Happiness is a warm gun
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – The United States Supreme Court has affirmed the right of citizens to bear arms. Although proponents of an armed citizenry feel that such a decision brings an end to the discussion of gun control, there are a few things that need to be noted. Firstly, the second amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, but is not absolutely clear as to how that expressed right should be implemented. The phrase in question reads as follows:
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.
Gun control advocates have frequently argued that this should be interpreted to mean that a country should have a standing army to defend the state. The counter-argument was that the framers of the constitution meant that the people themselves should have the right to be armed. The Supreme Court apparently bought the counter-argument despite the “well regulated militia” phrase, so that’s the end of the battle over the constitutionality of the right of a US citizen to have firearms.
The second point though, is that the Supreme Court doesn’t determine whether that right should exist; it determines whether the right does exist. That determination means that if there existed sufficient public support, and political courage in the country’s leadership, a constitutional amendment could address the epidemic of gun ownership in the most heavily armed civilian population in the history of the world.
But the third, and perhaps most important point is this: no right, constitutionally guaranteed and protected or not, is absolute.
Freedom to bear arms, despite the protestations of the NRA, is no more absolute than any other right protected under the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Free speech certainly isn’t absolute; there are libel and slander restrictions, restrictions on disseminating classified information, making false emergency calls, uttering threats, and dozens of other limitations to where and when the right to free speech may be exercised. The right to life? There are more inmates on death rows in the US than any other country on earth. The right to liberty? The United States has a higher number of its citizens in prison, mostly for non-violent crimes, than any other country on Earth. Virtually every criminal law ever enacted can be construed as a limitation on somebody’s right to the pursuit of happiness, the third in that sacred trinity of guaranteed rights. It follows then, that reasonable limitations could be placed on the right to bear arms, without requiring a constitutional amendment.
The justification for placing limits on acknowledged rights is invariably the harm to others that can result from the unfettered exercise of those rights. The exercise of free speech, for example, can have a negative impact on the feelings and finances of others. Since finances and feelings are acknowledged to be important, libel, slander, and defamation laws are in place to restrict citizens from exercising their free speech when it can affect them negatively. The right to life, arguably the most fundamental right of all, can even be curtailed if it in some way is seen to benefit society for that right to be taken away from someone. A military draftee can be ordered into combat at the risk of losing that life, if it is deemed to be better for society as a whole. One is said to have forfeited one’s right to life in death penalty states if convicted of a capital crime. All of these justifications for limiting, restricting, or even removing a constitutionally protected right employ some version of the harm principle.
The paradox is that the most vocal supporters of society’s license to suspend even the right to life tend to be the people who most adamantly oppose any limitations on the right to bear arms. While a conservative hardliner might passionately advocate for the death penalty – the deprivation of a fellow citizen of his right to live – he may very well advocate every bit as passionately for no restrictions whatsoever on his and his neighbours’ right to bear arms. That inconsistent application of the harm principal is at the centre of much of the mayhem that is the undercurrent to life in the most firearm obsessed country in the world.
Having established that placing limitations on legally protected rights is precedented and reasonable within the context of harm reduction, we have to consider just what restrictions on gun acquisition and ownership would be appropriate in the United States of America. To do that, it is perhaps fair to consider the specific claims of the most vocal opponents to gun control and try to come sort of accommodation.
The NRA objects to restrictions on firearms because they claim that would have an unfair impact on hunters or those who keep weapons for self-defence. Fair enough. Say what you will about hunting, it is legal, and it is traditional in some areas. One can even argue that hunting ought to be done with bows and therefore guns are not necessary. Nevertheless, let us compromise even though every compromise increases the number of deaths by firearm that will occur. Let us accept that hunting rifles and shotguns ought to be permitted. Assault rifles, semiautomatic shotguns, high capacity magazines…none of these are necessary for hunting or self-defence. And surely a background check before one is permitted to buy a lethal weapon isn’t too onerous. A licence that assures the public that one has basic firearms safety training is clearly reasonable. A registry is not even a restriction on firearm ownership, so let’s have a long gun registry where each weapon has its ballistic fingerprint filed in a database available to law enforcement. What legitimate hunter or person intending to use a firearm only in self-defence could object to any of these steps?
Before people get (and I use the phrase advisedly) up in arms over licensing hunters and registering their weapons, let me point out that a firearm has only two purposes: to kill, and to practice to kill. We accept the licensing of cars and drivers, and automobile registration as necessary for public safety, and although cars can be lethal, killing is not their primary, much less their sole purpose for existence.
What remains to be seen is how the NRA is going to defend its radical position in the face of a nation grieving the deaths of twenty 6 and 7 year old children and their devoted caregivers murdered by use of a semi-automatic assault rifle owned, among other semi-automatic military and police weapons, for no apparent reason by a single mom and proud member of the National Rifle Association. Self defence? Her arsenal didn’t do her much good, apparently.
And let us remember as well that, despite their marketing, the NRA is emphatically not an association formed to represent gun owners or enthusiasts. The NRA is purely and simply a lobbying group financed to represent the interests of the manufacturers of the weapons used to murder innocent civilians, including children in Columbine Colorado, Casa Adobe Arizona, Aurora Colorado, Virginia Tech Virginia, New Town Connecticut….