Bach: Defending the Second
To mention the words “Second Amendment” is to cast a spark into a powder keg. Merely referencing the right to bear arms can incite the passions of an entire nation, as people on both sides of the gun debate emerge from the woodwork to throw their two cents onto an ever-growing pile. There is no shortage of daily flame wars waged on every corner of the internet, no dearth of politicians bellowing out their opinions for all of Washington to hear. Amidst these opinions, an increasing number of voices have begun to call for an overturning of the Second Amendment. Surely, they tell us, the United States is better off having fewer guns. Isn’t it worth pursuing if we can prevent just one more murder or one more massacre? The children, man! Think of the children!
I won’t be so callous as to dismiss such positions up front. It is entirely understandable that such concerns would arise, especially in the midst of so many cowardly terrorist attacks on our own soil. These viewpoints are born from a desire to keep our children safe from harm — this fact alone is enough cause to applaud their passion. Nonetheless, I stand firmly in support of a position that has been affirmed time and again by the laws of our nation and by the Supreme Court: the right to bear arms is an individual civil liberty provided by the Constitution of the United States, and like any other Constitutional right it extends to all citizens of the republic for which it stands.
In support of this argument, I will not be examining whether firearms have any place in the modern age. To discuss such matters is to complicate an already heated discussion, so I leave that for another time. Instead, I will focus specifically upon the Second Amendment as a law and as a Constitutional right. In other words, why should we defend the right to bear arms as a national law? On what grounds can we point to the Second Amendment and say that it ought to be as fundamental an American right as the right to free speech or the right to vote?
The answer lies in the assumption that the Constitution is established as the “supreme law of the land.” That is, neither the federal nor state governments have the legal authority to override it. All American citizens must abide by the Constitution’s provisions because it applies to all of them equally. The civil liberties provided by the Constitution and its amendments, likewise, also extend to all American citizens. It is therefore the sole foundation for the country’s legal frameworks; the law must accommodate the Constitution and not the other way around.
This assumption is vastly important, because it implies that one cannot legally claim that only a part of the Constitution applies to the people. The entire Constitution applies to everyone. Therefore, every single one of the individual rights granted by the Constitution also applies to everyone. Individuals can choose not to exercise those rights, but they are nonetheless granted the agency to decide. The Second Amendment is part of this package deal, for to question any one part of the Constitution is to question all of it.
Let us entertain a ridiculous extreme where we treat these other amendments with the same heavy-handedness. Could you imagine a world where publishing a Facebook post requires a full background check in the name of “free speech control?” Or perhaps a world with new disenfranchisement laws in the name of “civil rights control?” I exaggerate, of course, but such examples highlight the possibilities opened by a Pandora’s box of endless gun control. An endless cycle of law after law to limit any legally granted rights negates the point of those rights. If a government can justifiably push its own founding principles aside to satisfy an agenda, then what right has it to call itself a democracy?
This is the true cost of condemning the Second Amendment so harshly. If we can place so much constraint and oversight upon one amendment, then it carries dire consequences for the other 26. The word of law would mean nothing, because it could be so easily ignored. The document that protects both the freedom of speech and the right to vote might as well not exist at all, little more than blotches of ink on ancient paper. Nothing would stand between the welfare of the individual and the tyranny of others more powerful. Is it worth setting such a dangerous precedent for our other civil liberties by placing so many constraints on just one?
As with any cherished right, there are sensible limits set by laws. No right is infinite, for one’s liberties end where another’s begin. This is as true for gun rights as it is for free speech or any other liberties. However, when we trim one right to make way for these limits, we should take great care not to accidentally cut down our other rights with them.