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GUN CONTROL: A BIPARTISAN ASSESSMENT 

 

By William J. Dodwell    March 10, 2018

 

Once again, in the wake of the recent Parkland, Florida high school shooting that killed 17 people, the gun control debate takes center stage, this time with seemingly greater resolve to take action.  The issue involves many competing interests but mainly focuses on the Second Amendment right to bear arms vis a´ vis public safety risk, especially at the hands of mass murderers.  Those on the right invoke the constitutional freedom to bear arms to defend against a potentially tyrannical government, while also extending that right to self-defense against private transgressors.  Critics on the left claim the current availability of guns fosters their criminal use, most horrifically in mass murders, and they concede little regard for their need in self-defense.  The following examines the basic premises underlying the positions on both sides.

 

On the right:  The Second Amendment and tyrannical government

 

The Second Amendment

 

The Founding Fathers enacted the Second Amendment in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War waged against a tyrannical motherland, Great Britain, and in the absence of a national standing army that was largely disbanded after the war.  Many objected to a federal army out of fear of its oppressive powers.  Rather, state militias defended the colonies from foreign aggressors and functioned as an internal police force.  Today established armed forces defend the nation’s security, while local police throughout the land enforce the law under the auspices of the Department of Justice and the FBI.  The question is whether the threat of the government taking up arms against the people, so feared in colonial times, is still a cogent prospect or an outmoded notion. Is that danger plausible enough to warrant the risk that common access to guns poses to public safety?  The left considers the prospect of authoritarian government intervention outlandish.  The right considers it real.  Thus, the bitter debate over restrictions on the freedom to bear arms established in the U.S. Constitution.

 

Most conservatives believe, that despite a benign military and local law enforcement, an inimical government still has the power and inclination to nullify constitutional freedoms by physical force, if necessary, in the effort to maximize its power.  As such, Americans are entitled to arm themselves as promulgated in the Second Amendment of the Constitution in just one sentence that reads:

 

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.

 

This right, established in the context of colonial times, was affirmed by the Supreme Court, first in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller regarding federal law, and again in 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago in respect of state and local law.  However, many on the left do not accept these decisions.  In fact, ironically, some liberals accuse the Court of judicial activism on the issue.

 

Tyrannical government

 

Consider that Nazi Germany and other authoritarian countries throughout history confiscated all guns in the course of imposing dictatorships.  Here at home, non-military agencies of the federal government have stockpiled guns, ammunition and military equipment in recent years according to Adam Andrzejewski, founder and head of OpenThe Books.com.  They include such Rambo-style units as the IRS, EPA, Small Business Administration, Treasury, VA and Department of Education. Why?  Also, why do Obamacare questionnaires that doctors are required to present to patients and return to government ask whether they own guns?  Does that inquiry speak to an altruistic exercise to protect the citizenry against its murderous self, or to a nefarious effort to quell potential opposition to an unlawful government? 

 

In view of growing intrusion on the people’s freedoms by an increasingly polarized and corrupt government, fostered by stifling political correctness, heavily promoted by academia and mass media, the right believes a government coup cannot be ruled out.  This is why conservatives oppose a national gun registry as it would facilitate confiscation in the event the government becomes a police state that tries to overthrow the democracy.  Indeed, a disarmed citizenry would remove an important check on the continued accretion of government power, as well as on the ultimate nullification of constitutional freedoms.

 

Today, conservatives worry that the increasingly liberal Democratic Party poses the risk of tyrannical government.  Indeed, the Democratic ranks are becoming more progressive as new candidates emerge, especially from the state legislatures.  For example, consider the left’s growing globalist and redistributionist bent and its defiance of the Constitution in the support for open borders and sanctuary cities, ultimately aimed at producing Democratic voters that will entrench the party and the welfare state.  The abrogation of federal immigration law also is part and parcel of a campaign to promote identity politics as a means of balkanizing the electorate around personal grievances rather than traditional constitutional principles that bind the nation. 

