Gun control needs more control
HERE’S AN issue on which everybody is more wrong than right, including me.
I’m in favor of sanity and opposed to needless bloodshed, so having tough laws to restrict the availability of firearms — especially handguns — should be a no-brainer.
Think of all the husband-and-wife arguments, the road-rage showdowns, the workplace disputes, the high-school beefs that by all rights should end in embarrassment, hurt feelings, maybe a scuffle or an amateurish punch — but instead end with a funeral, simply because there was a gun close at hand when tempers boiled over.
Guns do kill people — roughly 30,000 a year in the United States, including both homicides and suicides. Handguns are the principal menace (most people are more responsible with long guns than Dick Cheney). In England and Wales, where handgun ownership is prohibited, in 2005-06 there were only 46 homicides in which firearms were used. Strict handgun control laws have to be the right policy.
But here’s where I begin to wander off the reservation. These days, I don’t get as hung up as I used to on whether the government should have a monopoly on the instruments of deadly force. This is no backwoods survivalist talking, just an African American who grew up in the South at a time when the people in uniform were often the bad guys, and when having a pistol or a shotgun to brandish saved a lot of black people’s lives. That time is gone, though, and quelling the horrific black-on-black violence of today is so urgent that I can look past the history lesson.
Then, however, I get snagged by the wording of the Second Amendment. It’s obvious to me the Constitution has to be a living document and that inferences have to be drawn from it to accommodate changing times — the right to privacy, for example, that Justice Harry Blackmun found to justify Roe v. Wade. But, um, it’s pretty hard to infer the polar opposite of what the document says. And I know courts have ruled in the past that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” is a collective right belonging to the states, but I’ve never been able to figure why the Founders would give a collective right such prominence in what is otherwise a charter of individual rights and freedoms.
Two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia couldn’t figure it out either, and so two weeks ago they voided the city of Washington’s 30-year-old law prohibiting private citizens from possessing handguns.
The judges might well have been right on the law and the Constitution. But they were wrong to take a valuable tool away from law enforcement — the power to lock up a bad guy just for having a gun — in a city plagued by violent crime. And they were wrong to use such sweeping language, inviting review by the Supreme Court. You can almost hear the ultra-conservative justices sharpening their quill pens and rustling their parchments.
Angry city officials are right to howl in protest about the appeals court’s ruling, and they’re right to worry that allowing people to legally own handguns will boost the body count and endanger police officers. They’re right to warn that law-abiding citizens who buy guns for protection are more likely to shoot themselves or each other than any criminal.
But it’s wrong to ignore the reality that D.C. criminals have no trouble getting guns in Virginia or Maryland — or, for that matter, right down the block. Officials are wrong to ignore the fact that in the city’s toughest neighborhoods, many people feel the police cannot or will not protect them, so they want some firepower of their own.
And those law-abiding citizens are wrong to think that somehow, when the moment comes, they will be able to correctly make split- second, life-or-death decisions that even experienced police officers sometimes get wrong. Someone is surely going to kill a brother, mistaking him for a robber. Someone is going to fail to notice that a child has wandered into the line of fire.
But citizens are right to demand that the law be more effective in taking guns out of the hands of criminals.
Eugene Robinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.
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