So, the debate has begin.
After three decades of silence, those Americans who favor reasonable limits on the availability of weapons have finally begun to speak up. The primary tactic of the NRA - using political intimidation to silence debate - has, at least for the moment, been overcome by the sheer revulsion of millions of Americans over the massacre of school children.
Governor Cuomo and the New York legislature have acted – boldly and decisively – to limit the sale of military style weapons and large-capacity magazines. President Obama, with uncharacteristic gumption, has called for sweeping reforms and mobilized his campaign organization to make his case.
No keen observer of the American political scene can believe that this fight will end in a quick victory for the forces of reason. Public opinion is formed through debate. Changing minds takes time. A generation and more of silence has allowed public opinion to be molded by only one side in this debate.
Indeed, given that silence, it’s remarkable that public opinion is as evenly divided as it is.
Advocates of a balanced, nationwide weapons policy must prepare themselves for a long struggle. The NRA has several million members, most of them happy to advertise that fact by placing their organization’s seal on their personal vehicles.
Those who favor weapons restrictions are probably more numerous, but certainly a lot less militant, organized or outspoken. Until politicians face several million voters prepared to oust them for caving to the gun lobby, the contest will not be equal.
Still, the debate has begun. Unless it is allowed to die quickly, change will inevitably come.
The reason is simple. The balance of valid public interests is entirely on the side of banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
Keep that word in mind: Balance.
To be sure, a handful of Americans seriously support banning all firearms, including handguns, shotguns and hunting rifles. Still, their number is small, and the policies they advocate are not on the table – and probably never will be.
The question presently before us is whether anyone, other than a member of our military – on duty – needs to possess an assault-type weapon.
Or rather – to put it in public policy terms – whether anyone’s perceived need for such a weapon can match the interest of the rest of us in enjoying such fundamental rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In a constitutional republic, even matters of fundamental right always come down to a question of balance. Even if one should concede – for the sake of argument – that the Second Amendment confers an individual right, it is certainly not an absolute right.
Few would claim that an individual citizen has a constitutional right to own and operate a fully-armed tank or combat helicopter; or to stockpile mortars and flamethrowers; or to plant anti-personnel mines on his property.
All rights have limits. Your free speech rights do not extend to shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre – or to surrounding your suburban home with loudspeakers so that you can blast the neighborhood with political rants at 3 a.m.
Your religious liberty does not extend to practicing human sacrifice, or to refusing to educate your daughters.
If you try to practice your right of free assembly by occupying a public building, you and your comrades will be arrested and carted off to jail.
So assuming there is a constitutional right to own and possess firearms, that right must be balanced against other important rights.
And the rights most in conflict with that right are the most fundamental of all – the rights upon which this country was founded: the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In a civil society, people should be able to go about their ordinary business – dropping the kids off at school, going to work, shopping, catching a movie – without risking the sudden appearance of a madman, armed like Rambo, and bent upon a bloody final gesture.
In America, in 2013, that expectation is at serious risk.
Those who have lived in Virginia for more than a decade will recall the three weeks of terror we all endured because of the “Beltway sniper.” I remember, particularly, that people at self-service pumps often did a little slow-motion dance as they waited for their gas tanks to fill – presenting a bit of a moving target.
We lived, for those few weeks, in genuine fear.
I won’t pretend that the appearance of deranged mass killers has created quite that level of fear. But ask parents, taking a child to school, whether they enjoy their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as completely as they did two months ago,
Ask a child.
The debate now beginning is about balancing rights in a complex society. Ask anyone who takes an absolute position – on either side of this debate – whether they’ve considered all the interests which deserve to be weighed.