 

Also ponder the erosion of free speech protected by the First Amendment as evidenced by the suppression of conservative expression in the schools and colleges.  Indeed, this censorship fosters acquiescence to an ever-expanding canon of political correctness, a derivative of identity politics.  More broadly, the progressive view is about supplanting meritocracy with egalitarianism that engenders public support for, and reliance on, the state.   In another act of tyranny, conservatives believe woefully lowered academic standards in the schools are designed to ultimately thwart intellectual challenges to liberal orthodoxy so as also to cultivate future Democratic voters.

 

Also threatening the republic is the left’s insistence on ever-growing centralized federal government, regardless of fiscal strains, that encroaches on the rights of the states.  What’s more, an increasingly activist judiciary accommodates this leftward tilt, sometimes irrespective of constitutional restraints.  A particularly egregious example of this overreach is the 2017 ruling of Judge Derrick Watson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii against President Trump’s Muslim travel ban.  Astonishingly, he ignored specific support for the ban in the governing statute in direct defiance of the law.

 

As liberal Democrats amass executive, legislative and judicial control, the prospect of further diluted constitutional freedoms on which the nation has prospered becomes more likely.  While Republicans currently control the federal and state governments, power can shift quickly, even to the point where the government might resort to physical force to protect its dominance.  Given Democratic extremism exemplified above, a certain de facto tyranny already exists.  The right to bear arms is an important deterrent against that ultimate transgression by ensuring the government may not act with impunity.  Indeed, images of the American Revolution against British tyranny are not far removed.

 

The Obama example

 

To illustrate the vulnerability of the U.S. as a free constitutional republic to an overweening government, conservatives need only cite the anomalies of the Obama administration and its Marxist, globalist, redistributionist bent.  The president’s unaccountable flouting of the law suggests a potential slippery slope that could conceivably lead to an overt tyrannical turn on the people.  Consider the following examples.

 

  • The shirking of federal immigration law through a catch and release policy, and ordering border agents to stand down. Obama also unconstitutionally decreed effective amnesty for some 800,000 DACA immigrants by executive order.  In that spirit, many liberal cities and some states followed suit with impunity declaring themselves sanctuaries for illegal aliens, many of whom are criminal - all in the quest for future Democratic votes.

  • The deceit in foisting the Affordable Care Act on the people.

  • An imperious EPA that bankrupts citizens and companies for failing to comply with draconian environmental rules, such as the disingenuous designation of wetlands and pollutants based on extremely expansive applications of the law.

  • Other suffocating regulation and unconstitutional executive orders that stifle economic growth. Also, the coercive legal settlements imposed on banks by the unconstitutional Consumer Finance Protection Board that discouraged banks from lending.

  • The IRS maliciously denying tax-exempt status to qualifying conservative groups and its refusal to fully cooperate with Congressional investigations.

  • Evidence of illegal surveillance of the Trump team through illegal unmasking, and of Democratic efforts to undermine his administration through Obama loyalists planted throughout the administrative bureaucracy dedicated to blocking his reforms.

  • The evidentiary corruption of the DOJ and FBI in the effort to derail Donald Trump’s candidacy for president in favor of his Democratic opponent; complicity in falsifying an application for a FISA warrant to justify his surveillance through submission of a fabricated dossier.

  • The DOJ’s clandestine diversion of bank settlement funds related to the 2008 financial crisis to corrupt inner city civic groups, such as ACORN and its successor organizations.

  • The FBI’s contrived acquittal of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her email violations and her pay-to-play schemes involving the Clinton Foundation, despite abundant evidence suggesting criminal wrongdoing; this included her concurrence to sell 20% of the U.S. uranium supply to Russia in exchange for a $145 million payment to the Clinton Foundation; the DOJ acquiesced throughout.

  • Obama-directed falsified intelligence reports that minimized U.S. struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan to create the appearance of progress.

 

The right points out that compounding the gross improprieties of the Obama years was the complicity of corrupt media determined to protect the current and historical record of the first black president, an important liberal precedent.  To that end, all media refused to vet him as a candidate, to include ignoring abundant indications of his foreign birthplace that, if established, should have constitutionally disqualified him for the presidency. What’s more, Obama’s intransigence and collaborative media propaganda were largely accepted or ignored by the American people, inasmuch as Hillary Clinton garnered a majority of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election.  In view of this public acquiescence to government corruption, it is not inconceivable that such a renegade state could eventually invalidate remaining freedoms by force.  Only armed patriots could thwart the attack.

