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Monday, February 18, 2013

In Chicago, it's two amendments down, and eight to go

Chicago Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy, who blames Sarah Palin for the city's gun violence (go figure), has come up with a new scapegoat: the Bill of Rights.

Supt. McCarthy claims that the Second Amendment is a "threat to public safety." Now, I understand that hippie stuff like the U.S. Constitution has never been in vogue in the city I love. But it seems to me that Supt. McCarthy is being just a little too blatant in his contempt for the document he is sworn to uphold.

My own position on guns is considerably more nuanced than that of most on either side of the debate. I should say off the bat that I find the argument that private gun ownership is a safeguard against government abuse of its power to be an insult to my intelligence. Those pistols in the bedroom drawer and those rifles hanging in the study would be of little use if the government really wanted to mess with somebody; not even a Magnum has the stopping power to do much damage to an Abrams tank or an armored personnel carrier. Privately-owned guns would not be of use in stopping the local police department's SWAT team, much less the United States Army.

Moreover, our present problem is precisely that so many people are trying to use privately-held weapons to defy the law- and in most cases succeeding for reasons which simply wouldn't apply to theoretical freedom fighters.  As long as you can reasonably expect to get away with murder (and given the nature of our legal system, that probably will remain the case indefinitely) people will continue to use firearms for illicit reasons. And despite the nonsense about how guns are to murder as forks are to eating, it's a great deal harder to kill a person in the absence of a gun than it is to eat even spaghetti without a fork. The human body is a resilient machine, and few methods of permanently terminating its functioning apt to be available to most people are anywhere near as effective as guns are. There is a reason why few banks are robbed with knives or brass knuckles.

That does not mean that there is not a legitimate place for guns- even handguns- in our society. There are any number of perfectly legitimate shooting sports engaged in by responsible people who should not be easily deprived of their right to own guns because some abuse that right. Of course, it only makes sense that gun laws should vary according to local conditions. Relatively permissive gun laws might well work for rural areas, for example; in urban areas, it's in all of our interest that as few people own guns as possible. Murder rates are always highest in urban areas; why make killing other people there any easier than it has to be?

The Second Amendment grants a private right to gun ownership such that the government cannot constitutionally deny it to individuals without pretty solid reason (I would argue that the murder rate in, say, Chicago would qualify, btw). But it specifies that the reason why this right is recognized is in order to provide for a "well-regulated militia." In other words, a National Guard or informal police force. I am aware that in a number of states all males above the age of eighteen are legally part of the state militia. But unless that militia holds regular drills, trains its members properly, and polices its own membership, it seems to me hard to make the case that it fits the purposes of the Second Amendment.

We have a professional police force and a standing army, each of which come closer to fulfilling the function of the Founders' "well-regulated militia" than does the general public.  While that doesn't mean that private citizens should be denied the right to own weapons, it seems to me that the "well-regulated" clause amounts to a built-in opening in the Second Amendment for gun control of some kind. It's in everybody's interest- as even the NRA would agree- that there be several classes of people in the general population who are not allowed anywhere near a gun, and that care be taken before letting  just anybody have one.

Moreover guns are- God help us- a fundamental part of our culture. Being the nation of the Wild West probably dooms us to having the highest murder rate among Western industrialized nations in any case. As a practical matter, I don't see the denial willy-nilly of people's right to bear arms as something that the government is ever going to get away with in this country- nor should it be. Still, it simply is not true, as gun advocates argue, that "if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns" (where do they manage to come up with all of these patently absurd- though admittedly catchy- slogans, anyway?). One of the main sources of guns for "outlaws" is theft from law-abiding citizens. I have often wondered, in fact, whether we might not be wise to send the legal owner of a stolen handgun to prison if that gun is stolen and subsequently used in a crime. In fact, that provision alone would eliminate the need for a great many restrictions the gun lobby finds onerous; it would underscore the grave responsibility one accepts when acquiring a firearm to keep it out of the hands of those who would misuse it.

But Superintendent McCarthy- the Joe Biden of law enforcement- really needs to count to a million or so before he says anything else likely to bring law enforcement in general and the Chicago Police Department into disrepute. The tenure of the current mayor has already raised the question of whether the Bill of Rights applies in the city of my birth by abusing the city's licencing power to deny those who disagree with his position on gay "marriage" their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

It behooves the City of Chicago to tread carefully in displaying its contempt for any more articles of the Bill of Rights. People might get the right idea about the kind of people who are running it.

HT: Drudge

3 comments:

Mark said...

What do you mean two down three to go? Freedom of association has been killed for a long time vis a vis employment restrictions. Unless of course working with someone is not any sort of known association, "Linked In" be damned. Eh?

Robert E. Waters said...

I'm curious, Mark: exactly where in the Bill of Rights do you find a "freedom of association?" Sounds suspiciously like a freedom to discriminate to me- something about as far from anything the Constitution is about as I can imagine.

Robert E. Waters said...

Oh. And I said eight to go,not three. There are ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, not five.