The Second Amendment is vague. An argument can be made for being allowed to own a firearm, but it is absurd to believe that the hazy nature of the Second Amendment does not allow for a debate on what sort of weapons are available, and to whom they are made available.
Following the unconscionable sunset of the ten-year Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, gun policy assumed a political status of third rail proportions for control advocates. Despite the critical need for a safer, smarter policy direction, the American gun lobby and gun rights activists rendered meaningful legislation all but impossible, and the issue simmered quietly on the lowest lit back burner of the policy stove. Not anymore.
In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, gun policy narratives are exploding in every direction, illuminating the complex, ideology-heavy web that engulfs United States firearm laws and mental health care as they relate to one another. Unlike previous mass-shootings in Aurora, Blacksburg, Oak Creek, and Tucson, it seems the American public has finally come online, thrusting gun policy back into the political frying pan.
The ensuing political debate is not falling along the typical, post-massacre lines. Gun rights advocates and their friends in Congress are on the defensive. The ever-outspoken National Rifle Association seems to be abiding by a self-imposed gag-order. The group’s Twitter page has gone silent, and the group’s Facebook page seems to have been deactivated. NBC’s David Gregory and CBS’s Bob Schieffer extended invitations to GOP Senators and NRA officials to speak on their respective Sunday morning shows to discuss the incident at Sandy Hook as it relates to the American gun culture. Not a single GOP Senator or NRA representative accepted the invitations. Pro-gun Democrats like Harry Reid, Joe Manchin, and Mark Warner are coming out of their NRA appeasement caves to signal their willingness to march with control advocates toward a smarter, more restrictive gun policy. No word from NRA about these Democratic about-faces.
Rather, it is in the media sphere where the debate is roaring along its usual fault lines. There is the natural split between the pro-gun hardliners and the control advocates. The hardliners are convinced their weapons are not the real issue, and either dodge sideways to discuss only mental health screening or hold the second amendment aloft like a trump card in the face of anyone who suggests that loopholes on background checks should be closed or high capacity magazines and assault weapons should be illegal. The control advocates are coalescing behind a call for stronger restrictions on the types of firearms to be issued and more effective mental health screening procedures for those seeking to obtain them. Many who found themselves on the fence about the language of the second amendment and the human cost of a lax gun culture have made the move leftward, shaken to their senses by the carnage visited upon twenty elementary school kids and their teachers. This progressive shift is being felt across all media forms and markets, as control advocates are finally stepping forward to eviscerate the inevitable gun lobby talking points.
In his response to Anthony Machinski’s pro-gun rights piece “Gun Control: You Can’t Test Irresponsibility”, Tom Hashemi of the The Risky Shift takes dead aim at common pro-gun rights assertions (But gun control won’t stop these tragedies! But I am a responsible gun owner! But what about cars? Cars are dangerous too!). After making mince-meat of Machinski’s anti-deterrence arguments, Hashemi briefly dismisses the Second Amendment argument, and goes on to state that “No matter how much the facts stack up on one side, votes will be matched along these lines of identity, not of rationality. What needs to change is what “freedom” really means: that we should be looking upon it as freedom from death and suffering, not freedom to wield a weapon of your choice to cause it.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be proud. This is a strong and convincing appeal. It treats our Constitution, our language, and our citizens like adults, capable of serious change that stays true to the spirit in which our founding document was written. However, for the purposes of capitalizing on the nation’s new-found sense of focus on progressive gun policy reform, the conversation about the meaning of “freedom” might be best saved for a different day. In the immediate aftermath of the incident at Sandy Hook, action must be swift and decisive, or the momentum will recede the way it always does. We will hear the same old arguments against any concerted move to alter American gun culture and law as it stands today. As Hashemi noted, this is tied directly, if misguidedly, to a warped concept of “freedom” and the Second Amendment. But why waste time arguing over the definition of “freedom” when you don’t have to? The Second Amendment is vague. An argument can be made for being allowed to own a firearm, but it is absurd to believe that the hazy nature of the Second Amendment does not allow for a debate on what sort of weapons are available, and to whom they are made available. If that were the case, ex-convicts could mount cannons on their roofs, and who could protest?
Recognize this, and the arguments for smarter, more effective gun restrictions become monumentally simple. From now on, if the Second Amendment argument is going to be made by people who are looking backward two hundred years to a law fitted to the extraordinary nature of the time and place in which it was implemented, the response should not trample on that. Why waste your breath? Instead, the response should be simple, clear and cross none of the gun-rights activists’ “freedom” defenses: You have a right to own certain guns, pending the results of your mental health screening and background check. No tyrant will come for those guns. They are yours, and you are free to have them. We are not talking about control or government overreach. We are talking about precaution and prevention.
Update, 4:40 PM: The NRA has released its first statement since Friday’s incident in Newtown. The NRA states that it “is prepared to help make sure this never happens again.” How comforting. I look forward to hearing how they plan to help.
Photo Credit: taberandrew