The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights lay out fundamental rights guaranteed to all people in our nation, from free speech and the free exercise of religious beliefs to freedom to assemble and the right to bear arms. None of these rights, however, are absolute or unconditional. They can’t be, because any one right must be tempered or constrained by the boundaries other rights create. The right to assemble does not mean that five hundred people can gather on your front lawn, because it’s your property and you get to choose who comes and goes. The right to free speech does not include shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing a stampede, or knowingly making false accusations against another person publicly. The freedom of religion does not enable Muslims in Dearborn to mandate fasting for the community until sundown, or Pentecostals in Tennessee to write the dress codes for girls attending public schools.
Rights come with responsibilities, one of which is to understand and respect the necessary limits imposed by other rights.
And yes, this applies to the Second Amendment. Or at least it is supposed to. Increasingly it’s clear that for many people, the Second Amendment trumps all others, becoming an absolute and unconditional right; one that can’t be limited in any way. Putting aside the very important question of whether or not the framers intended it to be an individual right – it speaks of a “well regulated militia” after all – gun ownership is now, for many on the political right, the very essence of freedom. But that’s a relatively recent development.
As Steven Rosenfeld points out in “The NRA Once Supported Gun Control” https://www.salon.com/2013/01/14/the_nra_once_supported_gun_control/, for most of the organization’s nearly 140 year history, sensible gun control legislation was not only tolerated, but encouraged by the National Rifle Association. This included help in crafting and passing both state and federal gun control laws, from FDR’s time through the early 1970s.
Things changed with new NRA leadership beginning in 1976, when it began to make the case that the Second Amendment was an absolute right and therefore, any efforts to limit guns, gun sales, gun capacity or gun ownership were unconstitutional. Before too long we arrived at where we are today, with guns as symbols of freedom, as an essential bulwark against government tyranny. Where any and every firearm limit – armor-piercing bullets, short waiting periods, bump stocks and assault-style weapons, ‘Red flag’ laws to remove guns from an abuser - every single one is fought as an existential battle.
Something else happened from the late seventies to the present day: An extreme right wing emerged in our politics and culture, distorting history, rewriting the role of citizens, deifying the market, attacking immigrants, the poor, African Americans and many other ‘others’, and taking the long-standing American belief in individualism to its logical, and utterly anti-social conclusion. This is how we got to Stand Your Ground laws; to protecting domestic abusers; to a white nationalist, neo-Nazi movement that is both growing and increasingly lethal; to on-line embrace of the darkest and most cynical conspiracy theories; to real world taunting, harassing and threatening of the victims of gun violence, including many of the parents of the Newtown kids; to the absurd argument that only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns.
And to where the right to assemble is undermined by the fear of mass shootings.
We urgently need to pass universal background checks, a national red flag law, and limits on gun size and magazine capacity. All of those things will save lives, with minimal inconvenience for gun owners like myself. But we also need a ‘political revolution’, to quote Bernie Sanders, one that begins the long and difficult challenge of reinvigorating our economies and communities, of restoring citizenship, and perhaps for the first time, building a society based on empathy and love. It’s an absurd proposition, given both our history and the present moment. But what other options do we have?