October 6, 2015

What Liberals Need to Know about Gun Control in the U.S.

Flickr/AK Rockefeller

As the President intimated, following the latest mass shooting at an Oregon community college, the political response to such tragedies in our nation has become cyclical.

Gun enthusiasts continue to churn out justifications and liberals drive themselves crazy trying to refute all of these arguments.

I am not pointing my finger—I am just as guilty as anyone else. I spent the better part of my weekend arguing with gun enthusiasts on Facebook, all to no avail.

The truth is that gun control supporters have made little headway on this issue. Why? Because we stray from the issue at hand.

Gun control advocates need to understand that gun control is not a matter of opinion, nor is it a subject that gives predominance to reason, statistics or foreign precedents. It is a matter of American law. Liberals are losing the argument because they are being sucked into secondary, and frankly, irrelevant arguments by gun enthusiasts.

The NRA says things like, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” because it begs a pointless debate. It forces their opposition to take an abolitionist stance against guns, which as I will explain, is a losing argument.

Gun rights advocacy groups use anecdotal half-truths and fallacious reasoning to bait liberals into misguided debates. They redirect the conversation by saying things like, “Gun control laws regulate the behavior of decent law abiding citizens, not criminals.”

Of course, this argument is easily picked apart. Obviously, gun control laws regulate the behavior of decent, law-abiding citizens and not criminals. All laws regulate the behavior of decent law abiding citizens—that is the nature of the relationship between criminals and the law. The law gives society a certain amount of leverage over criminals, because it enables society to enact consequences for certain behaviors.

If we were to follow the gun enthusiasts’ logic through to its conclusion, we would reason that all legislation is meaningless, because it only regulates the behavior of law-abiding citizens. It would follow that we shouldn’t bother with legislation that deters murder, driving under the influence, theft or domestic violence—because only decent people abide by those laws.

This is clearly nonsense. And it is the superficiality of this argument that makes it so seductive to liberals and effective for gun rights groups. It distracts gun control advocates from the subject at hand, which is the law.

“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.” ~ Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution

John Paul Stevens, former Supreme Court Justice, writes:

“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms.”  

These words are like music to the ears of liberals. But we shouldn’t get too attached to them, because they are the dissenting opinion, not the law of the land.

I am not saying that Justice Stevens is wrong—I would not presume to tell a Supreme Court judge he is mistaken about the law—but, his argument did not emerge victorious. I am saying that, for the time being, Liberals need to let go of that argument, because it is a losing argument.

In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court decided—in a 5 to 4 case—that the Second Amendment was not limited to purposes of the militia but extended the right to keep and bear arms to individuals, independent of any military need.

In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia explains that the prefatory clause—“a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”—does not limit the operative clause—“the right of the people to keep and bear arms”—exclusively to military purposes. The prefatory clause only emphasizes the military component in order to prevent the state from deteriorating into a despotic form of government. It states the necessity of the objective clause, which is the individual’s right to keep and bear arms, but it does not limit the individual’s right to that purpose.

This is more or less the interpretation of the Second Amendment by this Court. This interpretation is contested by other members of the court though. After all, the Second Amendment does explicitly say that its intent is to establish a well regulated militia to ensure a free state.

According to the dissenting interpretation, states and local governments have the authority to regulate the ownership and use of firearms. But this is not the majority opinion of the court, and therefore not the law of the land. In the coming years, perhaps new judges will be appointed that interpret the law differently—enabling states and local governments to pass laws that prohibit ownership of handguns or assault rifles. But as it stands, such legislation is wishful thinking. It would be struck down by the courts.

As it stands, now gun enthusiasts are winning the argument, because liberals are ignoring the legal and political reality of our country. Gun enthusiasts are baiting liberals into arguments that force them to take a prohibitive stance against firearms, a position that is simply unrealistic and doomed to failure when considered against the legal and political backdrop of our country.

The President recently said, “In governance, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want, but you have to work with people who you disagree with—sometimes strongly—in order to do the people’s business.”

If liberals hope to make headway on the issue of gun control and reduce gun violence in this country, then the conversation must change. We must look at the political landscape of our nation and determine what is feasible—and then, with one voice, demand change that is both effective and politically realistic.

This sort of political pragmatism and unity requires leadership. If the President wants to lead the charge, then he must put forward some common-sense gun laws that are both effective and politically realistic, and then lead the push for reform.

We will not get 100% of what we want, as the President told congressional Republicans. We will not ban handguns or assault rifles, but we should fight for what we can get—universal background checks through a federal database that all states are forced to contribute to, and mental health provisions that keep guns out of the hands of high risk individuals.

The President’s leadership on marriage equality and healthcare reform led to significant political victories for the left, because it unified supporters behind one central message. The lack of a clearly defined objective and a central, unifying message is what is missing from the left, on this issue.

It is why we are spinning our wheels.



Break the Numbness & Get Loud: a Response to the Oregon Shooting.


Author:  Benjamin Riggs

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Flickr/AK Rockefeller

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