The horrific Newtown, Conn., mass shooting has unleashed a frenzy to pass new gun-control legislation. But the war over restricting firearms is not just between liberals and conservatives, it also pits the first two amendments to the U.S. Constitution against each other.
Apparently, in the sequential thinking of James Madison and the Founding Fathers, the right to free expression and the guarantee to own arms were the two most important personal liberties. But now these two cherished rights seem to be at odds with each other and have caused bitter exchanges between interpreters of the Constitution.
Many liberals believe there is no need to own semiautomatic assault rifles, magazines that hold more than ten bullets, or even semi-automatic handguns. They argue that hunters and sportsmen don’t need such rapid-firing guns to kill their game — and that slower-firing revolvers and pump- or bolt-action rifles are sufficient for home protection.
Implicit in the liberal argument for tighter gun control is the belief that the ability to rapidly fire off lots of bullets empowers — or indeed encourages — mass murderers to butcher the innocent.
Most conservatives offer rebuttals to all those points. Criminals will always break almost any law they choose. Connecticut, for example, has among the tightest gun-control laws in the nation. A murderer can pop in three ten-bullet clips in succession and still spray his targets almost as effectively as a shooter with a single 30-bullet magazine. Like a knife or bomb, a gun is a tool, and the human who misuses it is the only guilty party. An armed school guard might do more to stop a mass shooting on campus than a law outlawing the shooter’s preferred weapon or magazine.
Homeowners should have the right to own weapons comparable to those of criminals, who often pack illicit semi-automatic handguns. If mass murders are the real concern, should ammonium nitrate be outlawed, given that Timothy McVeigh slaughtered 168 innocents in Oklahoma City with fertilizer? Banning semi-automatic weapons marks a slippery slope — each new restriction will soon lead to yet another rationalization to go after yet another type of gun.
Liberals counter that, just as free speech can be curtailed without infringing on the First Amendment (you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater), the constitutional right to bear arms is not infringed upon by the banning of semi-automatic, large-magazine firearms or by current prohibitions against heavy machine guns.
Conservatives reply that the chief purpose of the Second Amendment was not necessarily just to ensure personal protection from criminals or the freedom to hunt with firearms, but, in fact, to guarantee that a well-armed populace might enjoy some parity to an all-powerful, centralized government. To the Founders, the notion that individual citizens had recourse to weapons comparable to those of federal authorities was a strong deterrent to government infringing upon constitutionally protected freedoms — rights that cannot simply be hacked away by presidential executive orders.
That may be why the brief Second Amendment explicitly cites the desirability of a militia. By intent, it was followed by the Third Amendment, which restricts the rights of the government to quarter federal troops in citizens’ homes.
So which amendment should we begin pruning to deal with monsters like those at Newtown and Columbine?
The Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, was known to be mentally unstable. He sat for hours transfixed by violent video games — in a popular culture of cheap Hollywood mayhem where bodies implode on the big screen without anyone worrying over the effect of such gratuitous carnage on the viewer.
Just as semi-automatic weapons mark a technological sea change from the flintlock muskets of the Founders’ era, computer-simulated video dismemberment is a world away from the spirited political pamphleteering of the 18th century. If we talk of restricting the Second Amendment to protect us against modern technological breakthroughs, why not curtail the First Amendment as well?
How about an executive order to stop Hollywood’s graphic depictions of mass killings, perhaps limiting the nature and rationing the number of shootings that can appear in any one film? Can’t we ban violent video games altogether in the same way we forbid child pornography? Isn’t it past time for an executive order to curtail some of the rights of the mentally unstable — given that the gunmen in mass killings usually have a history of psychic disorders and often use mood-altering drugs?
If conservatives have ensured that there are millions of semi-automatic assault weapons in American society, liberals’ unprecedented expansions of free expression have led to an alarming number of unhinged Americans on our streets, nursed on sick games like Grand Theft Auto and hours of watching odious movies such as Natural Born Killers.
Legislating away the evil in men’s heads and hearts can be a tricky — and sometimes unconstitutional — business.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2013 Tribune Media Services