Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Right to Life v the Right to Own Guns

The cornerstone of our democracy, of our constitution and its Bill of Rights, is the principle stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ...  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”  The Bill of Rights, including the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms, stems from this combination of the right to life and liberty and the government’s responsibility to create a system where that is reasonably possible.

If you asked most people what is one of the most important ingredients in leading a happy life, they would say being secure ... whether it’s secure in ones job, ones financial situation, or ones relationships, or being able to go to the theater or send your children to school without worrying whether you/they will be massacred.  The government can’t do much about job security or your financial situation and nothing regarding your relationships.  But physical security is one area where the government has a clear responsibility and ability.  Whether it’s the local police force or the national defense, an acknowledged primary role of government is to insure that people can go about their lives without worrying for their physical safety.

What happens when one right, here the right to physical security, bumps into another right, here the right to bear arms?  The courts have been clear that none of the Bill of Rights is absolute ... not even the right of free speech.  If the government has a compelling reason, such as protecting large numbers of people from harm, it can regulate these rights so long as it does so in the least restrictive manner.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the latest Supreme Court decision that the 2nd Amendment gives individuals a constitutional right to bear arms is indeed the correct interpretation.  (I say let’s assume because that decision was the first time in the court’s history that it interpreted the amendment in that way.} As already stated, that does not mean that the government cannot restrict that right if it has a compelling interest and the opinion explicitly acknowledges this, giving several examples of existing or possible regulatory restrictions.  The implication is that even the current conservative majority on the Court would find that protecting the safety of the general populace is a compelling interest.

What are the statistics on gun deaths?  In 2010, guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings.  In addition, 73,505 Americans were treated in hospital emergency departments for non-fatal gunshot wounds in 2010. Firearms were the third-leading cause of injury-related deaths nationwide in 2010, following poisoning and motor vehicle accidents. Between 1955 and 1975, the Vietnam War killed over 58,000 American soldiers – less than the number of civilians killed with guns in the U.S. in an average two-year period. In the first seven years of the U.S.-Iraq War, over 4,400 American soldiers were killed. Almost as many civilians are killed with guns in the U.S., however, every seven weeks.

Clearly, guns deaths and injury are a very serious national safety and health problem.  While the massacres that have occurred in schools, shopping centers, or movie theaters grab the headlines, the volume of deaths caused by individual shootings is far greater. Given that the option of eliminating guns from the marketplace is not a realistic option, how can the government proceed in the least restrictive way, meeting its responsibility regarding public and individual safety while respecting the rights of people to own guns?

I would ask two questions.  What types of guns are not needed for either hunting or self-defense?  How best keep guns out of the hands of those who should not own them ... criminals and the mentally ill?  If the government were able to address these two issues successfully, the problem of gun violence in the United States would be greatly reduced.

The first question is easy to answer.  AK-47s and other assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols and rifles are not tools needed for hunting or self-defense.  These are weapons for murdering large numbers of people.  Yes, rifles like the AR-15 that was used in the recent Connecticut school massacre are rifles favored by many hunters and gun enthusiasts, but a semi-automatic rifle just isn’t necessary for hunting.  Sales to the public should be banned.  Sales to authorized agencies, such as the police, should be direct purchase from the manufacturer, rather than through a wholesaler, to eliminate a potential source of illegal sales.  

The second question is more difficult to answer, but there is a logical series of actions.  The first is that no firearm or ammunition sale, regardless whether at a store or at a gun show should be made without a thorough background check.  Second the data base accessed in searches needs to be improved.  Third, the penalties for the sale of guns and ammunition illegally, that is without following mandated procedures, should be severe.  The combination of these actions would not stop the flow of guns into the wrong hands, but it should greatly restrict it and sharply reduce the number of such incidents.  And they would do so without impacting the legitimate rights of citizens to own a gun or rifle for hunting or self-defense.

There is no rational reason why gun control and gun rights should be at cross-purposes.  No one who wants a firearm for a legitimate reason has anything to fear from the types of regulations I’ve suggested.  It is only the hysteria fostered by the National Rifle Association which is heavily funded by firearms manufacturers that has caused this seemingly loosing battle in Congress over gun control. It is firearms manufacturers who fear the impact of gun control on their lucrative sales, so much so that Remington has threatened to move from its birthplace in New York State if the state proceeds to enact gun control legislation.

The time is past due for the President and Senators and Congressmen from both parties to come together to enact reasonable legislation that protects the right of average American citizens to live a life free of the fear of them or their children being gunned down in a massacre.  Protect the legitimate rights of citizens to own guns for self-defense and hunting, but control the rest.  Let not the 20 children in Newtown, CT die in vain.