Editorial: Self-defense rights in a 'Rambo' culture
Too bad James Madison and George Mason and Thomas Jefferson and others of their ilk are not alive today to explain what exactly they meant by their ambiguous wording in the Second Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
On Thursday, in a historic 5-4 decision split along now utterly predictable conservative and liberal fault lines - with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote - the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a couple centuries of precedent by ruling that the Second Amendment gives individuals, not just those belonging to a militia, the right to have guns for personal protection inside the home.
Specifically, the court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban is unconstitutional. The decision is likely to have implications across the country, including in Chicago and several other Illinois communities, where gun rights activists have already filed suit seeking to overturn bans.
We have mixed emotions.
First, the Founders lived in an era when muzzle-loaded muskets were high-tech. Elevated as their IQs were, they could not have imagined the firepower Americans have at their disposal today or the violence-as-entertainment culture in which we live.
Much of violent crime in U.S. cities is gang on gang. The presence of guns there don't seem a deterrent.
Not everyone who goes out and gets a gun now will be as responsible or as trained with it as no doubt every law-abiding, central Illinois gun owner now reading this editorial is. No sooner had this decision hit the front pages than news also emerged of a 3-year-old Joliet boy dying after shooting himself in the head while playing with a loaded handgun. Accidents will happen; every decision has its collateral damage. The question mark is whether we're better off, on balance.
That said, while we have long advocated for reasonable gun controls on this page, we're also pragmatists. Beyond what the Founders intended, which is open to interpretation, it is fair to question whether gun bans make Americans safer.
Indeed, if it's true that "a firearm is used in 75 percent of all murders committed in the city of Chicago," as its police chief maintains, then it would seem clear that Chicago's ban on handgun possession is not effective. In fact between 2004 and late 2007, there were 43,685 violent crimes involving firearms in Chicago. Obviously the criminals there pay no attention to what the law says, and they seem to have no problem getting their hands on such weapons despite restrictions.
Even Justice Stephen Breyer, in his minority dissent, conceded that D.C.'s crime and homicide rate went "soaring" after the ban, though he acknowledged no causal connection.
Fundamentally, the disagreement here was whether self-defense was a "subsidiary interest" or a "central component" of the Second Amendment, whether the Founders intended to grant a "collective" right to gun ownership as a guard against federal tyranny or an "individual" one. The majority says the latter.
We'd say this: Police cannot be everywhere, all the time. It is very difficult, then, to tell people - especially those who live in high-crime areas - that they don't have a right to defend themselves when threatened in their own homes. Rare as home invasions may be, common sense suggests you're at a disadvantage in defending yourself against a gun without a gun.
We're glad the Supreme Court didn't go any farther here. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, made it clear that the right the Second Amendment grants to individual gun ownership "is not unlimited." Weapons can still be prohibited in "sensitive places such as schools and government buildings." Felons and the mentally ill still need not apply. "Dangerous and unusual weapons" - machine guns, for example - are still a no-no. This has no bearing on government licensing of weapons.
Specifically, it's the "absolute prohibition of handguns ... used for self-defense in the home" that the Second Amendment forbids, Scalia wrote. Other, constitutionally acceptable "tools" exist to address the recognized "problem of handgun violence in this country." This shouldn't be viewed as an invitation for everyone to arm themselves.
It is by no means certain what impact this will have nationwide. D.C.'s gun ban was on the extreme end, mandating that even permissible shotguns be disassembled and trigger-locked. D.C. is under federal jurisdiction; states' rights will be an issue. The litigation will take years and years.
As such we don't quite buy all the sky-is-falling rhetoric.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley called it a "very frightening decision" and evoked images of the "Old West" where "you have a gun and I have a gun and we'll settle it in the streets." Miami's police chief said the decision would "literally" lead to "Rambo becomes reality." Well, wait a minute. It's legal to own a gun in your home in Peoria, but it's not as if violent anarchy reigns.
One other thing: As Justice John Paul Stevens hinted for the minority, it's clear that conservatives can be just as activist in making law as liberals. Surprise, surprise. Again, it's why presidential elections matter.
Peoria Journal Star