Last week, a mild, eminently sensible bill to extend background checks to private sales of guns, supported by 90% of the American public, died a not-so-quiet death in the Senate.
Although technically it won a 54-vote majority, that wasn’t enough to surmount a likely filibuster, let alone get it through the House of Representatives.
When it comes to gun rights and gun safety, the vocal minority always wins—even though it’s a shrinking minority.
Fewer than one-third of U.S. households own a firearm, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. That’s down from 53% in 1970. So, the estimated 270 million firearms in the U.S. are in the hands of fewer and fewer people, who own more and more weapons.
I’ve never owned a gun and have never gone hunting. I’ve lived in cities most of my life, including in some dicey neighborhoods, but never thought having a gun would protect me. If I lived in a rural area, however, I might consider owning one and learning how to use and store it safely.
So, I support the Second Amendment but with no great enthusiasm. To me, the First Amendment and the separation of powers embodied in the Constitution—not the Second Amendment–are the true guarantors of our liberties.
And there are serious restrictions on the First Amendment:
- We have freedom of speech, but people can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater, download child pornography or threaten the president or other public officials.
- We have the right of free assembly, but demonstrators need police permits and must stay in specified areas.
- We have freedom of the press, but media outlets can’t advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.
- We have freedom of religion, but religious people can’t proselytize or pray in public schools.
So, only the right to bear arms must be completely free of restrictions? Why? Because it allegedly guarantees the other rights and protects us against “tyranny”?
Hence the extreme statements by a GOP official in Arkansas. Outraged that fellow Republican legislators had voted to expand Medicaid, Chris Nogy wrote:
The 2nd amendment means nothing unless those in power believe you would have no problem simply walking up and shooting them if they got too far out of line and stopped responding as representatives...
Republican officials quickly disavowed that statement, but I think it’s where the Second-Amendment-as-Guarantor-of-Liberty argument leads, when you push it to extremes.
When do we face the kind of “tyranny” that justifies the use of arms? When the Affordable Care Act is implemented? Or when an elected Congress or state legislature passes laws liberty-loving Americans don’t like?
Ironically Tea Party Republicans’ great victory in the 2010 election helped them check what they viewed as the worst excesses of an expansionist government and change the direction of the country– without firing a shot. It demonstrated that citizens can organize and pressure elected officials to change what they see as unjust policies.
Even the Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act also prohibited the federal government from penalizing states that refused to expand Medicaid—a major legal victory for Obamacare opponents.
And did you see how much firepower the Boston Police, FBI and other agencies mounted to catch the one remaining Tsarnaev brother last week? Do even heavily armed militia members really think they can resist a federal government determined to capture them?
So, Second Amendment absolutism is only partly about hunting or self-protection or defending liberty; when it comes down to it, this is all about one third of the population who like owning guns, and the rest of us have to pay the price.