions. However, the Constitution can be changed. Amendments can be amended (see the 21st Amendment) or ignored (see the 10th Amendment).

Ultimately “gun violence” is not the issue. We’ve got a culture of violence that makes gun violence imaginable. Making laws is easy. The real task requires serious reflection and deep cultural (and perhaps even spiritual) healing. Broken families, broken communities, loneliness, hopelessness, rage, and fear. These are at the root of our gun problem. The President and Congress can’t do much to fix what is broken. A deeper cure is needed.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
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  1. I, for one, am ill-disposed to consider the legitimacy of the other side. The other side frequently ridicules people who fear that confiscation is the real goal. Tomorrow O will be in Minnesota to talk guns and the Democrats there have introduced legislation that includes confiscation. I don’t believe a good faith discussion is occurring so I’m uninterested in compromise, or even dialogue, usually. I believe it’s necessary to remain firm and uncompromising. We aren’t going to reach consensus. The side with the power is going to impose its will on the other side. Right now, the controllers do not have the political clout to get their way. Defenders of the Second Amendment would be foolish to seek middle ground.

    In many ways, gun control proposals are not reasonably linked to espoused goals, which makes it difficult to grant legitimacy to the arguments. I assume in such cases that the real motive is being hidden.

    It’s true that armed citizens would be easily handled by a modern army in direct battle, but this doesn’t mean private firearms are not effective against modern armies. The key is not to stand and fight when the air support arrives but to vanish and to look for opportunities to inflict small but relentless injury. Examples are numerous, but for one consider the Russian experience in Afghanistan. The Afghans couldn’t stand up against the Russian army, but the Russian army could not prevail against the Afghans and left in failure.

    The Second Amendment is related to the right to life, which must include the right to self-defense if it is to mean much. It’s not outdated. Home invasions are far more common than mass murders or government assaults on its citizens, and in such cases the police aren’t likely to be much help.

    I agree that guns are not the problem. I am slightly disquieted by suggesting that the root causes are “broken families, broken communities, loneliness, hopelessness, rage, and fear.” I don’t think those things cause many people to become murderers. I think it’s more useful to identify the root problem as criminal thinking and immorality. I don’t believe being poor causes crime, and I don’t think being lonely makes people murderers. We should not be teaching that troubles “cause” us to become violent.

    Of course there are cultural and “even” spiritual reasons that Chicago is more violent than Montana. Good luck getting those who favor gun control to talk seriously about that.

  2. Mr. Umphrey, you say, “I don’t believe a good faith discussion is occurring so I’m uninterested in compromise, or even dialogue, usually. I believe it’s necessary to remain firm and uncompromising. We aren’t going to reach consensus.”

    I believe that’s where I have arrived. For there to be any hope of a productive discussion, the two sides have to hold to a similar enough world view for that to occur. It’s sort of like sports: two teams need to show up ready to play the same game – not one football and the other baseball – and in the same stadium!

    To my mind, any debate has been over for some time. I have a fundamental right and responsibility to protect and defend me and mine from criminals and an increasingly lawless “government”. Utopian dreamers and would-be tyrants hold to a world view that’s radically different from my own, so I will not waste my time listening to them.

    Does this make me closed minded, or have I simply made a decision?

  3. Two thoughts. One, Mark is as usual spot on. A deeper cure is needed. A people who will not value life do not deserve a Second Amendment right. Two, in regards to the first two followups, if we’ve lost the ability to engage and yes, even make compromises, then we’ve lost any ability to function as a cohesive people and what’s left is simply to watch the downward spiral. I reject that calculus. For those who think I’m just “the other side” trying to talk them into giving up their guns, I am an NRA member and do often take advantage of my quite-relaxed gun rights here in NM, though I admit I am disgusted with the post-Newtown NRA rhetoric and my send in a cut-up membership card.

  4. Mr. Cook, you say, “Two, in regards to the first two followups, if we’ve lost the ability to engage and yes, even make compromises, then we’ve lost any ability to function as a cohesive people and what’s left is simply to watch the downward spiral.”

