Saturday, January 27, 2007

In Defense of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment is a lot like the Ten Commandments. Often invoked, but rarely read.

Do you know anyone who can actually quote the Ten Commandments? Stephen Colbert exposed how not a few proponents of the Commandments can barely name three of them. To avoid a similarly embarrassing incident, I'll quote the 2nd Amendment in full: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

If I were an academic (or a Federalist), I would endlessly parse those 26 words. The big debate has been whether the 2nd Amendment grants a collective or an individual right. Essentially, this boils down to one question: Do we emphasize the first half or the second half of the 2nd Amendment? I don't really care about the answer, but, if you're of the nerdy bent, read Prof. Dorf's take. Or, read the entire symposium dedicated to the topic.

Instead, I would like to focus on what's good policy: I want to convince you that Congress should keep its tentacles off gun control -- regardless of what Constitution allows. A national ban on handguns has been a dream of liberals worldwide for at least a decade. Not only is this bad politics, it's bad policy. With a handful of exceptions, we should declare a Congressional cease fire in the federal regulation of guns.

This ultimatum may sound like it applies only to Brady Bill Democrats, but it applies equally to Republicans, who've shown themselves all too willing to exploit the 2nd Amendment for cheap political points -- all the while trampling on our beloved federalism. Stunningly, the "Do Nothing" 108th Congress attempted to repeal all DC guns laws -- even the one that criminalized possession of unregistered guns. Republicans should stop appeasing their NRA donors and heed their own "states' rights" ideology. Meddling in DC's right to regulate itself (on the gun question and everything else) is just as bad as foisting NYC's gun laws on Wyoming.

So, what's so wrong with more federal gun laws? One word: federalism. I know, I know, this is ACS, and progressives are generally in favor of the Interstate Commerce Clause's virtually unlimited expansion of Congressional authority. But, just because Congress can regulate pretty much anything, doesn't mean that it should.

1.) One Size Does Not Fit All States
Nations of our size (e.g. Australia, Canada, Russia) have favored a federal form of government -- because it's really hard to craft policies that suit an entire continent.

That said, there are plenty of good reasons for national laws. For one, they facilitate planning. Getting to JFK via public transit would not be such a mess if one government authority had built a regional transit solution -- instead of the fragmented mess that we have. National laws also bring uniformity, which facilitates banking and other business enterprises. Another good reason is negative externalities -- particularly pollution. Raw sewage defies borders. It flows downstream (or blows westward). Unilateral action by one state will only ensure that they're on the receiving end of all the sewage. As a result, pollution is one of those problems that requires national environmental laws (with teeth, preferably).

But, none of these reasons justify additional national gun laws. Our current federal framework is pretty sensible: you can buy a rifle or shotgun at 18 -- but must wait until 21 to buy a handgun; felons cannot buy guns; all guns must be registered; sales of multiple handguns require ATF notification. Federal laws already prohibit gun trafficking. Beyond this foundation, each state should be free to restrict or expand rights as they see fit.

Unless stolen, guns do not travel with the wind injuring third parties. Sure, guns can cause harm: they are used as a tool in suicide, accidental shootings, domestic violence, and countless crimes of greed. But, these harms generally cluster in the state in which they are used -- and should be addressed there, not in Congress.

2.) Fairness
Why should South Dakotans be punished for the sins of New York City? Guns are huge problem throughout urban America. But, all the maladies seen here in NYC have not infected states like Wyoming, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, etc. Because of the ubiquity of hunting, accidental deaths are low in most rural states -- except when Dick Cheney is around. Crime is also low. Suicide rates are no higher than in urban America (and probably are lower). In fact, the use of guns in domestic violence is the only good argument for additional gun regulations in places like South Dakota -- and, there are better ways of reducing domestic violence than emptying the gun cabinet.

3.) Guns as the Whipping Boy of the Left
Every week, there seems to be a new workplace or school shooting. No other industrialized nation is plagued by our epidemic of violence. It's appalling that we are the model for the world, our social fabric is in tatters. So, what do we do about this spiral of violence? It's really easy to blame guns. In my home state of Wisconsin, a hunter went berserk (mid-hunt) and shot several other men out hunting in the same forest. These kind of attrocities simply did not happen 50 years ago -- despite children's ready access to guns in rural America.

Furthermore, when rifles and shotguns are the tool of choice for these acts of suicide-by-cops-and-teachers, it's intellectual laziness to blame the NRA. One can't seriously advocate limiting hunters' access to shotguns. At least, one can't if you've ever lived in Wisconsin or South Dakota.

The NRA is hardly a servant of the people, but I can't help but agree that it's people that kill people -- not guns. National gun laws will do nothing to kill the social rot evident in the countless school and workplace shootings. Maybe...instead, we should do something about all the people bowling alone? Or, about people watching Bill O'Reilly? Here's my bet: increased social competition, stress in the workplace, urbanization, rapid growth, and the destruction of our social safety net have prompted our violence crisis.

4) The State Solution: Experimentation
Why not exploit one of the prime virtues of our federal system, experimentation, to find the best policy? In states that do have serious gun problems, legislatures should be free to add as many restrictions as they like -- leaving the remaining states to grant conceal-and-carry licenses and other means to expand gun rights. If guns are truly such a social plague, then largely rural states will eventually start restricting gun rights. Until then, leave them be.

Further federal encroachment on the 2nd Amendment is contrary to fairness, federalism, and freedom -- and therefore contrary to the mission of ACS.



At 11:11 AM, Blogger Andy said...

To see a response to this piece from a member of the Federalist Society @ CLS, check out PG's Federalism Is Not a Cure-All.


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