At another point in our history, just a couple of decades ago, the events of the past week would have generated a fierce debate between supporters and opponents of gun control. Today, however, the mall shootings in Nebraska and the Sunday mayhem in Colorado simply provide the latest visually compelling content for the 24/7 cable news machine. We watch, we shake our heads, we curse the perpetrators. Then we move on to the next story. This week it was Omaha, Colorado Springs, and Arvada. Before that it was an office here, a house party there, a social club somewhere else. Soon tragedy will invade another quiet Middle American city and the process will begin anew.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution remains perhaps the most perplexing legacy passed down by the authors of that great document. The Framers might have opted to provide Americans with an unabridged right to own and carry firearms. Conversely, they might have chosen to allow the states wide leeway to restrict the ownership and use of deadly weapons. Instead, they seemingly did both. The first half of Amendment 2 refers to a "well regulated militia"; the second guarantees the "right of the people to keep and bear arms".
Neither side of the gun control argument has acquitted itself terribly well over the years. Indeed, both the pro- and anti-gun forces have engaged in a willful deception (or denial) that borders on hypocrisy. Liberals, for example, dominate the ranks of those who would restrict or ban firearms, at least in one form or another. Their arguments are as clear as they are reactionary: we must abandon this so-called right to weaponry in order to save lives and prevent tragedies.
In many cases, the same people making this claim take the opposite position when it comes to Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure. Progressive opponents of the Bush Administration insist, for example, that the government has no right to eavesdrop on private telephone conversations or to open personal mail without a search warrant. They turn a particularly unsympathetic ear toward those who maintain that such actions are necessary to save lives and prevent tragedies. Throughout the period since 9/11, countless liberals have taken to quoting Ben Franklin's famous comment that people who would willingly trade freedom for safety deserve neither.
Except, apparently, when it comes to the freedom to own firearms.
The pro-gun side is no better. Millions of right-wing Americans reflexively support unprecedented expansions of federal surveillance power in the name of public safety and the war on terror. Simultaneously, they deny that the government has the right even to require background checks or waiting periods for those who wish to build a small arsenal in their parents' basement.
Naturally, few members of the National Rifle Association or similar groups own up to this inconsistency. Rather, they argue that gun control measures are inherently ineffective, that the black market will provide the bad guys with all the weaponry they desire, and that the unprotected Mexican border will ensure a steady supply of illegal firearms. "When guns are outlawed," says their well-known bumper sticker, "only outlaws will have guns."
There is, however, an inconvenient grain of truth in that hackneyed little tautology. Making guns illegal will not prevent their appearance any more than drug prohibition has rendered cocaine and heroin unavailable to those who care to indulge. On the other hand, not all violent offenders are "outlaws", at least not in the way we usually think of the term. Many, if not most, are desperate young men who suffer in silence and then snap. They do not associate with street gangs, organized crime syndicates, or international smugglers. Generally, they are loners who lack the social skills to keep a girlfriend or a job, let alone negotiate the underworld. In a society that had an ironclad ban on the possession of handguns and assault rifles, it seems unlikely that most of these individuals would be capable of acquiring the firepower necessary to commit their deadly acts.
But even if we assume, implausibly, that every one of these perpetrators would have found a weapon in a world where "only outlaws have guns", that still ignores the thousands of people who die each year in accidents, incidents of deadly rage, and spur-of-the-moment suicides. It is simply ridiculous to argue that tight, uniform gun control would not reduce the body count of innocents in the United States. It might not do so to the same degree as it does in Canada or Britain, but it would almost certainly save thousands of lives (which is, of course, the argument conservatives make in favor of each and every one of President Bush's increasingly restrictive anti-terror initiatives).
As it happens, I do not support gun control any more than I approve of the manifest constitutional violations of the past six years. Freedom is a risky business, but I am willing to assume many of those risks. The Constitution guarantees protection against surveillance without a search warrant. It also enshrines a right to keep and bear arms. Each of these should be honored.
But as we uphold our Second Amendment rights, let's do so with the understanding that there will be a human cost for observing this freedom. And let's, both liberals and conservatives, try to be consistent in our attitudes toward infringements against basic constitutional liberties. The Constitution is not a menu from which we may select only those items that suit our tastes. It is the fundamental law of the land.