As Reason magazine noted last week, a cross-section of student protesters at the March For Our Lives rally in Washington believe security is more important than constitutional rights. Now, none of the measures they claim to support would prevent crimes such as the Parkland massacre, and American kids have a better statistical chance of winning Powerball than of being a victim of a mass shooting. Yet their position that Second Amendment rights can and should be sacrificed to assuage their fears is still essentially embraced by many Americans, even if gun control advocates rarely state their views so bluntly.
The problem with the gun debate in this country after Parkland is the same as it’s been over the last generation every time some horrendous crime involving a firearm reignites the discussion. Liberals keep decrying gun violence and demand “common sense” laws — to use President Obama’s favorite phrase —to remedy the situation. In response, gun rights advocates say none of the Left’s proposals, be they anodyne measures like background checks that even most gun owners support or other ideas like bans on classes of weapons like an amorphous category such as “assault rifles” and age restrictions on the purchase of some guns, would have done a thing to prevent any of the mass shootings.
That assertion is correct, but it makes little difference to those who make far-reaching claims for ideas that only nibble around the margins of the issue. In a nation awash in guns and where the individual right to bear arms is protected, there isn’t much point to any of the proposals aimed at making firearms purchases more onerous, whether rooted in common sense or not.
That is all the more troubling now that the chief spokespersons for gun control are teenage Parkland students like David Hogg. Hogg and his colleagues deserve credit for exercising their rights to speak up on issues they care about. Yet their willingness to demonize the National Rifle Association and anyone who opposes them with foulmouthed accusations about being killers of children means this dialogue of the deaf continues in a race to the bottom.
Stevens Pierces the Fake and the Fog
The good news is that former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens has a proposal that could at least make for a more honest discussion. In a New York Times op-ed, he re-upped his idea that we should be discussing the repeal of the Second Amendment, not more “common sense” laws that can’t be passed.
Stevens says the majority decision in Columbia v. Heller that reaffirmed an individual right to bear arms was wrong. That is unpersuasive. So, too, as is the claim of former Chief Justice Warren Berger he quotes that it is a “fraud” to believe that the Second Amendment places severe though not absolute limits on the right of the government to restrict gun ownership.
The majority opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia makes it clear that the purpose of the amendment was always to ensure the rights of individuals. Stevens, who wrote the dissent in the case, still thinks he’s right. By talking about repeal rather than re-arguing the case before a Supreme Court that still has a conservative majority, he is conceding that Heller will stand for the foreseeable future.
But whatever one might think about his cribbed view of the amendment’s meaning or his desire to discard it, he’s right when he says this is exactly what the student protesters, both those who are behaving in an exemplary fashion and demagogues like Hogg, should be talking about.
Yes, They Really Do Believe in Banning Guns
While Democrats and others who push for more gun control rarely admit it, guns and gun culture appall most liberals. Many make little secret of their disgust at the idea of collecting guns or even hunting. Their social media feeds are full of comparisons to countries where gun ownership is limited.
The ultimate goal of many, though far from all, on the Left is to essentially apply the same kind of restrictions to gun ownership that exist in many major cities that make it difficult if not impossible to own or carry guns. That’s why the split in this country is not so much generational as it is regional with those — young and old — who live where gun ownership is normative backing gun rights and those who live areas where it is unusual opposing them.
That’s why the debate about guns always ends in stalemate no matter what the polls say about public support for particular proposals. The incendiary rhetoric the students employ only deepens that divide and increases the bitterness and suspicion on both sides.
Democrats avoid talk about repeal for good reasons. Up until now there has been little public support for tampering with the Constitution. Even liberals pay lip service to the notion of gun rights and, as Obama often did, mock the notion that their goal is to take away the guns of law-abiding citizens.
More Honesty Is Around the Corner
In the aftermath of Parkland, the anger of student protesters and their intolerance for the views of the National Rifle Association and those linked to it is growing. Under these circumstances, the Left’s coyness about the Second Amendment may change.
More to the point, as we head toward the 2020 presidential election in which the Democratic nomination will be largely decided by which potential candidate is able to secure the affections of the party’s left wing, the time may soon be approaching when liberals will be able to own up to their desire to drastically restrict gun rights in a way that was unimaginable only a few years ago.
Although that sort of debate sounds horrific to conservatives, they should actually welcome it since it would at least provide an opportunity to talk about something real rather than the disingenuous discussion about proposals that do nothing but make the lives of law-abiding citizens more difficult.
So should the rest of the country. If gun control remains an issue that most Americans care about one way or another— and that will continue to be the case if mass shootings continue to happen every few months — then they should be debating core questions about rights and the government’s responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens rather than diversions politicians create to convince the public they are doing something when they’re not.
It is a debate conservatives should continue to win. But whether they do or not, it is high time we stopped wasting our time fighting about things that don’t matter rather than those that do.