Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat, represents New York in the Senate.
Since the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, many are wondering whether this tragedy might finally provoke action on guns.
The answer is, it could. The reason may surprise gun-control activists.
A post-Newtown examination of our gun laws would be the country’s first such effort since the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in D.C. v. Heller, which struck down the District’s handgun ban and affirmed an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms. The case, decided by the court’s conservative bloc, was originally viewed as a setback for advocates of gun safety. But embracing the ruling could actually create a new paradigm for gun control.
The gun debate of the past two decades has devolved into a permanent tug-of-war between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and advocates of gun safety. One side has viewed the Second Amendment as absolute; the other has tried to pretend that it doesn’t exist. The result is a failure to find any consensus, even as one mass shooting after another underscores the need for sensible reform.
Heller told the two sides that they were each only half-right: The right to bear arms is constitutionally guaranteed, but reasonable limitations are allowed.
The first part is something many gun-control advocates did not wish to hear, but it was a needed dose of reality. Before Heller, the goal of some gun-control activists was an outright ban on handguns. Heller removes that possibility for good. Progressives should move on and work within the ruling. This means no longer harboring ideas of a future liberal majority on the court someday overturning Heller. It also means that states and localities should abide by the spirit of the ruling, not just its letter, and not seek to impose undue burdens upon law-abiding citizens seeking to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
The truth is, it was bad strategy to ever deny an individual right to bear arms and, similarly, the special place guns hold in our culture. That mentality alienated potential allies in the ideological middle of the gun debate — something I learned three years ago when my friend Ben Nelson invited me to Nebraska for my first hunting trip. I returned with true respect for how, in many parts of America, gun ownership is not just a constitutional right but a way of life. It has the same meaning in Nebraska that playground basketball did for me in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Heller understands that reality.
In the current state of play, moderate gun owners have become convinced by the NRA and other, even more radical gun organizations such as Gun Owners of America that the goal of all gun-safety advocates is to take away their guns. These owners view even the most reasonable gun-safety proposals with suspicion, fearing a slippery slope to a ban on firearms. This paranoia is what gives the gun lobby its power.
It wasn’t always this way. After the assassinations of leaders like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s, the nation enacted sweeping gun-safety laws — and the NRA did not stand in the way.
The NRA was less political in that era and more focused on providing practical assistance to its members, much like AAA does today for automobile owners. But in the 1980s, the group became more militant. Part of this was driven by new leadership, which sought to expand the group’s membership rolls and collect more dues.
But this radicalization was also abetted by those who really were seeking an outright ban on guns.
Now that Heller has ruled out the possibility of anyone ever taking away their weapons, gun owners should be more open to some reasonable limitations. No individual right is absolute, after all. While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, no one has a right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, nor to traffic in child pornography. Likewise, the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms also comes with limits.
We need to refine those limits in the wake of what happened in Newtown.
The guns issue will remain thorny, but Heller points the way toward a possible compromise, under a new paradigm. All of us — especially progressives — should embrace it.