Thursday, January 17, 2013

Own Your Guns, But Lets Have Some Limits Please

A month has passed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. And out of the anger and tears and grief and despair a conversation has begun.

Yesterday afternoon, with many of the families of the Sandy Hook victims looking on, President Obama signed twenty-three executive actions to strengthen background checks and expand safety programs in schools, and laid out his proposals for Congressional action related to gun control.

But before the President even scheduled his press conference, the NRA leadership was out in force speaking against any kind of gun regulation at all. And we were once again treated to a round of interviews and a well-rehearsed diatribe on the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms that has only gotten louder since NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre's press conference the week after the Newtown shooting.

A recent ABC/Washington post poll shows that, for the first time ever, more Americans view the NRA unfavorably than favorably. Not a huge surprise when the people speaking out for your cause are people like LaPierre, Executive Director of Gun Owners for America Larry Pratt, and Alex Jones, the conservative radio host who started the petition to get Piers Morgan deported and then showed up on Piers Morgan Tonight and gave an interview so insane that Glenn Beck said it sounded like the ravings of a fascist. And when Glenn Beck calls one of the faces of the pro-gun lobby a fascist, you know that something has gone terribly wrong.

This radical interpretation of the Second Amendment is most certainly not what the framers of the Constitution intended. What the framers actually did intend has been the subject of complex scholarly debate throughout most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and I am not a Constitutional expert. But after five semesters of Constitutional Law and an internship with the Anti-Defamation League I do have a pretty strong grasp on the concept of freedom.

Contained in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution are amendments guaranteeing certain personal freedoms that we enjoy as citizens of the United States. Most of them are pretty familiar to anyone who took a civics class in elementary school. They are, among others, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition the government for redress, and yes, the right to bear arms.

And what all of these freedoms have in common is the idea that the government may step in and place reasonable limits on our freedoms when those limits serve a strong governmental objective. I have written about this before, and I think that it bears repeating.

We are given the freedom of speech until our words will create a clear and present danger, incite immediate violence, or would interfere with a legitimate government interest. We have freedom of religion unless that religion practices human sacrifice, or it means children will die because their parents refuse to give them medicine to treat common illnesses. We have freedom of the press but are not permitted to publish falsities. We have the freedom to peaceably assemble, but cities are still permitted to place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of assembly to keep the peace and maintain public spaces.

Every freedom has its limits. This is the price we pay for living in a civilized society. So I have a really hard time understanding why the pro-gun lobby thinks that the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms is the only freedom we are afforded as Americans that should be virtually limitless.

In 2008, for the very first time, the Supreme Court upheld the individual right to bear arms in the case District of Columbia v. Heller. The majority determined that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. The case was obviously hailed as a victory for the gun lobby, and gun enthusiasts celebrated. But what is striking about this decision for me is that in his majority opinion, Justice Scalia also dedicated three pages to explaining that the Court's decision in Heller should not be understood to cast doubt on longstanding limits on possession of firearms such as concealed weapons prohibitions, prohibitions on possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of firearms. 

The pro-gun lobby is screaming about tyranny, and the socialist government "coming to get our guns." And while some of us would love nothing more than to outlaw gun ownership entirely and then go door to door to collect the ones that are already out there, as reasonable human beings we understand that that position is both unreasonable and impossible. President Obama himself has said that he does not oppose the right of people to own guns in their homes for their protection.

All we are saying is that we want our streets and our schools and our malls and our movie theaters to be safe. We want our children to not be taken from us before they really get a chance to live. We want to walk freely and without fear. In other words, own your guns if that's what you want, but we would like some limits please. And the Supreme Court said that we can have them.

But the NRA says no. For the past twenty-four hours every news show on TV has had someone from the pro-gun lobby explaining why the measures proposed by the President yesterday would only serve to curb the rights of law abiding citizens, and warned of a difficult road in Congress if these measures ever make it to the floor. 

A Texas state representative said that he was planning to introduce legislation in the Texas state house making it illegal to enforce a federal guns ban. Thousands of gun enthusiasts took to the internet to warn about a power grab by the Obama administration. Officials in at least three states vowed to resist any new gun laws. And in a video that went viral in the wake of the President's press conference, the head of a Tennessee gun training company called on all the "patriots" to "get ready to fight" if the Obama administration attempts to place restrictions on gun ownership, and vowed to start killing people if this conversation goes "one inch further." 

See, it's the hypocrisy that gets me. You can't say out of one side of your mouth that Obama's proposal would only serve to infringe upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners and then out of the other side talk about killing people if this goes even one step further, even if those murders would be most likely be committed with weapons purchased legally.

But that has always been the NRA's problem.

In his press conference a week after the Newtown shooting, LaPierre chided the American people for thinking for even a second that regulating firearms would do a thing to prevent any future gun violence. No, he said, it is our culture of gory movies and video games that stoke the flames of violence. Get rid of those and we will surely see a reduction in gun deaths. So imagine our collective surprise when, mere weeks after that press conference, the NRA released a gaming app for iPhone that helps players learn how to shoot by allowing them to choose among a number of rifles and handguns, shoot at targets and earn points for accuracy. And understand our shock when the App was initially rated as appropriate for children as young as four.

And they have spent weeks explaining how we shouldn't be wasting our time and money regulating certain types of firearms, but we should instead direct our resources towards placing armed guards and better security measures in schools, and are now coming out in full force against the executive actions signed by the President today, one of which involves increasing school safety measures. 

And they talk on and on about mass shootings being committed by the mentally ill without addressing the fact that the vast majority of the guns involved in these crimes are gun purchased legally, without so much as a background check.

Look, we don't want your guns, we really don't, as long as you buy them legally and own them safely. We might not like it, but it's really not up to us to judge. The Supreme Court says that the Second Amendment affords you this right, and we will be respectful of that. But you know what? You need to be respectful of us to. Of our right to be safe and protect our families. Of our right to life and to live without fear.

The President's proposal and his executive actions are not radical or tyrannical or a serious abuse of his executive power. And the new gun laws signed in to law in New York this week are not the first step in a move towards fascism. They are a measured response to a tragedy that has become all too common in this country, and to a serious public health crisis that shows no signs of abating. And arming more people and combing the streets to detain the mentally ill isn't going to fix it.

Truth be told, there is no easy fix. Of this I am sure. But banning military assault rifles, providing for background checks for all weapons purchases, outlawing high capacity magazines, and starting a meaningful national conversation about how to solve our gun violence problem are steps in the right direction.

So lets start there.


  1. My heart did a little nerd dance when you started talking about Scalia's opinion in Heller. Awesome post.

  2. This is really, really, REALLY well-written, Samantha! You said so much, so clearly. I don't know why there is so much just absolute lunacy about right now. It seems so logical and simple to me.

  3. This is a really great post! I am totally sharing!

  4. Great post Samantha! It's all so crazy, and you said it so well.

  5. This is very well-written. Awesome.