Politics & Policy

D.C.’s Outrageous Second Amendment Double Standard

If elected officials can possess guns, why can't the rest of Washington's citizens?

As if it were not disgraceful enough that America’s shining capital has for decades sought to suppress the right of its people to keep and bear arms, we now learn that a pernicious double standard obtains as well. Yesterday, over at Yahoo’s political vertical, editor Dylan Stableford surprised many of his readers by reporting that, in stark contrast to the citizenry in Washington, D.C., “members of Congress may keep firearms in their office, and may transport them, too — as long as they’re unloaded.” Thus, Stableford confirmed, had Colorado congressman Ken Buck been acting wholly within the law when he brought his American-flag-patterned AR-15 to his suite within the House of Representatives:

Buck told the Washington Post that he received clearance from authorities to transport the firearm from his home state to his office on Capitol Hill.

“I went to Capitol Hill police,” Buck said. “They went to the D.C. police, [and] they got permission for me to transport it into the District. I went to TSA, and followed all of the regulations in getting it onto the plane and getting it here.”

That Ken Buck cherishes his rifle is welcome news indeed. That he feels so strongly about the Second Amendment that he hopes to demonstrate his support in his own office is more pleasing still. But that he is permitted to do so while the people of the city in which he works labor under strict prohibitions is little short of disgusting. By confirming that “members of Congress may maintain firearms within the confines of their office” and that they may transport otherwise illegal guns through the city — without any of the requisite checks, natch — the Metropolitan Police Department is effectively admitting that the standard rules do not apply to the political class. This, I suppose, should not be too surprising — this is the same police department, recall, that revealed earlier this year that it is happy to apply the city’s strict firearms laws to everybody except celebrities — but it grates nevertheless. Clearly, had Representative Buck not been a member of Congress, his behavior would have rendered him in violation of a broad array of harsh regulations — many of which carry felony charges.

How much trouble would Buck have been in? A good deal. It is flatly illegal for any person in Washington, D.C. to a) own, transfer, or take possession of an AR-15 and its corresponding ammunition; b) to transport said gun around the city, regardless of whether it is unloaded or not; c) to bring any firearm onto the Capital Grounds; d) to possess a “high capacity” magazine such as the one that is depicted in Buck’s photograph; and e) to decline to register one’s firearms with the city’s police. Moreover, all “normal” gun owners are expected to submit to a background check and to comprehensive fingerprinting. Were he an average Joe, it seems safe to say that Buck’s photograph would likely have landed him in jail, and almost certainly would have ruined his life. Because he is a congressman, however, he is safe. “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States,” the Constitution promises. Do tell.

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All in all, it would be difficult to uncover a double standard that more perfectly illustrates the deterioration of the core American presumption that, here in the United States, politicians are the employees of a free people, rather than their rulers. I suppose it may be imagined at first glance that congressmen face greater threats than do most people, and that an exception within the law is therefore sensible. On closer inspection, however, this presumption falls apart. For a start, it is not at all evident that members of the national legislature operate within more dangerous conditions than, say, residents of Washington Highlands or Barry Farm. Moreover, in such cases as they are genuinely at risk, our federal politicians are provided with professional security — generally managed by the police or the secret service — of the sort that most Americans can only dream. Certainly, if Ken Buck or Louis Gohmert or Senator Ted Cruz feel compelled to take care of their own safety, they should be able to apply for a concealed-carry permit and choose the firearm that best suits them. But these avenues should be available to everybody else, too. That they are not is a sign of privilege, not of expedience.

RELATED: What the Times Doesn’t Get About the Second Amendment

That privilege flies directly in the face of the Bill of Rights, and it undermines the sentiments that animated its construction. I have contended before that the Second Amendment is the most philosophically important provision within the entire American legal settlement, establishing as it does that the citizenry’s inherent Lockean rights were by no means superseded by the passage of the social compact. I stand by that asseveration. As we learned this week, when Ted Cruz had the temerity to tell the truth about the Constitution, drawing such convictions to their logical and historical conclusions often makes for uncomfortable reading. But so be it. This is America, goddammit, and in America the people are sovereign. If the New York Times can really not grasp why it is unacceptable that a member of the House of Representatives can keep a rifle in his office but a local retiree cannot keep defunct ammunition on his desk, that says more about that newspaper and its grasp of historical events than it does about James Madison and his friends.

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In his 1803 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, the jurist and professor St. George Tucker drew a clear distinction between the old British model of government and the new American system, concluding that in the United States “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed . . . and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government.” In 1825, the lawyer William Rawle echoed this contention in what was probably the most widely read legal dictionary of the era. In Europe, Rawle observed, the right to keep and bear arms is permitted “cautiously” — that is, it is “allowed more or less sparingly, according to circumstances” and to an “arbitrary code” that the ruling class had put in place but was not bound by. Americans, Rawle noted, would have no such problems, for, as Madison had put it in Federalist No. 46, their Constitution accorded them “the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation,” in which “the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” To read the political, legal, and jurisprudential opinions that proliferated at the time is to recognize a simple message: Equality between the citizenry and the state is imperative.

Amusingly enough, Rawle believed that the greatest threat to the private ownership of firearms came from the states, and not from Washington, D.C. “No clause in the Constitution,” he argued, “could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to congress a power to disarm the people. Such a flagitious attempt could only be made under some general pretence by a state legislature.” Rawle, of course, was merely recognizing the reality of the legal environment pre-Incorporation. Nevertheless, he would presumably find it interesting to note that, 190 years later, the opposite fears are being realized. In Vermont, in Idaho, in Florida, and indeed in almost all of the states, the people are bound by the same rules as are their representatives. In Washington, D.C., by unhappy contrast, Rawle’s “flagitious attempt” has been made, and it has been made successfully. It is all very well for Ken Buck to hang his Second Amendment flag and his rifle on the wall of his office, the better to serve as an indication of solidarity. But his prerogatives are of no practical use to the 600,000 or so people living outside of his window.

“That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat,” George Orwell wrote during the horrors of the Second World War, “is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.” Unsurprisingly, Orwell was silent on the question of the House of Representatives . . . 

– Charles C.W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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