In a speech in Philadelphia Thursday, Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate Bill Weld displayed a shift from his previous stances about the right to bear arms.
After a few questions about the Veterans Administration—Weld favors privatizing it on the Medicare model—one college-age supporter at the Temple University event asked how, if the Constitution guarantees the right to life, can it also countenance the right to bear arms as broadly as it does in twenty-first-century America?
Given Weld’s support for restricting Second Amendment rights in Massachusetts when he served as governor there, a libertarian could be forgiven for questioning his commitment to the Constitution here.
Gun Rights Protect Our Right to Life
Weld first gently dismissed the student’s constitutional argument, noting that document also enshrines the right to bear arms, and that the right to life in no way contradicts it. As he extended his argument, Weld did not rely on the more mainstream arguments about sportsmen and home protection. Instead, he adopted the classical liberal approach—the one the Founding Fathers favored—of insisting that personal firearms ownership is essential for the defense against a tyrannical government.
In nations where the state has deprived the citizens of guns, Weld noted, liberty has not fared so well. That defense of gun ownership, in particular, is telling; it is usually not one offered by lukewarm gun controllers looking to hide their opposition to gun rights. Like many ideas of small-l libertarians, it harkens back to the natural law on which our Bill of Rights is based.
Weld drew on his background as a federal prosecutor to describe the need for keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists and people with mental illness, spending more time on the need to effectively fight the latter group. Many Libertarians may question his timely change of heart on guns. But in making a vigorous defense of Second Amendment liberties, it appears Johnson and the Libertarian Party may be rubbing off on Weld.
Weld’s History on Guns
Weld’s history on the right to bear arms is varied, but mostly on the side of the gun controllers. When he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a Republican in 1990, he opposed an assault-weapons ban. Three years later, have caved to the majority-Democrat legislature and supported a ban. Weld even went further, as The New York Times noted in an article that year: “His proposed legislation would also limit the number of handguns an individual could buy and would impose tough penalties for illegal gun sales and gun-related crimes.”
While more jail time for criminals who use guns is popular with most Americans and consistent with the Constitution, other limitations Weld backed in 1993 are off-limits to most Libertarians and Republicans. Indeed, questions about Weld’s gun control record formed one basis for opposition to his nomination at the Libertarian National Convention earlier this year.
If Weld has, indeed, changed his mind on the topic—and his comments last week should leave no doubt of that—the Johnson-Weld campaign would do well to get that message out if they wish to attract anti-Trump conservatives and other voters interested in preserving their Second Amendment rights.
Weld on the Campaign Trail
The event’s turnout would be considered light for a major-party nominee, but was credible for a third-party candidate on a rainy day in a very Democratic neighborhood. Weld’s speech was positive, and more policy-focused than much of what passes for oratory in 2016. Much of what he said was standard fare for a moderate Libertarian, but his Second Amendment shift may help reassure conservatives considering voting for him and Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson in November.
Although he described himself as having been a “small-l libertarian” since the 1970s, Weld’s stump speech was, like most of the Johnson-Weld effort this year, more reminiscent of John Anderson than Ron Paul. It is not the worst approach, under the circumstances. When the two major-party candidates are both widely perceived as corrupt and unlikeable, preaching apolitical sanity and compromise makes a lot of sense.