Monday, January 7, 2013

After Newtown: Is The Right to Bear Arms Right?

“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.”       --The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution

Does a legal right ever make a wrong?

It’s now been almost a month since a gunman walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, opened fire and killed twenty school children and six adults.  It was the second most deadly mass shooting in the history of the United States, surpassed only by the killing of 32 people by a gunman at Virginia Tech University in 2007.

A lot has happened since December 14. Victims have been laid to rest. Thousands of folks visited Newtown to offer sympathy and support. Prayers have been prayed in houses of worship worldwide. Funds raised for the victims’ families. Vice President Joe Biden leads a gun control task force.  Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is pushing for new gun control laws here.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) came out with rhetorical guns blazing a week after the shooting, declaring that the real problem was not enough guns in the hands of law abiding citizens. They want an armed guard in every school in America.

But nothing has happened really.  America is still the most armed nation in the entire world by far, with 270,000,000 guns in civilian hands in our country.  That’s about nine guns for every ten Americans.  The next closest rate of gun ownership is in Yemen, at about half of our number.  The United States still has the highest rate of gun related murders among all developed countries in the world: four times as many firearms deaths as the next two nations, Turkey and Switzerland.  Americans are twenty times more likely to be killed by a gun than in any other of its peer nations: Japan, Britain, France, Germany, etc.

So I guess we Americans still do love our guns, Newtown be damned.  Guns to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our property, right?  Guns to protect ourselves from the government, as I’ve heard some more radical gun rights proponents argue.  If the people are well armed, they will not be ruled by tyrants. And it is not like the Second Amendment right to bear arms is threatened. Just five years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the individual right to bear arms for lawful purposes is constitutionally guaranteed and unconnected to service in a militia.

But here’s one question that’s yet to be asked: is a right always right?

What if America’s unquestioned individual right to bear arms infringes on my individual right as a non-gun owning citizen to my life, my liberty and the pursuit of my happiness?  As someone who does not own a gun, who has absolutely no interest in ever possessing or firing a gun (which is, after all, designed to kill): have I any rights in this debate?  Any at all?

Like the right to know that I am safe in public, even as so many of my fellow citizens are packing heat. The federal government’s General Accounting Office estimates 8,000,000 Americans have permits to carry a concealed weapon. If that reality makes me feel much less safe, that so many of my neighbors potentially have a hidden weapon on their person, do I have any recourse? How do I know that they even know how to properly use that gun or have the mental stability to own a weapon?  How do I know that their gun won’t be inadvertently used to hurt or kill me the next time I’m in line at Starbucks and a cowboy or cowgirl feels threatened by whatever and decides to open up?

If I had a child, could they be forced to attend a school where armed guards and even teachers possess a weapon? What of my right to have a son or daughter educated in a truly safe place? Can the NRA or anyone else guarantee that when the guns come out the next time in a school house, my son or daughter won’t be wounded or killed by an errant bullet fired by a well meaning but inept “protector”? Can the local school committee now insist our children go to a school marked by the four r’s—reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and rifles?

I get the notion of individual rights. I’m grateful for all the individual legal rights I live under and enjoy as an American.  But what I do not get is the continued dogmatic, rabid, stubborn, unyielding, and ultimately selfish and deadly insistence by the NRA and folks of that ilk that their right to bear arms is untouchable.  Sacred even.

Like it is a constitutional god to be so worshipped that any effort to regulate or limit that right is a civic sin.  That this right trumps any and all other rights, any notion of community responsibility or moderation or logic or reason.

You may have a right to your gun.  But I have a right as well, to live in a safe nation, a community not just safe from the “bad guys”, but also safe from the supposed “good guys” who still so love their guns and their “rights”.  

Let’s have that debate. Is your right, right?