The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Paul Stevens’s supremely unhelpful call to repeal the Second Amendment

Retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens arrives for the funeral for fellow former justice Antonin Scalia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

One of the biggest threats to the recovery of the Democratic Party these days is overreach. Having seen what Republicans have accomplished while pushing to the right, Democrats are debating how hard to push in the opposite direction — on the minimum wage, on abortion, on health care and on education. A party that was once afraid of being saddled with supporting “government-run” health care is increasingly okay with the word “liberal” and even voted in droves for a self-described socialist in 2016. And its 2020 hopefuls are leading the leftward charge.

But rarely do we see such an unhelpful, untimely and fanciful idea as the one put forward by retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens.

In a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday, Stevens calls for a repeal of the Second Amendment. The move might as well be considered an in-kind contribution to the National Rifle Association, to Republicans' efforts to keep the House and Senate in 2018, and to President Trump's 2020 reelection bid. In one fell swoop, Stevens has lent credence to the talking point that the left really just wants to get rid of gun ownership and reasserted the need for gun-rights supporters to prevent his ilk from ever being appointed again (with the most obvious answer being: Vote Republican).

Here's the crux of Stevens's argument:

Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment, which provides that “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.” Today that concern is a relic of the 18th century.
That simple but dramatic action would move Saturday’s marchers closer to their objective than any other possible reform. It would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States — unlike every other market in the world. It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.

Stevens, who was appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford but became one of the court's liberal stalwarts, is putting forward a somewhat extreme argument by today's standards. But it's not that extreme that some Democrats won't want to talk about it. As The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham writes, about 4 in 10 Democrats support repeal.

Frustration is boiling over on both ends of the political spectrum at the inability to stop mass shootings, but many still can't agree on a path forward. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Almost no national Democrat is calling for it yet, as they've mostly been pushing for universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Even on those issues, though, the Democratic Party isn't united. In fact, 16 Senate Democrats voted against a renewal of the assault weapons ban in 2013 after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. And even if Democrats were united, this idea would be going precisely nowhere. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds of the House and Senate to be proposed, and three-fourths of states (38 of 50) to be ratified.

In other words, Republicans who wouldn't even vote for a limited bipartisan background checks bill after Newtown would have to vote for this (provided Democrats don't suddenly gain historic majorities in Congress), and then Republican-dominated states like Indiana, Missouri and/or Nebraska would likely have to ratify it.

None of which is why Stevens wrote the op-ed. He's a retired Supreme Court justice who is trying to move the needle on a public policy issue about which he cares, regardless of its virtual impossibility. And maybe this will start a debate and build momentum for repeal on the left! That's probably his aim, if anything.

Even that, though, probably works against the ultimate goal of passing more realistic gun-control measures. This is exactly the kind of thing that motivates the right and signals to working-class swing voters that perhaps the Democratic Party and the political left doesn't really get them. And to the extent it catches on -- which it could somewhat, given nearly half the party is on board, at least in spirit -- it will confirm plenty of preexisting beliefs about what Democrats actually want.

And Democrats can't play the purity game like Republicans can. The median congressional district and the median state are both red, and we still live in a country where a sizable majority of people very much believe in the Second Amendment — even as they also might believe in checks on gun ownership. A bipartisan Fox News poll in 2013 showed 72 percent of Americans worried that banning certain guns would lead to the erosion of other constitutionally protected rights.

Stevens just signaled that at least one liberal appointee who inhabited the bench that could decide such matters really does want to take away one of those rights. And that's about the best Republicans could have hoped for.