 

Some conservatives believe the nation rests on tenuous grounds, increasingly adrift from the principles of its founding. As such, they insist the right to bear arms is paramount as an antidote to tyranny, even if the resistance is executed on behalf of a popular minority.

 

On the left:  Public safety vs. the Second Amendment

 

Semi-automatic rifles

 

Gun critics cite many reasons for restricting firearms.  They believe the more guns extant, the greater the risk of crime and accident.  That concern supersedes the remote threat of a tyrannical government, and even the right of self-defense in private life.  Today, particular focus centers on mass murders and semi-automatic weapons, especially the AR-15. (Automatic arms are illegal.)  The left claims such arms are not necessary to protect against private transgressors and dismisses the probability of a government takeover of the people.  The right argues semi-automatic rifles are essential for effective defense, especially against potential hostile government forces, and legitimate for other purposes as well.  What’s more, conservatives point out that so-called assault weapons are used in only 2% of some 12,000 annual gun crimes, and are instrumental in a relative handful of gun fatalities.  Yet, that rifle gets disproportionate attention because of sensational media coverage following mass shootings in which it is commonly deployed.  In addition, semi-automatic rifles are lawful for hunting and other recreation, such as shooting competitions and hobby use, enjoyed by liberals and conservatives.  As such, the popularity of those activities is a major political obstacle to curbing the legality of semi-automatic rifles.

 

Calling out the NRA

 

The debate on the left largely centers on the demonization of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the premier gun owner advocate for the Second Amendment.  It promotes pro-gun arguments, and funds political campaigns in exchange for legislation favorable to gun owners.  The left claims this organization is just a proxy for the gun manufacturers and a conduit for their funding gun-friendly representatives in government.  As such, might NRA-influenced laws accommodating gun access exist to protect gun-makers’ profits at the expense of public safety?  Relatedly, is the NRA’s objection to raising the age for gun purchasers predicated on protecting Second Amendment rights, or is it out of concern for the revenues of its benefactor, the gun manufacturers?  

 

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, the NRA seems to face unprecedented resistance as many companies have broken ties with the organization under threat of boycotts.  Targets include companies that offer discounts and perks to NRA members, such as banks that issue the NRA Visa card.  The boycott movement is urging technology companies, such as Google, Apple and Amazon, to stop streaming NRA-produced videos.  And investment firms are under pressure to sell proprietary and client portfolio stocks of companies engaged in the sale or manufacture of guns.  The mass media in its animus toward gun ownership portray the NRA as the bogey man while giving short shrift to law enforcement lapses, consideration of mandatory armed guards, as well as to the Second Amendment itself.

 

But a much entrenched gun culture in this country provides enormous support for the NRA and gun ownership.  Consider Georgia Governor Nathan Deal who, at the behest of his Lt. Governor, Casey Cagle, signed into law a bill rescinding a tax break for Delta Air Lines in retaliation for cancelling discounts for NRA members.  As such, federal legislation to restrict gun access has been heretofore a non-starter as elected officials fear the consequences of supporting it.  (It’s like a politician’s fear of offending the AARP, a powerful lobby for the large voting retiree population.)  To wit, Congress allowed the 1994 assault weapon ban to expire after ten years because of little political appetite to renew it.

 

Raising the age for gun purchases

 

Is increasing the age requirement for gun purchases discriminatory as some conservatives claim?  The minimum age for the purchase of alcohol and tobacco is a safeguard against disproportionately irresponsible behavior among youth.  Likewise, a minimum voting age ensures a certain maturity beneficial to the public selection of elected officials.  Should that concern about irresponsibility and immaturity among youth not also apply to guns without being unduly discriminating?  Many on the left believe a higher minimum age requirement would eliminate a segment of the population largely associated with gun abuse. 

