Mass casualty incidents like the one in Oak Creek and the one in Aurora, Colorado profoundly challenge our way of thinking, our way life. We exhaust ourselves with questions about how something like this could happen? Was it preventable? What changes can we make to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
In a free society, we have the responsibility to live freely without taking away the freedoms of our neighbors. When someone abuses these freedoms in a clear and pronounced way, we begin to doubt and even challenge the framework in which our laws were instituted.
Consider Voter ID. Voting is a constitutional right; therefore, we should not deny the public this fundamental freedom with overly cumbersome restrictions because doing so would result in a reduction of freedom. Yet, when that freedom is abused - when someone votes fraudulently - our first instinct as a society is to clamp down on the process so such violations happen with less frequency.
Expectedly, one side will argue that new regulations infringe on a constitutionally protected freedom; the other side will fight to protect the integrity of the ballot box. In the midst of the conceptual tug-a-war, hopefully a balance is reached that safeguards the voting process without denying law abiding citizens the right to vote.
Similarly, when someone abuses their Second Amendment right by gunning down innocents in a temple or a theater, our first instinct as a people is to clamp down on that right, to regulate it in a way to keep bloodshed from recurring. Of course, we can’t keep it from recurring. If hatred doesn’t wield a gun, it will wield a car-bomb, a toxin, a virus, or other products of the human imagination.
So, when the National Rifle Association (NRA) argues that gun control is about freedom. They are not wrong. Our constitutional rights are always about freedom. Like any debate about freedom, the one framed by pro and antigun advocates is complicated.
Both sides have persuasive arguments and even brandish their own antidotes. A recent editorial in the Journal Sentinel made the case for banning high capacity ammunition magazines. “Why do civilians need more than 10 rounds,” the editorial board asked. “The answer: they don't. And no one needs an assault weapon for hunting or personal protection.”
As a rebuttal, history is replete with examples of how governments began genocide campaigns by gun control measures. In the 20th century alone, there were nearly a dozen governments committing atrocities against their own people. The best known example, of course, is when Nazi Germany used gun control legislation to disarm Jews.
To keep it pithy, when Hitler assumed power in 1933, he began the initial steps of a disarmament campaign. By March of 1938, the Nazis had used previous gun control laws to track Jews that owned, manufactured, or sold firearms. Under a new gun control law called “The 1938 Germans Weapons Act,” Jews were expressly forbidden from manufacturing and owning firearms and ammunition. Nazis confiscated over 2,500 hand weapons, 1,700 firearms, and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Later that year, government-sponsored mobs had attacked Jews throughout Germany, an event later dubbed, “The Night of the Broken Glass.”
In American history, gun ownership has been an essential right of protection historically borne of experience with oppressive governments. As Joseph Story (1779-1845) - a Supreme Court Justice - put it in his Commentaries of the Constitution,
“The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers . . . The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers.”
Mr. Story makes an interesting point. The mere knowledge that you own a weapon is a powerful deterrent to oppressive governments and mischievous people. It is not a coincidence that churches and schools are selected by cowardly gunmen to terrorize innocents? These are places least likely to have armed citizens capable of returning fire.
In 1982, the Kennesaw government in Georgia they passed a law requiring all heads of households - barring those with criminal records or religious objections - to keep at least one firearm on their property. Within a year, crime rates dropped by 74%. Knowledge that firearms are present is a strong behavioral deterrent to those not bound by law.
To address the JS editorial, do we need magazine clips with a 10+ round capacity for personal protection? Perhaps not, it really depends upon the situation you find yourself in and how many enemies you're up against. But generally, such conclusions are based on the presupposition that our citizenry will never need its firearms for anything other than home or personal protection.
It's difficult to imagine, especially in the postmodern era, that our government is or will ever be capable of such brutality. But reasons for needing high capacity magazine clips for semi-automatic weapons ought not be limited to protecting ourselves from oppressive governments. We simply don't know the future. Many gun-owning Americans like to feel secure knowing they're prepared for the worst when it comes.
On the flip side, gun control is not always a bad thing. For instance, we could revisit the sales of firearms and ammunition over the web. If venders can't be sure they're not selling weapons to criminals or underaged kids, then that part of the industry needs reform.
If we are to reconsider gun control legislation, we should always do it with the knowledge that lines in the sand are always moving. As the case of Voter ID, we need to be mindful about striking the right balance between one’s constitutional right of protection and the public’s right to be safe.
To be sure, mass casualty incidents will always be with us, but if we’re going to reinvent the wheel on gun control, let’s make sure our reason is grounded in rational discourse and not an emotionally charged travesty disconnected from the sound lessons of history.