Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Finally, the Supreme Court makes a 2nd Amendment decision

Much has been written, some good, some bad, some even worse, about the "original intent" of the 2nd Amendment. "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.". Past Supreme Court decisions have somewhat skirted the issue of whether the 2nd Amendment is as basic a citizen's right as, say, the 1st Amendment's guarantees of free speech and freedom of (and from) religion rather than a right only granted in the context of the needs of states to staff militias (i.e. the National Guard). This Court's decision, combining both the 2nd and 14th Amendments, did not dance around the subject, albeit the decision was along the usual hidebound and increasingly pathetic ideological lines.

Seems to me that if the writers of the Constitution didn't want to grant citizens the right to bear arms, they wouldn't have explicitly granted it to the "People". They might have granted states the right to form militias, or granted members of those "well-regulated militias" the right to keep and bear arms. The writers instead granted the right to the People and seemingly treated the militia and the people as one and the same for good reason, i.e., a fundamental mistrust of standing armies under the control of strong men. Therefore, the writers granted universal right and responsibility to the People to be armed for the mutual defense and to presumably act responsibly.

Tony Heaton, with whom I sometimes have common ground, adds this on his own blog:

"...I don't think (the Founding Fathers) would and I've seen none of their writings that would suggest that ( letting localities or states circumvent the 2nd Amendment) was their intent. Their writings are quite the opposite. Thomas Jefferson said, “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” During Virginia's Convention to ratify the Constitution, George Mason, Co-author of the Second Amendment was asked “What is the militia?” His answer, “It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” Patric Henry said, “The great object is that every man be armed.”and “Everyone who is able may have a gun.” Thomas Paine said, “The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand arms, like laws, discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as property. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside... Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.” Alexander Hamilton, “The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed...”

To those who think this Court made a bad decision or that the 2nd Amendment is now so outmoded as to be ridiculous in an age of standing armies and highly trained "warfighters" armed with high tech gadgetry, one still has to beg the question to assume the People no longer have the right to bear arms. For those who want to limit the public's access to guns I think the path forward is obvious: amend the Constitution. We passed and then rescinded a Constitutional amendment installing Prohibition so there is precedent for adding restrictions to our lives and later changing our minds; indeed, the Constitution is a living document. But its getting increasingly ridiculous to argue with extreme convolutions of logic that the 2nd Amendment's rights to individual gun ownership is not a fundamental part of the Bill of Rights, which was after all added to the Constitution to guarantee individual rights, not the rights of well-regulated militias. Disarming an increasingly unruly underclass points to more serious social and political problems than the presence of guns, whose rampant misuse in our cities seems a symptom of a far more serious disease.

I have grave doubts as to the validity of any argument that erodes our Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, as the justices said, no right is absolute, and this decision does not mean that state, local and Federal government is unable to put some restrictions on gun ownership or to restrict some classes of weapons entirely. I doubt that the Founding Fathers original intent was that citizens keep a short 12 pounder loaded with grapeshot handy to repel burglars. What the ruling means is that like prior restrictions on speech, the burden of proving that a restriction is reasonable is on the government to argue compellingly for its validity rather than on the citizen to fight off onerous stupidity. Thus, any bill on its face has to be compelling. Banning or restricting weapons that have no legitimate private use can still be argued successfully as some of the amicus briefs argued. Indeed, some of these amicus briefs cite past restrictions on handguns. But the bottom line is the 2nd Amendment is safe. For now.

Past Constitutional arguments on hate speech and other speech-limitation cases may provide useful guidance too. And, of course....

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