Dear ol’ Dad was a law-and-order guy — a lawyer, judge and World War II veteran who did everything by the book — except when it came to guns. Most memorable among his many lectures was a confidence: “There is only one law in the land that I would break,” he told me. “I will never register my guns.”
I suppose if he hadn’t also opposed bumper stickers, he might have attached the one about “cold dead fingers” to his fender. He also might have liked a slogan I read recently: “With guns, we are citizens; without them, we are subjects.”
By today’s standards my father would be considered a gun nut, but his sentiments were understandable in the context of his time. Like others of his generation, he had witnessed Germany’s disarming of its citizenry and the consequences thereafter. Thus, the slippery slope of which gun-rights advocates speak is not without precedent or reason.
But the history of gun-control laws is not without contradictions and ironies that belie the current insistence that guns-without-controls is the ipso facto of originalist America. In fact, the federal government of our Founders made gun ownership mandatory for white males, while denying others — slaves and later freedmen — the privilege.
Today, the most vociferous defenders of gun rights tend to be white, rural males who oppose any regulation. But theirs was once the ardently held position of radical African Americans. Notably, in the 1960s, Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Huey Newton toted guns wherever they went to make a point: Blacks needed guns to protect themselves in a country that wasn’t quite ready to enforce civil rights.
In one remarkable incident in May 1967, as recounted in The Atlantic by UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, 24 men and six women, all armed, ascended the California capitol steps, read a proclamation about gun rights and proceeded inside — with their guns, which was legal at the time.
Needless to say, conservatives, including then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, were suddenly very, very interested in gun control. That afternoon, Reagan told reporters there was “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
The degree of one’s allegiance to principle apparently depends mainly on who is holding the gun.
While black activists were adamant about their right to protect themselves, the National Rifle Association wasn’t much interested in the constitutional question until the mid-’70s, when an organizational split produced a new leader, Harlon Carter, who was dedicated to advocacy and determined to dig a deep line in the Beltway sand.
The Second Amendment debate about what the Founders intended was clarified in 2008 when theSupreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller determined that the right of the people to keep and bear arms included individuals, not just a “well-regulated militia.” However, as Winkler pointed out, Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion left wiggle room for exceptions, including prohibitions related to felons and the mentally ill. Scalia was not casting doubt, the justice wrote, on “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
This still leaves open the loophole of private sales that do not require background checks, which President Obama wants to close. We will hear more about this in coming weeks, but the call meanwhile to ban assault weapons or limit magazines in the wake of the horrific mass murder of children and others at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut is hardly draconian. It won’t solve the problem of mentally disturbed people exacting weird justice from innocents, but it might limit the toll. Having to stop one’s rampage to reload rather breaks the spell, or so one would imagine.
One also imagines that the old Reagan would say there’s no reason a citizen needs an assault weapon or a magazine that can destroy dozens of people in minutes. He would certainly be correct and, in a sane world, possibly even electable.
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