Friday, January 11, 2013

We have the right to own guns, but in balance with the greater good

After the high profile shootings in the last couple of years that took maybe 200 lives, the United States seems to be getting serious on the issue of gun violence.  The previous post examined the current situation in America.  It found that the outcomes on both sides of the argument contradict the theory.  In various parts of the country attempts have been made to stop the violence by enacting more restrictions some places and less in other places.  Yet the violence grows.

Today, we will discuss the Constitutional right to own a gun.
We do have the freedom to own guns in America, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution and our own natural rights.  (Yes, there is a phrase in the Second Amendment that uses the term “well regulated.”  But, the position in this blog post is not based on the meaning of “well regulated.”)  The Constitution also protects the freedom of speech, voting and many other freedoms.  Of all the freedoms listed in the Constitution and all the others that are part of our natural rights, only one when abused can have an irreversible outcome, the right to own a gun.  All other rights may at the worse, cause temporary harm to an individual or a community when abused.  If someone exercising their freedom of speech by slandering someone, it doesn’t cause death and the statements can be evaluated in plenty of time for corrective action.  If people vote for someone based on incorrect information, at the very least, the vote can be reversed during the next election.  So it is with every other freedom. 

The right to carry guns, by extension, the right to use the gun, if abused can cause great harm and the extreme possibility of death.  After the harm is done, the individual who lost his or her life is not able to respond.  This means that the right to own guns warrants special consideration when it comes to safeguarding members of the community.
Part of the discussion about the right to own guns should also include the constitutionally acceptable limitations of other rights.  As for the freedom of speech, the individual is not able to use fighting words and can’t use the freedom of speech as a protection for distributing pornography to certain age groups.  Voting, which is part of the original constitutionally mandated right can be limited by age, residence requirements and other limitations.  Why should the right to own a gun not be limited?  As with any other right, reasonable restrictions should be allowed by communities to protect their citizens.

In support of this, I believe the authors of the Constitution had every intention of allowing reasonable restrictions to be enacted for any of the rights.  Consider this, the original Constitution, before the Bill of Rights, guaranteed very few rights.  It certainly didn’t guarantee the freedom of speech and the right of gun ownership.  They had a different idea about rights. They looked for a balance between the community’s responsibility to protect its citizens and the rights of the individual.  The way this balance worked was through voting rights.  Some felt that the most important right “of all that could be listed on a piece of paper” was voting.  This right was important because if elected officials went too far and enacted laws that offended the citizens, with the right to vote, they could be removed from office during the next election.  Then, be replaced with someone that would find a better balance between freedom and safety.  It is this balance they intended future legislatures to follow.          
If the intent is to balance the responsibility of the community with individual rights then legislatures can act to protect people from harm.  But, it must be a compelling reason.  Action should never be taken lightly and must be balanced with the greater good for the community.  Never should action be taken to prevent the wholesale limitation of any right or to restrict the rights of any particular political point of view.     

One last thought on this idea of balancing of the responsibility of the community and individual rights.  The phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is in that order for a reason.  The protection of life is of the first importance, even when weighted against liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Even the phrase that didn’t make it into any of our official documents that substitutes “pursuit of happiness” for property, places property third.  With life, all other rights flow, without, there are no other rights.  When a life is taken, so is all the freedoms that can be listed on a piece of paper are gone.  It is this logic of the balance of rights and safety that must be applied with enacting legislation.
None of the restrictions that are suggested in the next post will ask that people not be able to own guns.  It only suggests reasonable restrictions on them, like the reasonable restrictions on other rights in balance to the degree of harm they can cause by the abuse of a right.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Gun violence in America - Part one of four parts

With the tragedy at Newtown and others over the last couple of years, we may be finally taking a serious look at gun violence in the United States.  President Obama has asked Vice-President Biden to chair a bi-partisan committee staffed by elected officials from both houses of congress to work through possible proposals for action.  Biden is also hosting discussion groups at the White House with representatives from all sides of the issue.

This post is part of a four part series because of the depth that the issue is explored.  Part one is on the current situation in the country.  Part two explores the issue of gun rights in context with all rights.  This third is about legal issues that need to be explored for possible legislation.  Finally, taking a page from the Communitarian philosophy, we look to the cultural and social pressures that should come to bare on the issue of gun violence. 
While the tragedies that have received national attention are horrific, the real problem is experienced by families and communities every single day.  The amount of people killed in the media spot light is less than the total amount of people killed every week in the United States.

Depending on what research is examined, it appears that we have more guns per capita than any other nation.  There are those that believe that by arming the citizenry it will make for a safe environment from gun violence. (I believe the phrase is, “An armed society is a polite society.”)  But, the reality is, that again depending on the research, we are among the top 15 nations for the amount of deaths by gun violence. 
An extension of the armed society concept are the stand your ground laws.  In Florida, a man is on trial for shooting a 17 year old, his defense being the stand your ground law.  The argument is that people will be less likely to initiate crime if they think the other person has a gun and is legally allowed to use it in their defense.  A Texas A and M study reports that the homicide rate has increased in states that has enacted stand your ground laws.  Again, the downside appears to contradict the basic argument.    

On the other side of the spectrum, some want to take guns away from everyone except police and military.  The argument is that by removing guns all together people will not have easy quick and disassociated action of firing a gun. Two cities in America enacted very strict guns laws to reduce gun violence.  In both cases, the Supreme Court struck down the laws.  In one of the cities, Chicago, after the law was deemed unconstitutional, the homicide rate increased sharply.  In the other city, Washington, D.C., the homicide rate went down.  Something else must be going on beyond the gun laws because, again, the evidence contradicts the theory.
The two extremes of the argument don’t make a lot of sense when examined against the facts.    Gun violence in America is happening at a higher rate than almost any other country.  Yet, we have more guns than anywhere else and a wide variety of gun laws in attempt to curb the violence. 

But, we have a right to own a gun.  We will examine that right in context with our other rights in the next blog post.