Even if the adopters of the Second Amendment intended it as protection against their own government – at best a long reach in both logic and the historical record – it does not provide the absolutism the extremist wing of the gun lobby claims for it.
Yet every word and act by the leaders of such organizations as the National Rifle Association occurs within that false frame, and as a result, any discussion of ways to make our lives safer begins in an atmosphere of raw emotion wrapped in groundless fear.
The gun lobby’s leaders are not going to change the methods that have worked for them for almost a century unless and until their reasonable, earnest gun-owning backers, elected officials and average citizens tell them clearly that they are far out of the mainstream of American thought and that the nation is going to move on without them.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court’s supreme originalist and resident ideologue, Antonin Scalia, does not contend that the Second Amendment bars all government action. He wrote, in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
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But that’s how the gun lobby’s leaders would have it, and over the decades they have apocalyptically preached, as Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s spokesman, did recently in yet another fundraising letter: “I warned you this day was coming and now it’s here. It’s not about protecting your children. It’s not about stopping crime. It’s about banning your guns.… PERIOD!”
That such nonsense can dictate the parameters of an important national conversation and freeze the courage of members of Congress and other elected officials is another symptom of the illness of extremism that has seized our political process.
Even the express rights guaranteed in the First Amendment, including freedom of speech, are not unlimited and are constantly being balanced against competing public and political interests. That ongoing conversation does not occur, however, in a contrived atmosphere of fear that “the government” is going to swoop in and gag every mouth and seize every pen.
The NRA leaders’ ideas for reducing gun violence but preserving a right they view as absolute include more regulation and tracking of video games, movies and unbalanced “dangerous” people. Their insistence on constitutional absolutism obviously does not extend to the First and Fourth amendments. The entertainment industry, with perhaps more cumulative clout than gun groups, has legitimate concerns about additional regulations but at least does not set up its defenses in a fantasyland of conspiracy theories and groundless fears.
Gun-rights advocates are correct in saying that history’s most ruthless dictators consistently have tried “to take away the guns.” But it is also true that the dictators moved first to silence dissent by curbing free expression. That they sometimes briefly succeeded at both speaks less of the danger of a too-powerful government than it does of the danger of a society that is paralyzed by intransigent extremism.
The head of a Tennessee weapons company posted online a seething, wild-eyed, expletive-filled video ending: “If it goes 1 inch further, I’m going to start killing people.”
Where does that fit into our ruminations about the Second and First amendments and reasonableness?