President Obama says he wants to “politicize” the gun control issue. That happened a long time ago.
Opposing him is the National Rifle Association. It is a major political player, helping elect many candidates sympathetic to its position, which is based on three main points.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution allows people to own firearms, and the NRA opposes any limits on that basic constitutional right.
One of the concerns when the Constitution was adopted in 1789 was that an overly powerful government, as the British had been, would oppress citizens. The people should be allowed to keep arms to support a state militia, a military force able to resist a central government’s use of excessive power.
Aside from the Constitution, if people have guns, the NRA says, they can protect themselves against armed lawbreakers.
The NRA view is that, if the government controls gun ownership and use, it can erode citizens’ ability to exercise their rights. In fact, the NRA says it fears that even the first steps in gun control, like expanded background checks of gun purchasers, would lead to further steps ending with a ban on gun ownership.
The NRA’s critics include some people favoring an outright ban on guns. But others, worried about the high number of mass shootings and armed killings, insist they do not demand a ban, but just some reasonable limits.
This debate relates both to the Second Amendment and to the realm of practical politics.
Nobody doubts that the amendment, which received little discussion during the adoption of the Constitution, could have been better drafted. Its casual drafting is one reason for arguments about its meaning.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly ruled that the Second Amendment allows people to own firearms and not merely for the limited purpose of a state militia. But the Court also said, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”
Writing for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia continued, “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.”
This statement places the Court and the Constitution on the opposite side from those insisting that the right “to keep and bear arms” must be unlimited to prevent government from invading or eliminating the right itself.
There is much evidence relative to other constitutional rights, ranging from “freedom of speech” to freedom from “cruel and unusual punishments,” that rights have been limited by government without being abolished. Courts interpret broad constitutional statements and prescribe limits in specific circumstances.
On the question of whether the government would seize power, creating some form of dictatorship by overturning the Constitution, during its 226-year history, there has been no serious sign of that happening.
The outcome of two presidential elections – in 1876 and 2000 – in which a majority vote was overridden by actions of the federal government did not cause a rebellion such as has occurred in many other countries. A common commitment to the American system and its institutions and not individual gun ownership caused political stability.
In short, there are issues with the NRA’s arguments that the Second Amendment right cannot be limited and must be absolute.
Aside from constitutional considerations, gun owner groups say that, if people are armed, they can police themselves by using their guns against armed lawmakers. But, with a more heavily armed population, the U.S. does not have a lower violent crime rate than other developed countries. It has a much higher homicide rate.
Recognizing public concern about mass shootings, the NRA and its allies answer that society should pursue the obviously impossible goal, however desirable, of identifying every mentally unbalanced person who might wield a gun and denying them ownership.
The NRA’s political critics point out that gun manufacturers, seeking more sales, back the organization. With revenues from them and over four million members, the NRA enjoys great political influence flowing from its ability to influence elections by its campaign spending. Given the NRA’s political clout, the president’s announcement looks almost futile.
Perhaps the only for comfort gun control advocates may come from same-sex marriage. The quick reversal of majority opinion on that question reveals how public opinion can change on a major issue. It suggests that repeated mass shootings could move voters to support successfully some gun control while still respecting gun ownership.