Idea of ‘absolute’ rights distorts debate over guns

From Lauren Caplan, attorney and Georgetown Law fellow

If we allow our “national conversation” on gun regulation to end without Congress even voting on a ban on high-capacity magazines, we should all be ashamed. It would mean that, once again, we have allowed this debate to be distorted by the idea that the Second Amendment provides a right more absolute than almost every other right protected by the Constitution. The entire U.S. regulatory system is based on the careful balancing of individual rights against considerations of public safety and health. Why should the discussion about gun regulation be any different? Why have we allowed the discussion to be different?

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The National Rifle Association discovered early on the power of promoting the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms as an absolute right. In 2000, I undertook a non-scientific content analysis of the gun control debate in U.S. congressional hearings during three different periods (the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s). Some clear trends emerged.

In a little over 50 years, the number of references by gun control opponents to the term “rights” during congressional hearings increased by 55 percent and the qualification or limitation of those rights decreased by 75 percent. Between the 1930s and the 1990s, gun control opponents’ direct references to the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights increased by 45 percent during congressional hearings. Not only did the rights framework become more frequently used, it became more absolute as well. 

An absolute conception of individual rights was never part of the American tradition. As Mary Ann Glendon, Michael Sandel and others have argued, this “absolutizing” of individual rights is choking off the type of complex public debate that is necessary for dealing with the complicated issues that confront us. Gun regulation is complicated, and to address it effectively we need every tool available to us under the law.

Accepting the idea that the Second Amendment’s protection is more absolute than most other individual rights is dangerous because it takes legitimate options such as a ban on high-capacity magazines, an option that the majority of Americans support in poll after poll, off the table too early in the debate. Even in District of Columbia v. Heller, the June 2008 Supreme Court case hailed by gun control opponents for its protection of an individual’s right to bear arms to protect his or her home, the court made clear that an individual’s right to bear arms is not absolute and that restrictions to protect the public are constitutional. 

To be sure, agreeing on what is and what is not an appropriate restriction is challenging, but we must at least try. If a ban on high-capacity magazines does not even get a vote in Congress, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we did our best, that we dug in and did the difficult work that governing is meant to be.


Hold a fair hearing on climate, Keystone XL

From Tom Harris, executive director, International Climate Science Coalition

As a response to the New York Times editorial that urged President Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the Alberta government’s ad was pathetic (“Alberta government promotes Keystone XL in New York Times ad,” March 18). 

 The Times wrote that Obama “should say no, and for one overriding reason: A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that ... can only add to the problem.” 

 Alberta responded that greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands represent a small fraction of world output and that they are working to reduce those emissions in other ways. 

If one accepts that humanity’s emissions are causing dangerous climate change, as activists maintain, then most people will find the Times’s position highly moral and that of Alberta irresponsible — we should set an example by trying to cut back, not grow, projects that emit large volumes of greenhouse gas, they would conclude.

But the there is no scientific reason to accept the claims of climate campaigners. Rather than being “virtually unanimous” in their support of the alarm, as the Times asserted, many scientists oppose it, while others see the science as too immature to know one way or the other.

 Governments can help the public understand this reality by convening unbiased public hearings into the climatic impact of the oil sands, inviting qualified scientists from all sides of the debate to testify. Properly conducted and publicized, this would pull the rug out from under the anti-Keystone campaign by effectively countering their primary weapon — the climate scare. 

Ottawa, Ontario


Don’t destroy Medicare, expand it for everyone

From Norm Stewart

The most efficient health insurance as a cost of services is Medicare. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is disingenuous at best and uninformed at worst to not acknowledge this fact. The problem is we have fewer younger workers paying to support a growing number of seniors — thus a lack of finances to sustain the program. Having an ability to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and other providers is the exact right course for the most expensive insurance in the world with a questionable success. Instead of destroying the truly working program, let’s make it universal. We will have revenue from new participants and costs will decrease even more. Smarten up Congress, particularly Ryan, and do what is right for America, not big business.

Aventura, Fla.