In the wake of the horrific Isla Vista, California, mass killing, Americans have once again engaged the debate over gun proliferation. Victims’ families issue primal cries for regulation of these deadly weapons and gun activists respond by waving the Constitution and declaring their “fundamental right” to bear arms is sacrosanct. Indeed, such right-wing luminaries as Joe the plumber, who not long ago shared the stage with the Republican nominees for president and vice president, said explicitly:
“Your dead kids don’t trump my constitutional rights.”
Iowa Republican Senate candidate Jodi Ernst, known for her violent campaign ads in which she is seen shooting guns and promising to “unload” on Obamacare, had this to say when asked about Isla Vista:
“This unfortunate accident happened after the ad, but it does highlight that I want to get rid of, repeal, and replace [opponent] Bruce Braley’s Obamacare. And it also shows that I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. That is a fundamental right.”
This argument is set forth by gun proliferation advocates as if it has been understood this way from the beginning of the republic. Indeed, “fundamental right to bear arms” is often spat at gun regulation advocates as if they have heard it from the mouths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson themselves. But what none of them seem to acknowledge (or, more likely, know) is that this particular legal interpretation of the Second Amendment was validated by the Supreme Court all the way back in … 2008. That’s right. It was only six years ago that the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 decision with the conservatives in the majority, naturally) that there was a “right to bear arms” as these people insist has been true for over two centuries. And even then it isn’t nearly as expansive as these folks like to pretend.
Justice John Paul Stephens discussed his long experience with Second Amendment jurisprudence in his book “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” and notes that when he came on the Supreme Court there was literally no debate among the justices, conservative or liberal, over the idea that the Second Amendment constituted a “fundamental right” to bear arms. Precedents going all the way back to the beginning of the republic had held that the state had an interest in regulating weapons and never once in all its years had declared a “fundamental right” in this regard.
So, what happened? Well, the NRA happened. Or more specifically, a change in leadership in the NRA happened. After all, the NRA had long been a benign sportsman’s organization devoted to hunting and gun safety. It wasn’t until 1977, that a group of radicals led by activists from the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms took control and changed the direction of the group to one dedicated to making the Second Amendment into a “fundamental right.”
What had been a fringe ideology was then systematically mainstreamed by the NRA, a program that prompted the retired arch conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger to say that the Second Amendment:
“Has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime”
The results are clear to see. Mass shootings are just the tip of the iceberg. Today we have people brandishing guns in public, daring people to try to stop them in the wake of new laws legalizing open carry law even in churches, bars and schools. People “bearing arms” show up at political events, silently intimidating their opponents, making it a physical risk to express one’s opinion in public. They are shooting people with impunity under loose “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” legal theories, which essentially allow gun owners to kill people solely on the ground that they “felt threatened.” Gun accidents are epidemic. And this, the gun proliferation activists insist, is “liberty.”
Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Constitutional Rights has thoroughly documented all this history in his book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” a bit of which was excerpted in Politico magazine. He recommends that progressives who care about this issue think long and hard about how the right was able to turn this around, making a specific case for taking constitutional arguments seriously and using their “totemic” stature to advance the cause. He suggests that they adopt a similarly systematic approach, keeping this foremost in mind:
Molding public opinion is the most important factor. Abraham Lincoln, debating slavery, said in 1858, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” The triumph of gun rights reminds us today: If you want to win in the court of law, first win in the court of public opinion.
In his book, Justice John Paul Stevens suggest a modest tweak to the Second Amendment to finally make clear what the founders obviously intended:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”
Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize the slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands. Those emotional arguments would be nullified by the adoption of my proposed amendment. The amendment certainly would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument.
This is important. As Waldman notes, where the NRA Headquarters once featured words about safety on the facade of its building, it is now festooned with the words of the Second amendment. Well, some of them anyway:
Visitors might not notice that the text is incomplete. It reads: “.. the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The first half—the part about the well regulated militia—has been edited out.
If they truly believed the 2nd Amendment was absolute and totally clear, you’d think they’d show all the language, wouldn’t you? One can only conclude that they are trying to hide something: its real meaning.
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