 

But conservatives argue that such an age limitation on gun ownership denies the constitutional right of self-defense, while an age limit on alcohol, tobacco, or voting only denies an indulgence or electoral representation.  One might ask why a minimum age would not be lowered to, say, 12 if maturity is not a factor.  To that point, gun restrictionists would say that one who owns a gun poses a potential danger to others, while one who consumes tobacco and alcohol, or who votes, does not, thus supporting a higher eligibility age for the gun owner.  In any case, most believe a lower age requirement for military use of a gun is justified by the precedence of national defense, and the fact that risk is limited to the relatively few who wear the uniform.  When considering limiting gun ownership through age requirement, or anything else, because of the risk of harming another through accident or murder, one has to consider the seriousness of denying one the important Second Amendment right of self-defense. 

 

In a different vein, some think the pervasiveness of violent video games coarsens attitudes about the responsible use of guns as to create an appetite for carnage, especially among youth.  Is an age restriction or other limitation in order here?  How about the influence of movies that so commonly portray violent characters wielding the assault weapons Hollywood decries in its political protestations?  Indeed, the movie rating system restricts viewership to above a certain age.  The jury is still out on these questions, but any consideration has to be weighed against the austerity of denying the public the entertainment value of these products.

 

The Parkland shooting – a watershed event

 

The Parkland, Florida incident reached a critical mass sparked by law enforcement failing to act, as reportedly four local deputies hid outside the school without engaging the shooter.  What’s more, both the FBI and the Broward County Sheriff’s office dismissed numerous reports in the decade before the shooting that the confessed assailant, Nikolas Cruz, was a serious threat to public safety.  Citizen calls even expressed alarm about his stated plan to attack a school. 

 

Historically, short of a preferred outright gun ban, gun critics have called for a reliance on effective law enforcement and a universal background check to preclude the need for civilian intervention in shootings.  By contrast, gun advocates have said law enforcement is not enough because it often fails, while background checks often are intrusive and ineffective.  They believe an armed civilian auxiliary, best attuned to the many potential abusers imbedded in the local social fabric, is necessary to take up the slack in identifying and engaging suspects.  In fact, most conservatives say the Parkland killings would have been limited if teachers and others were armed, especially in view of the cowardice supposedly displayed by the deputies.  Now it appears changes are afoot.

 

The Parkland massacre marks a tipping point in the gun debate as yet another mass murder, among several in just the last couple years, has frayed public patience to the point of a large scale grass roots call for reform.  As such, some advocate reinstating a ban on so-called military-style rifles, as well as outlawing controversial accessories, such as bump stocks.  Why are these weapons necessary?  Gun advocates invoke the tyrannical government scenario.  But why would they be needed to thwart an intruder or other private transgressor?  Conservatives minimize the risk guns pose as they claim irresponsible shooters are the problem, not guns per se. Therefore, emphasis should rest on deterring and challenging assailants through maximum armed force within reason.   

 

An anomaly

 

Why isn’t law enforcement brought to bear for not trying to quash the numerous daily gun murders occurring on the notorious South side of Chicago, despite the strictest gun laws in the country?  Where is the outrage on the left about those killings?  The likely reason that the mayor and law enforcement do not engage is racial politics.  To challenge the atrocities in that predominately black community would result in a race war with massive casualties on both sides.  The abundant supply of illegal guns coupled with an implacable criminal force determined to use them to protect turf makes for a potential racial clash with volatile implications throughout the body politic.

 

 For that reason, the politicians have no appetite for intervening.  And the police lie low in understandable fear of their lives in what would be a bloodbath as the opposition would resist en masse.  There would be little “hands up, don’t shoot” capitulation there.   In this case, the right points to the ineffectiveness of gun laws, while the left calls for a complete ban on guns.  But, truth be told, liberals mainly are mute about Chicago because they are loath to focus attention on rampant black crime.

 

Solutions

 

The extreme solution to the gun dilemma is to ban all guns at the expense of recreational and self-defense considerations, including protection against a government attack, a position espoused by much of the left.  A more realistic approach is to isolate the bad actors and prevent them from purchasing a gun in the first place, especially the mentally ill.