    One of the operative terms here is your idea of a “cohesive people”. You’re actually making my point for me. We are not, and it’s rapidly becoming worse for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with guns . The term “American” used to actually mean something; it no longer does. I will not seek to be reasonable with people who regard legality over the Law, that is, something that evolves over time, that they can make up as they go along. I can see having a fruitful discussion and perhaps make compromises with others within my community, my “concurrent majority”, but the “national conversation” taking place is driven by Progressive statists with whom I have little in common, who frequently have nothing but contempt for my community and culture (unless its funding/manning their wars or making them money).

    Leviathan has sought to fragment any familial, community, or cultural cohesion, that is, the chief means by which moral standards were to be transmitted from the beginning, and has peddled a destructive multi-cultural sameness over which it may exercise its attempt at utopian control. Sure, there’s individual responsibility here, but this rot has been and is continuing to be expedited by the state’s ever increasing demand for more and more control, for ever more interference in the individual’s and his community’s responsibility to protect and defend their own.

    Sorry, I just see no profit in any “conversation” with such people. This is where good fences can make good neighbors.

  5. This is a great post. Thanks for laying out these issues in a really serious way. I think the best points were about the policy behind the Second Amendment and how practical realities have changed the way that the Second Amendment should be viewed.

    My one qualm is with this sentence: “We don’t speak of “car violence” even though many times more people are killed every year by cars (33,000 in 2010) than are murdered by people using firearms.”

    This strikes me as an example of a dishonest reading of the numbers to make a point towards which you are ideologically predisposed. In other words, it’s a microcosm of the “Rifles Get Bad Rap. Fists and Knives are the Problem” post, which I found pretty reprehensible. Comparing “people killed by cars” versus “people murdered by guns” seems disingenuous. We should be comparing “people killed by cars” to “people killed by guns” or “people murdered by cars” to “people murdered by guns.” Anything else only serves to obscure the issue.

    Such obscurantism in a piece that otherwise does a nice job clearing things up seems to be a dangerous oversight.

  6. Perhaps we could reach consensus that would reduce violence by focusing on areas where there is agreement.

    Everyone agrees that some people should not have a right to own weapons. What would be the problem with a law that (i) requires anyone purchasing a gun to not have a criminal record and be vouched for by two other adults who do not have criminal records, and (ii) provides that anyone vouching for another be personally viable for any crimes using firearms committed by that person?

  7. I agree that we are not a unified people. Modernity has invested enormous effort in debunking the traditional basis of such unity along with asserting there cannot be any such basis. What we are supposed to do now is to engage in endless problem solving, using experts as the basis of our decision making and using the state as the mechanism of facilitating our little processes as we move ever nearer to utopia. There will be an endless series of problems, and each will require ever more surveillance and monitoring and compliance. But we won’t talk about what’s right and wrong. Morality is a messy, private matter best left out of the public realm. It’s divisive and, um, moralistic.

    So when we find murderers among us, naturally we should talk about controlling guns. And as has already happened across the pond, after guns we can talk about knives, and after knives we can surely find some other way to satisfy the endless need to monitor and meddling in everyone else’s lives. To paraphrase O’Brien, the point of control is control.

    Jim, we don’t enforce the laws we now have. My belief is that such lackadaisical enforcement occurs because the people who are pushing gun control really aren’t interested in the day-to-day work of dealing with criminals–or even in reducing crime. Nothing happens, generally, to criminals who are caught by background checks. They walk away and try another route. I believe the controllers are mostly interested in asserting more control over the citizenry in general. As I said, I think there’s been enough dishonesty and “framing” and propagandizing that, for me, the trust that is needed to engage in civic discourse has been mostly squandered. You are probably well-intentioned, but I have my doubts about the people your proposal would empower.

  8. Technically, if you had all 16 Hellfires loaded on your Apache, you wouldn’t have any space for your rockets…

  9. Well I don’t know – I think not talking is the one incorrect response. Or the second. If there is anything that can counterbalance the force of the leviathan it’s our secondary associations, and I don’t know how you can form those without talking to the neighbors. As goofy as they are.
    The second incorrect response is paying too much attention to national politics. Yes it is important, but what matters is what’s happening in our community. And whatever attention and weight we attribute to national concerns we deduct from our local community. It is giving away the game before anything has even begun. We relegate our communities to irrelevance. In my opinion.
    So, Mr. Smith and Mr. Umphrey, I think your abandonment of your communities, if that is what you have meant by what you wrote, is unfortunate, and your communities will suffer from your absence. If, on the other hand, you meant to indicate your withdrawal from the ‘national conversation’, then I’d say who cares, no one ever listens to us anyway. Welcome to the club.
    Professor Mitchell, not that I’m a worthy critic, but once again a very strong essay. My only quibble is the end, this: “These are at the root of our gun problem.” If it’s a gun problem then we need a gun solution. There may well be a gun problem but excepting your essay it’s not well defined and it makes a lot of people sore and I don’t know that we are ready to have that discussion – the issue we are talking about here is a violence problem. And I do not know that we are ready for that discussion either, but at some point we have to grow up and have it. Anything else is an abandonment of self governance.

