Confronting the political problem of guns
We hope 2013 brings a civil, intelligent, and constructive national debate about gun policy. Past debates often failed to get traction because Americans have a fundamental disagreement about the meaning of the Second Amendment. Emotions and anger take over – and rational discourse disappears.
But we all now owe the 26 little children and teachers murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a sincere effort to bring light rather than heat to this debate. It does not advance progress for one side to insist that all guns should be confiscated while the other side argues “good guys” should shoot the “bad guys.”
What exactly is the right the Second Amendment protects? In the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, Justice Antonin Scalia was clear writing for the majority: The Second Amendment does not protect “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The “right to bear arms,” Scalia wrote, only applies to “the sorts of weapons … in common use at the time” of the Second Amendment – which was 1791. What was “in common use” then?
As Craig R. Whitney describes in his new book, Living With Guns, Congress passed the Uniform Militia Act in 1792 – requiring all free, able-bodied white males under age 45 to muster with a local militia and equip themselves “with a good musket or firelock.”
The Wall Street Journal, reading the Scalia opinion, states: “Governments can impose substantive regulatory limits: to license guns; bar felons or the mentally ill from buying guns; regulate certain types of heavy weapons.”
The modern equivalent of weapons “in common use” does not include the high-speed, high-capacity weapons used to massacre large numbers of citizens in Aurora, Colorado, or Newtown. Some gun advocates invoke the Second Amendment to thwart a meaningful discussion of what guns should be in “common use.” But the Founding Fathers never intended the Second Amendment to protect such extreme weapons from “substantive regulatory limits.”
Once the Second Amendment limits are recognized, the debate is not about the Constitution, but about policy. And policy here means politics.
Our representatives should not be permitted to hide from their responsibility to hold an open political debate with the excuse that our Founding Fathers resolved that question 220 years ago.
The National Rifle Association enters the picture, amply funded by the $11 billion firearms industry, which produces the kind of “dangerous and unusual weapons” that the Supreme Court specifically ruled are not protected. The National Association for Gun Rights sends pledges to legislators, saying: “I DEMAND you vote AGAINST any assault on my gun rights.”
Consider, the gun lobby has succeeded in blocking presidential nominees to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives since 2006 – even those nominated by President George W. Bush.
Guns are not the sole cause of these mass killings. But focusing on issues such as our mental health system and the extreme violence in video games will not solve the problem unless gun advocates are finally willing to enter into a responsible dialogue.
As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” Our political leaders are not bound by the Constitution’s Second Amendment to stand by helplessly when Sandy Hooks happen.
We do not face a constitutional problem, but rather a lack of courage to face a political problem.
First, we need to disenthrall ourselves from the notion that the Second Amendment prevents us from exercising our own judgment and making sensible political compromises.
Second, we need to understand how the current dependency on political campaign contributions has skewed the political debate about gun laws.
Finally, we need representatives with enough courage and conscience to remember the children of Sandy Hook when they deliberate what is in the public interest.
PHOTO (Top): Flag hangs over stockings left as a memorial for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on a fence surrounding the cemetery in Newtown, Connecticut, December 27, 2012. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
PHOTO (Insert Middle): Reproduction of a flintlock rifle, ca. 1775
PHOTO (Insert Bottom): An automatic weapon is displayed on a wall at the Scottsdale Gun Club in Scottsdale, Arizona December 10, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Lott