March 1, 2013

Maine Voices: How the gun-rights crowd gets the Second Amendment wrong

It's time for those of us who believe in sensible gun control to reclaim its true history.

By Dennis Bailey

PORTLAND - Once again, a gun-rights extremist has made the erroneous and misleading argument that the Second Amendment to the Constitution prevents the government from imposing rational gun-control measures. It doesn't.

In his recent column ("Maine Voices: Releasing concealed-carry data violates permit holders' rights," Feb. 27), state Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, trots out the same tired NRA talking points that virtually any effort to limit the type of guns a person can own is a violation of their constitutional rights.

"The U.S. Constitution makes clear ... that it is not the government's role to determine whether law-abiding citizens have the right to possess weapons," he writes, "and if so, how many weapons and rounds of ammunition they can keep."

Actually, Sen. Thibodeau, it is the government's role and has been since Colonial times. And its role in limiting, restricting and controlling gun ownership has been upheld in numerous court challenges.

It might come as a surprise to Thibodeau, but during the 1700s, "The founding fathers instituted gun-control laws so intrusive that no self-respecting member of today's NRA board of directors would support them," writes constitutional law professor Adam Winkler in his book "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America."

Law-abiding citizens were denied the right to own guns if they failed a test of loyalty to the Revolution. Laws were passed allowing the government to confiscate weapons from citizens if they were needed for military purposes, even if it meant leaving the citizens defenseless. There were laws requiring Colonial governments to inspect and inventory all guns held by the citizenry. (Imagine the NRA's freak-out if we tried that today.)

Throughout history, many states passed laws denying gun ownership to blacks and Indians. Maryland passed a law prohibiting Catholics from owning guns. Numerous towns in the Wild West passed gun-control laws far more restrictive than anything on the books today.

Our nation's history of gun-control measures is one of the reasons why Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- normally a hero of the conservative right -- wrote in the landmark 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller, "Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

Scalia went on to say that the courts have long upheld concealed-weapons prohibitions, and he reaffirmed the court's decision "prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons."

Dangerous and unusual weapons like assault rifles, perhaps?

How did we get to a place where elected officials like Thibodeau believe that a Constitutional amendment establishing a right to bear arms for a "well-regulated militia" trumps all others -- like the right to know what my government is up to -- and makes us powerless to prevent lunatics from stockpiling a military arsenal of assault weapons? It's time for those of us who believe in sensible gun control to reclaim the true history and application of the Second Amendment from those who fetishize and distort its true meaning for their own narrow political goals, and the goals of gun manufacturers.

In his column defending the Legislature's decision to make the names of concealed-weapons permit holders a state secret, Thibodeau oddly compares the right to own a gun with the "right" to own a car.

"New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently stated, 'No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer,'" Thibodeau writes. "I would point out to Gov. Cuomo that no one 'needs' to drive a car with a 350-horsepower engine, but as Americans, we are free to make the conscious decision to purchase one. The same applies to our right to own guns."

OK, but I would point out to the senator that if you're going to drive that car, you're going to have to register it and take a test to demonstrate basic competence before the government gives you a license. You'll also have to show proof of insurance. And any car you choose to buy has numerous government-required safety enhancements: seat belts, air bags, rearview mirrors, head restraints and many more.

So yes, Sen. Thibodeau, by all means. Let's apply the same standards to gun ownership, shall we?

Dennis Bailey is president of Savvy Inc., a public relations and political consulting firm in Portland.

 

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