Has the debate over gun control really shifted after the gruesome murder of 20 children at a Newtown, Conn., grade school? Well, yes — we're having a public debate on banning military-style rifles and ammunition clips, for starters, which hasn't really happened since a Clinton-era assault-weapons ban expired and was not renewed in 2004. But while the new post–Sandy Hook politics of gun control sorts itself out, it's worth remembering that this round of the fight takes place on a vastly different legal terrain: The real shift in the debate already took place in 2008, when a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled for the first time that individuals have a right to own guns under the Second Amendment to the Constitution. After that ruling, D.C. v. Heller, would the courts even accept a new ban on assault rifles?
Maybe that's the wrong way of looking at it, says the New York Post in an editorial. A better question is: "Has technology rendered the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution obsolete?" And "we say: Yes." Guns designed for civilians based on modern military technology are "too dangerous to be in general circulation."
Historically there is scant political will for weapons control. And it's unlikely that there will be, once the Sandy Hook slaughter fades from the nation's consciousness. But that won't negate the need for reform. Weapons designed expressly to kill human beings, and then modified (wink wink) to meet the federal machine-gun ban, have no legitimate place in American society. Time to get rid of them.
Whoa — that little "zinger" from Rupert Murdoch's conservative daily is "sure to rile the conservative base," says Dylan Byers at Politico. But before gun control proponents get too excited, Murdoch's more influential outlet, Fox News, isn't going there, reportedly under strict orders from Murdoch employee Roger Ailes. "More than The Wall Street Journal, and certainly more than Fox, the opinion pages of the Post provide the nearest reflection of Murdoch's views on the gun control issue," but Murdoch's "urban conservative" ideas don't hold much cachet in rural Fox News country. Besides, the Post's editorial sets up enough straw men "to populate half the corn fields in Iowa," says Rick Moran at American Thinker. I'll "file this one under 'ignorant anti-gun rants.'"
Really? Well, let's read the text of the Second Amendment, says Jeffrey Sachs at The Huffington Post:
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
It's astonishingly clear that "the Second Amendment is a relic of the founding era more than two centuries ago," and "its purpose is long past."
As Justice John Paul Stevens argues persuasively, the amendment should not block the ability of society to keep itself safe through gun control legislation. That was never its intent. This amendment was about militias in the 1790s, and the fear of the anti-federalists of a federal army. Since that issue is long moot, we need not be governed in our national life by doctrines on now-extinct militias from the 18th century.
"Fair-minded readers have to acknowledge that the text is ambiguous," says Cass Sunstein at Bloomberg View. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in Heller, was laying out his interpretation of a "genuinely difficult" legal question, and "I am not saying that the court was wrong." More to the point: Right or wrong, obsolete or relevant, the Second Amendment essentially means what five justices on the Supreme Court say it means. So "we should respect the fact that the individual right to have guns has been established," but even the pro-gun interpretation laid out by Scalia explicitly allows for banning the kinds of weapons the shooter used to murder 20 first-graders. The real problem is in the political arena, where "opponents of gun control, armed with both organization and money, have been invoking the Second Amendment far more recklessly," using "wild and unsupportable claims about the meaning of the Constitution" to shut down debate on what sort of regulations might save lives.
Consider this disturbing statement by Stephen Halbrook, a lawyer who has represented the National Rifle Association, about the very kinds of guns used in the Connecticut tragedy: "They get a lot of coverage when there's a tragedy, but the number of people unlawfully killed with them is small." Reasonable people can debate about what policies would actually work. That is a debate worth having. It is past time to stop using the Second Amendment itself as a loaded weapon, threatening elected representatives who ought to be doing their jobs.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- How to adopt the perfect rescue dog
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Ferguson riots were terrible — but this racist reaction was worse
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- The lessons of Japan's latest recession
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Why the poor can't catch a break on Thanksgiving
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
Subscribe to the Week