  10. I haven’t abandoned my community. I’m fully engaged in family, church and school.

    I merely speak against compromise with those who would dissolve communities in a vast administrative net of national solutions that don’t work for problems they have defined–in this case as guns rather than as killers. I didn’t intend to stop talking–only to avoid deals with people who I don’t believe are dealing in good faith.

    I believe those who feel they are being overwhelmed by the liberal herd (Mamet) or mob (Coulter) might take heart from people voicing a different way, which I do. I think communities, understood as self-perpetuating moral orders, are the solution.

  11. Mr. Walsh, I believe Mr. Umphrey pretty much sums up my view here. The federal government is all but broken, and past repairing. We need to still keep a weather eye on it, but our engagement and energy will be best spent here at the local level.

  12. “Clearly circumstances have changed [wrt the Second Amendment].”

    Frankly, circumstances have changed with respect to many amendments. But that does not mean principles have changed. The principle that one has the right to defend against enemies, foreign and domestic, has not changed any more than the principle that one has the right to free speech has changed because the internet now exists.

    The argument that the gov’t outguns citizens is an irrelevant one. An illiterate imbecil shares the same right to free speech as the most erudite professor of linguistics. Just because the former cannot execute the right as well as the latter does not make it appropriate to deny the former his right. The SA is not contingent upon being successful against the government, but only guaranteeing the right to at least try. In fact, the better argument, it seems, is that the SA precisely guarantees the right to own your own Apache (assuming you can afford one). Hence, “the right to bear arms,” not “the right to bear an eighteenth century musket.” The founders were not stupid – they knew weaponry would change over time.

  13. Mr. Smith and Mr. Umphrey, thanks for the replies. I appreciate the clarification. I apologize for not being able to infer it from the start.

  14. Mr. Smith and Mr. Umphrey, as far as our national politics go, I know that we are a deeply divided electorate and our national elections are all epic struggles and so on but I can’t shake the feeling that the folks running things in the Imperial City have been the same for at least the past 12 years now. And the best characterizations I can think of for our former and current Presidents are Sonny and Michael Corleone from the Godfather movies. It’s kind of a silly image but of course, it’s not silly at all.
    Anyway, the idea that a Michael Corleone type character who does indeed have citizens killed because he secretly believes they may be or become a threat is not the sort of person to lead a discussion on curtailing violence in society. It is a discussion we have to hold at a local level, at some reasonable scale. We are of the same mind here I think, more or less.

    I’ve opened the gate and am about to wander far afield from your essay, Professor, and I apologize, but I believe President Obama has committed an impeachable offense and should resign. I don’t know that gun control or any other hot plate issue takes precedence, in this case, over the issue of the unrestrained expansion of executive power.

  15. Yes, the nod to hunting is a red herring in this Constitutional debate but this is the province of our current government, it manufactures Red Herrings with unremitting alacrity. Despite a rather vigorous erosion of Civil Liberties, the general message from Foggy Bottom is that the new laws are only going after “bad guys” as though we should stop worrying about our own government the way the Framers intended us to.

    About time someone pointed this out. Someone somewhere should put out a call to muster a “Well Regulated Militia” and then we can sit back and watch the invective roll out.

    Perhaps there should be another type of “violence”….that of the “Cable News Violence”, a kind of idiots guide to agitprop on both sides of the aisle, spewing misinformation, eschewing its true duties and in general, habituating the herd to a base group think at an 8th grade attainment level. But, if 25 minutes out of every hour of broadcast is dedicated to commercial pitches, we might as well not break the spell and offer the National Spectator up to political commercial pitches like the good little commodified dupe they are.

    We constantly pursue the latest fashionable “cure” without ever going after the cause.

