Recently I caught a clip of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in full, histrionic, campaign mode, declaiming about “assault” weapons and large-capacity magazines. “No one needs ten bullets to kill a deer!” he cried, to thunderous applause from an appreciative crowd. “End the madness now! Too many have died already!”
Apart from the entertainment value of a skilled politician delivering a classic “stemwinder” to an excited crowd of supporters, Mr. Cuomo’s comments were worthy of note on two substantive points. First, because they seemed part of an orchestrated liberal campaign to exploit last month’s horrible killings of 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT; and second, because they illustrate Mr. Cuomo’s peculiar view of the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution – a view evidently shared by many media people and politicians.
With respect to the first point, Rahm Emanuel’s famous observation that one should "never waste a good crisis" springs instantly to mind. I was going to say that I had never seen such shameless political exploitation of a tragedy before, but then I thought of the shooting incident two years ago, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was seriously wounded by a gunman at a mall rally in Tucson.
News people and politicians immediately tried to link the crime to conservative politics. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) said the Arizona shooting showed that conservative talk radio and the Tea Party had produced “…an end to civil discourse…” She made this obtuse connection despite the fact that the shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner – who killed two people besides wounding Ms. Giffords and two others – was a disturbed loner with no known political agenda or connections. He was, in fact, yet another nut-case who got hold of a gun and started blasting before anyone could stop him.
Congresswoman Giffords – mercifully recovered from her wounds – has now teamed with her husband, former Astronaut Mark Kelly, to found an advocacy group that plans to raise $20 million for spending on Congressional campaigns in the 2014 elections. Their aim is to get people elected to Congress who will enact “common-sense measures” to curb gun-violence. Ironically, Ms. Giffords is now exploiting another shooting incident in exactly the way her own incident was exploited – albeit for a slightly different purpose.
One can hardly blame the congresswoman for wanting to do something that might spare others the pain and near-death experience she endured. Jared Loughner destroyed her career and nearly her life. He killed a judge and hurt several others. Who wouldn’t want to try to stop such horror? Her experience was terrible. I’m glad she survived it. God bless her.
However, just doing “something” is not enough. The great thing is to do something productive. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that passing more laws will stop a crazy or wicked person determined to kill people with a firearm. We already have so many state laws that try to control the use of guns in crimes that the Supreme Court has begun to strike some of them down for overstepping the Second Amendment. In 2008 the Court struck down the District of Columbia’s law which had prohibited all possession of handguns inside the city – even in one’s home. It was one of the strictest laws in the nation. For the first time the Court ruled that the Second Amendment guaranteed the right of individual citizens to own weapons for the purpose of self-defense.
“We hold that the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Justice Scalia in the majority opinion.
An increasing body of data is accumulating which shows that “gun-free zones” – as they are popularly called – not only do not prevent gun-crimes, but perversely enable them. One can hardly fail to note that some of the recent horrific shootings might have been stopped, had someone in the school, theater or mall been armed. But “gun-free” regulations guarantee that no responsible, law-abiding person will be. Such laws ensure that only criminals can be armed in these places.
Conversely, studies show that enabling citizens to be armed through “right to carry” or “must issue” laws actually reduces rates of crime in those jurisdictions. People who fear and hate guns do not credit such studies, but the trend is unmistakable. Indeed, the District of Columbia finished 2012 with fewer than 100 homicides – a far cry from the 482 murders the city endured in 1991, when its strict gun-laws were in full force. DC police resist connecting this improved situation to the Supreme Court’s ruling, but you don’t have to be a sociologist to see that not knowing which citizen is armed might make criminals less bold about using a gun to commit a crime. I have seen studies which estimate that some 2 million crimes are prevented each year by the use of a firearm – most of them without firing the weapon at all. This preventive aspect of gun-possession is essentially ignored by politicians intent on “doing something” to stop gun violence.
Gov. Cuomo’s parting shot (so to speak) about not needing “10 bullets to kill a deer” is also worthy of examination. I am not the first to be alarmed by the idea – evidently common among many reporters and politicians – that the Second Amendment guarantees the possession of firearms principally so citizens can hunt or shoot at targets. This view is as incorrect as the former conventional view that the Second Amendment guaranteed possession of weapons by citizens only so they can serve in a “militia” – i.e., a citizens’ army. Since our official armed forces, including a National Guard in each state, now handle our national defense, the need for a militia is now obviated – or so reasoned gun opponents. But the Supreme Court said holders of this view miscomprehended the Amendment.
The Founders who drafted the Constitution and its Bill of Rights understood very well that the government could not guarantee citizens’ rights. Indeed, they knew that the government might, at some point, become the enemy of those rights. Only an armed citizenry can secure their rights effectively. The ability to possess arms and use them in times of danger is what the Second Amendment is really about. Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn citizens that the British Army was on its way to seize stores of weapons at Concord. The Revolution’s first battles were fought to protect citizens' arms. Colonists didn’t need those weapons for hunting or target-shooting. The stakes were much higher. So might they be for us at some future time.
Nor does the Amendment split hairs over which types of personal arms are permissible. Within the Constitutional meaning, “arms” are weapons that an individual might reasonably keep and use. Artillery was not part of that meaning, but various types of rifles clearly would be. This week I heard a caller to a talk-radio show argue that weapons like the AK-47 or the Knight’s SR-15 carbine are the modern equivalent of the 18th century musket. These are weapons a citizen-soldier might wish to have, should he be needed in a militia to resist enemies foreign or domestic.
Everyone understands that the recent murders of children are horrible crimes. No one wants to see them repeated. Certainly we can improve our methods for keeping crazy people off the street and away from firearms. We need to do that. But this will not be achieved by restricting the ownership of weapons and ammunition by law-abiding people. We need to be wise about these things, not just politically opportunistic. We live in dangerous times.