 

 To that end, more rigorous background checks and improved registry and attendant infrastructure are supported by much of the left and the right.  Senator John Cornyn (R - TX) proposes a version of this in his “Fix-NICS” bill which would supposedly detect many would be assailants before they strike.  This bill refers to repairing the incomplete FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database designed to flag gun abuse suspects. Data systems integration is key to avoiding silo-effects that break the flow of information (as they did prior to the 9/11 attack).  Those identified as risks according to prescribed criteria would be banned from purchasing arms and required to relinquish any already owned.  What’s more, proponents say civilians should have a systematic link to the process as unique grass roots reporters of suspect conduct.  Additionally, Florida Governor Rick Scott just signed into law the implementation of a state-wide database to identify anyone who makes a threat or is struggling with mental health. 

 

However, vast background check systems are a slippery slope that challenge constitutional due process and could falsely malign innocent people, as well as deter some mentally ill from seeking needed help.  The vetting process to identify potential gun abusers is fraught with possible error, fraud and privacy concerns.  Indeed, false positives could taint one’s reputation and employment prospects, as well as unduly deny the constitutional right to bear arms.  Ideally, criminal probability would be assigned to profiles, but that could be an exercise in sorcery. For these reasons many liberals and conservatives are skeptical of expansive databases as a preemptive tool to reduce gun abuse.

 

Rather, conservatives stress better enforcement of existing laws that follows up on leads and ensures effective engagement by officials on the scene.  In addition, they support supplementary law enforcement in the form of armed guards and trusted trained civilians in schools and certain other public venues, like those that already exist in airplanes, airports and elsewhere.  But added risks and costs give critics pause.  Accidents, as well as the misplacement or theft of guns are possibilities, and tight school budgets are at cross purposes.  Other security measures call for raising the minimum age for purchasing a firearm, and perhaps limiting the number of guns owned.  In a nod to the new seriousness of the gun abuse problem (or to political correctness), some stores have discontinued the sale of military-style rifles. Walmart has even stopped selling toy guns.   Conservatives insist that, if Second Amendment freedom is to be compromised, it has to be in exchange for actions that substantially mitigate gun abuse.  In other words, gun restrictions must be effective to justify the right to bear arms.  Just placating political interests must be avoided.

 

Striking a balance

 

In the final analysis, a tradeoff between public safety and self-defense sanctioned by the Second Amendment always remains.  On the left, insouciance about the Second Amendment because of the seeming remoteness of a government takeover engenders a disposition toward restricting gun ownership in favor of safety. So too does the left’s reliance on law enforcement for engaging criminals absent a complement of armed citizenry.  However, the right’s concern about a government threat to Second Amendment freedom, in the form of gun restrictions, confiscation or physical attacks against the people, compels gun availability in order to preserve all precious constitutional freedoms. This right to armed self-defense applies to encounters with private aggressors as well.  Conservatives believe criminals will always find guns, lawfully or not. This means restricting their availability at the expense of law-abiding citizens is misguided

 

On the left, the disproportionately severe emotional impact of mass murder necessitates gun restriction as a preventive measure.  But on the right, such potential devastation demands gun accessibility to minimize such slaughter through the presence of guns as both a deterrent and a means of resistance.  In short, the left believes the abundance of guns invites violence, and therefore should be restricted.  But the right claims guns are necessary for self-defense against tyrannical government and all manner of transgressors, in conjunction with law enforcement. 

 

To best reconcile the two disparate perspectives, gun law has to optimize safeguards against gun abuse without unduly infringing Second Amendment freedom.  This means laws must demonstrate effective deterrence and tactical opposition against aggressors to justify gun right concessions.  In the process, law enforcement must be held accountable for its lapses to ensure appropriate adjustments. 

 

Continued dissatisfaction on both the left and right is inevitable.  But if some mix of proposed reforms substantially limits gun abuse while reasonably upholding the right of the public to bear arms to defend itself, victory may be declared.  The balancing act can be adjusted as experience dictates, but unfortunately, politics will always rear its ugly head, which too often undermines the commonweal.

                                                                        ©2018 William J. Dodwell


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