Can any constitutional right be ‘absolute’? How about the Second Amendment?

I support the Second Amendment.

Despite what you may hear, almost everyone does.

That’s because it is part of the Constitution, and it would be hard to find any American who does not support the Constitution. It contains seven original articles and 27 amendments, and virtually every American supports all still in effect – including the Second Amendment.

Just because you support the Constitution may not mean that you like all of it. The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1870, supposedly assured voting rights for African Americans. Because of opposition in some states, that right did not begin to take full effect until 1965.

Though bound by the Constitution, some states refused to apply it for about a century. There’s little sign that people who favor background checks on gun purchasers would say the Second Amendment should simply be nullified under state laws, as was the Fifteenth.

Are there any movements to repeal parts of the Constitution? Yes, there are people now ardently advocating repeal of a part of the Fourteenth Amendment giving American citizenship to any person born within the boundaries of the United States. They oppose citizenship for such children if their parents are illegal or undocumented immigrants.

But it is much harder to find similar groups devoting their efforts as actively to repealing or even amending the Second Amendment. Even people who are unhappy with the Supreme Court decision on firearms have accepted it.

So why do some politicians and gun organizations attack those favoring limits as not supporting the Second Amendment?

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of people’s right to own and use guns. The decision was written by the late Justice Scalia, a conservative judge. It overruled a District of Columbia law that could undermine that right even in your own home.

The Court said, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

In the decision, Scalia wrote for the Court that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

The decision also confirmed the government’s right to control “dangerous and unusual weapons.”

Gun control opponents, while applauding the Court’s ruling on firearm ownership and use, disagree. They believe that the Second Amendment, unlike other constitutional rights, guarantees an “absolute” right on which no limits may be placed.

The argument about whether you support the Second Amendment turns on this point.

Without much evidence, “absolute” gun supporters charge that those favoring limits want to repeal the Second Amendment and would start by requiring background checks on purchasers. Simply because they propose any limits, they are supposedly on the slippery slope to outright repeal.

Absolutists may worry about what followed the Supreme Court ruling that women may have abortions. Some state governments disagree, and they have created increasingly restrictive ways to reduce or eliminate abortions through limits clearly intended to overrule the Supreme Court decision.

After mass shootings of innocent people, defenders of an absolute Second Amendment argue against new limits, claiming we should focus exclusively on the shooters and not place any obstacles on their easy access to guns.

Can we reasonably expect to identify in advance every mentally ill or deeply disturbed person in a country of 320 million people? Impossible. So access to guns, which can be used to quickly kill groups of people, might be made a little more difficult.

The issue could be seen as a conflict between the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for ourselves and our children, promised by the Declaration of Independence, and the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”

Which right would come closer to being absolute? Must we accept the killing of school children, followed only by routine and pious expressions of official sympathy, because the Second Amendment cannot be subject to any limits?

We cannot ignore the Constitution, including the Second Amendment, and remain “united.” But, as a civilized people, we should not ignore the increasing plight of innocent school children shot down by killers with easy access to guns.

The obvious answer in the vast and diverse American democracy must be compromise, which would involve some limits, at least including full-scale background checks, but not repeal.

I support the Second Amendment. But I cannot accept that it is the Constitution’s only absolute, unlimited right.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.