Absurdity Impedes Legitimate Gun Policy Debate

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It’s time to play presidential trivia.

Which American president wrote an op/ed in the New York Times endorsing a seven-day national waiting period on all handgun purchases, mandatory criminal and mental health background checks for all firearm purchases, and requiring the federal government to perform these checks if state and local governments declined to do so? In this same op/ed, the president in question touted his record of having “supported and signed into law” a bill mandating an even more stringent 15 day waiting period on gun buys in his state.

The answer: Ronald Wilson Reagan. The date was March 29, 1991. Congress at the time was considering the Brady Bill, named after Reagan’s former press secretary Jim Baker. Along with Baker, a policeman, and a Secret Service agent, Reagan was shot and wounded by John Hinckley, Jr. on March 30, 1981.

After recounting the incident that nearly took his life, Reagan wrote that states who refuse to comply with these background checks and waiting periods must be made to do so through federal mandates, writing that the proposals he was endorsing “would automatically cover the states” that don’t participate, creating “a uniform standard across the country.” If he had to run for president today the Tea Party and the NRA’s leadership would skin the Gipper alive, undoubtedly painting him as a mushy California moderate or a Hollywood liberal.

Fast-forward to Jan. 16, 2013. In response to Newtown—where deranged gunman Adam Lanza massacred 20 children and seven adults last December—the Obama White House released its plan to avert the next public bloodbath caused by a mass shooting rampage. According to Politico, the Obama administration’s proposals include renewing the assault weapons ban, mandating background checks for all gun sales, addressing illegal gun trafficking, ending the sale of high-capacity magazines and armor-piercing bullets, improving the availability and delivery of mental health services, tracking lost or stolen guns, adding $10 million to research the impact of violent movies and video games, and hiring 1,000 new school safety officers.

And in the other corner stands Obama’s chief opposition. A bellicose Texas congressman declared his intention to file Articles of Impeachment against Obama should he pursue these policies. Meanwhile, tasteless, ignorant graphics comparing Obama to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao surfaced on social media sites suggesting that the president is leading America down the path to Nazi Germany or Red China. Just days after Newtown, the NRA’s leadership introduced a half-baked idea to arm classroom teachers and recently released a web ad denouncing the safety precautions taken to protect the president’s daughters.

Opponents like these should strengthen Obama’s hand. Ideological, paranoia-fueled attacks intentionally ignore the facts of the situation while offering highly emotive arguments designed to instill fear into the hearts of the populace at the expense of a meaningful discussion about minimizing violence in American society. Lost is the opportunity to have a frank discussion about gun policies as many radicals fail to grasp the complex constitutional and policy questions at hand.

First we have the policy questions. Public opinion appears to be on the president’s side. A Jan. 14-15 CNN/Time/ORC poll found that 92 percent of Americans favor background checks for firearms sold at a store, 87 percent favor checks on firearms sold at gun shows, and 75 percent favor checks for guns sold between private citizens. Banning semiautomatic assault weapons is supported by a margin of 56 percent to 44, banning high capacity ammunition clips is supported 58 percent to 41, and mandatory registration is supported 69 percent to 31. A Jan. 9-13 Pew Research poll found that 80 percent of Americans favor a law preventing those with mental illnesses from acquiring firearms and 67 percent favor creating a national database to track firearm sales. Meanwhile, the NRA’s scheme to arm teachers in the classroom is opposed by 57 percent and supported by just 40 percent of those polled.

Second, we have the constitutional questions. History tells us that the Bill of Rights was written to protect the rights of the citizen while simultaneously limiting the powers of the state. However, the courts have ruled that our rights are not absolute. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee an unfettered, unconditional right to free speech. Regarding the First Amendment, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote in a 1919 opinion that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

The Second Amendment should be viewed in a comparable manner. The text states that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The language is unclear regarding the definition of “Arms,” allowing the legislature leeway in determining what kinds of “Arms” are lawful and necessary. Also, the idea of what it means to “infringe” on the right “to keep and bear arms” is indistinct. Although hardcore survivalists would consider hand-held rocket launchers or nuclear weapons to be “arms,” it makes little sense to believe that banning these items could possibly “infringe” on the constitutional rights of any American citizen.

In a July 30, 2012 interview with Fox News, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the court’s majority opinion striking down DC’s blanket gun ban in District of Columbia v. Heller allows for the constitutionality of other gun-related public policies “to be decided in future cases.” Scalia’s commentary signals that legislatures and public officials have a role to play in setting gun policies that will inevitably be reviewed by the courts.

Those who argue that President Obama is taking America down a slippery slope to Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia by pursuing any new firearms policies are intentionally bypassing the basic policy and constitutional questions that deserve an open, honest debate. Sadly, they are also ignoring our nation’s long and growing list of sickening public bloodbaths with names such as Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown.

Americans owe the families and victims who have suffered through the horrors of these public shootings more than just kooky talk, delusional fantasies about black helicopters, and asinine comparisons between Obama and Hitler. I am not suggesting that all of Obama’s proposals are the right ones, but it is time to commence with the serious debate by leaving the irrational paranoia at the door.


Category: General | Tags: ,

    3 Comments so far

  1. John C. Berg says:

    Always so reasonable, Nathan! I wouldn’t be surprised to see you follow the course of Sen.Spector some day.

  2. Michelle says:

    Did you get that rocket launcher bit from me? 😉 Great job, Nate!

  3. Bob says:

    Well said! I am proud of you and your ideas!

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