Balancing rights and safety in the wake of horror

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Matthew deGrood, Contributing Writer

The recent horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, should prompt a thoughtful public discourse about the availability and restriction of firearms within the United States. To date, the debate has been anything other than thoughtful. There are many zealots unconcerned about facts.

The crux of the issue is the right of an individual to bear arms versus the government’s responsibility to prevent crime. The debate has both a political and an ethical component: respectively, to what degree the government has the authority to regulate guns, and what the balance should be between an individual’s right to self-defense and society’s interest in maintaining public safety.

Anti-gun-control advocates contend that any effort by the government to control guns is a violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which protects a person’s right to keep and to bear arms. The Supreme Court recently issued two landmark decisions regarding the Second Amendment. The first, in 2008, upheld the right of a person to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, irrespective of service in a militia. A later ruling, in 2010, held that the Second Amendment also limits state and local governments’ power to regulate guns to the same extent that it limits the federal government.

Although the Second Amendment does recognize the right of a citizen to keep and bear arms, the right is not absolute. In fact, none of the rights in the Bill of Rights is absolute. For example, the First Amendment acknowledges the right to free speech, but this right is not unfettered. Federal, state and local governments prohibit defamation – speech that incites violence – and obscenity. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from warrantless searches and seizures, but borders and airports are two exceptions.

The Second Amendment is no different. In a perfect world, there would be no guns. We do not, however, live in a perfect world. Banning all guns is totally unrealistic, but gun control laws that restrict gun access by those who are mentally ill or felons are reasonable. I support all laws that ensure the safety of the American populace at large.

The National Rifle Association proposed enhanced security at schools, including hiring armed personnel and decreasing the violence in video games and movies. Are these recommendations reasonable? Absolutely yes. If a good guy with a gun can prevent a bad guy with a gun from committing horrible acts, I support it. While I’m less convinced by the second recommendation, I would support launching studies to determine the correlation between the two. Any reasonable action that can be undertaken to save human lives should receive everyone’s support.

With this in mind, are some of the progressive recommendations also reasonable and prudent? Again, absolutely yes. The two most important recommendations that President Obama recently proposed, which would require Congressional action, are:

1. Mandatory background checks for anyone who wants to buy a gun (currently, gun buyers who want to avoid background checks can purchase a gun from a private seller at a gun show), and 2. To reinstate the ban on military-style assault weapons and limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

These are two reasonable laws that could potentially save lives and, contrary to the opinion of some, would not restrict law-abiding citizens’ rights to own guns. I cannot stress this point enough. We, as citizens, tolerate waits and restrictions on all manner of things (passports, drivers’ licenses, etc.). We recognize that these rules increase the safety of the general public without stifling our rights. I propose a similar approach to laws concerning gun control.

The fact that the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was able to legally secure the weapons utilized in the mass shooting – despite having previously been diagnosed with a plethora of mental illnesses – is simply unacceptable. Almost everyone considered for a job and most volunteer positions (e.g., coaches, camp counselors, etc.) is subject to a background check. People who want to own firearms should be treated no differently. Checking someone’s background is not taking away his right to arms. It is simply ensuring that weapons are not allowed into the hands of people who would use them to harm others.

For those who have lost someone they love to gun violence, balancing an individual’s right to self-defense and society’s interest in maintaining public safety is not a political or even an ethical issue. It is personal. I have lost someone for whom I cared to a senseless act of violence perpetrated using a gun. I live every day with the consequences of a mentally ill person having access to a firearm, and I ask myself what right would have been infringed if this person’s background had been checked before he purchased a handgun?

None come to my mind.

1 COMMENT

  1. How would a ban on assault weapons have any effect? What are the technical differences between what the bill calls an “assault” weapon and almost every gun except revolvers made in the last 100 years? Since they all do about the same thing, the language of how you define an “assault” is critical, and subject to change with each new congress or bench decision. And that in and of itself should cause pause in that thinking. It is also important to realize that mags > then 5 shots are typical. In fact it is hard to find any with that few. There may be more then 300 million mags which could become illegal, without any data to suggest there is a societal benefit, and with the clear effect of reducing your ability for self defense. Might also ask how this would effect your families ability to give you a family weapon. Would you have to pass a background check, or should we trust your parents opinion? Its not quite as common sense as they try to make it sound.

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