  16. The argument, often given by the Right, that second Amendment was intended to secure the people against tyranny is ludicrous in the extreme.

    The Constitution can not provide for its own abrogation. The tyranny in a republic is combatted through Arguments. All possible recourses, separation of powers, impreachment etc are provided in Constitution but by its very nature, the Constitution can not provide for insurrection against the State. That is, the insurrection is always extra-constitutional. That does not mean that it is always unjustified.

  17. A few thoughts here.

    First, I think everyone in this nation is for reasonable gun control measures. The problem is we disagree as to what is reasonable and so particularly folks on the left tend to use such a nebulous label to imply that folks on the right are unreasonable. And secondly everyone is at least a little unreasonable sometimes.

    Another important aspect that was left out of the original article is the relationship between the militia clause in Article 1 and the 2nd Amendment. It is quite possible that states might be unable to restrict ammunition because this is a federal militia issue. The same goes for many other states.

    All of this being said, I would like to see some very simple rules in place not to regulate gun ownership directly, but to regulate irrespondible gun ownership. I think state and local governments need to pass laws where owning a firearm where an accident or crime involving that firearm results in the injury or death of another individual makes the owner strictly liable for such actions until the point where it is reported stolen. In other words if I steal your gun and murder someone, you are guilty of murder too unless you reported the gun stolen before I commit the crime.

  18. The very idea that this current government, a debauched claque of hifalutin though hilariously well-meaning charlatans pursuing a general course of bunko at home and abroad should hazard the idea that they are attempting to regulate arms for the protection of the citizens they putatively represent? Read Uncle Remus. Pay particular attention to the “Tar Baby”. Your government, by the way, is Brer Rabbit. Unfortunately, the Briar Patch is not an abstract construct, it is the reality they wish to obfuscate……across the ideological spectrum.

  19. The last paragraph identifies the issue precisely. Guns, and any weapons, are not in themselves the problem – the problem, in itself, is moral and cultural. We live in a society that does not properly value human life, does not have a coherent or unified philosophy as regards the individual’s rights and responsibilities in his relationship to society, in which sons are raised without fathers, and in which people live in almost total isolation from one another even within their own neighborhoods.

    A renewal of virtue, family life, and community life roots out the culture of violence and selfishness which pervade American society – then, and only then, will the prevalence of gun violence begin to decline. It’s a long and uphill slog to regain the culture – but raising children to be virtuous is it. You cannot legislate that – it’s my job and yours. The basic unit of society, upon which absolutely everything else hinges, is the family.

  20. This is a frustrating article. It is just another cleverly written defense for white males to have access to any weapon they want.
    “The security of a free state” is often held up as the defining principle of the 2nd amendment yet none who do can fathom the very idea that the amassment of arms themselves are creating a condition of insecurity. It may be true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But then it is equally true that you can’t have gun violence on the insane scale which we have created in this country if you don’t have guns.
    When we as a society had an epidemic of people flying through car windshields we enacted a set of laws that took away a persons right to purchase and in some cases even drive a car without wearing seat belts. We could do the very same thing to reduce the tragedy of gun violence in this country.
    Simply rationalizing the problem as one of a generalized violence as opposed to a specific gun violence does nothing but avoid the needed decisions to curb the deaths that are caused by guns. Would you feel safer on public streets knowing that everyone was armed with a gun or that no one was armed with a gun?
    Chicago is often held up as the perfect example for a rational against gun control when in actually it’s a text book case for a federal standardize gun control system. Chicago had 440 under high school age deaths by guns last year compared to Newtowns 20 deaths. Chicago confiscates over 10,000 hand guns a year off the streets. Compare those numbers to Toronto which confiscates less that a 100 a year. Toronto confiscates less not because they don’t try as hard but because they don’t have as many guns on the streets to begin with.
    Chicago may have tough gun regulations but they are meaningless. Legal gun buyers, which are the supply chain for every gun that ends up as an illegal firearm on the streets of Chicago, are purchased by the thousands across the border in Indiana.
    To suggest that gun control doesn’t work is a protectionist platform by those who want the current system, a incomplete and inefficient system designed to provide the least amount of “control” as possible. And to suggest that the gun deaths that happen on the south side of Chicago are somehow different, because they are gang related, than the gun deaths that happen in NewTown, is nothing short of racism.

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