The NRA yesterday addressed the conservative conference, CPAC, and turned a defense of gun rights into a conservative political rant. The issues—and they are very real ones, worth debating—is whether the Second Amendment forbids the gun regulations being proposed, and whether, even if it does not, would any of them contribute to the reduction of gun deaths.
Wayne LaPierre Jr., the NRA’S executive vice president, does not want to seriously debate either real issue. Instead he relies on non sequitors and ad hominem attacks on those whose views he opposes. He speaks as though freedom is virtually synonymous with gun rights, equating those who oppose his reading of the Second Amendment being against “our fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights.” This would surprise (or should surprise) even the most conservative members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the group that initially passes on whether to confirm nominees to the Supreme Court. I have taught constitutional law for thirty-five years, and I can testify that no one on that committee ever asked a nominee a question about their reading of the Second Amendment prior to 2000. Yet the debate over individual rights has been central to the Court’s work for at least eighty years.
It is not enough that those who lack the NRA’s enthusiasm for the Second Amendment are opponents of the Bill of Rights. LaPierre perceives it as equally damning that many of the NRA’s intellectual opponents are “‘intellectuals’ who think they are ‘smarter and better’” than those who defend gun rights. Opponents of gun rights, moreover, are included within the ranks of the “socialist enemy,” and are in the higher education academies. Thus he preposterously claims that “the works of Karl Marx are among the most assigned curricular materials” in college courses these days. And he assured the audience that all present “should be frightened” because the “European socialists” are seeking to take over the federal government—which would mean that “American freedoms could be lost and our country changed forever.” And, of course, “the first to go will be the Second Amendment to the U.S. constitution.”
A thorough and honest student of the Second Amendment, and its fascinating history, would freely acknowledge that the sole advocates of the right to arms has never been members of the conservative political movement. As one example, black members of the Civil Rights Movement invoked the Second Amendment as they carried firearms in the 1960’s, fearing that they would be ambushed by members of the radical right. But people like LaPierre latch on to the issue because the most ardent gun right advocates in our polarized world happen to be on the right.
Among thoughtful students of the right to arms, including the many who agree that the Second Amendment was meant to guarantee a right to own and use personal firearms, none of them see the Second Amendment as the keystone of our system of rights and most agree that popular support for a right to own and use firearms would almost certainly have secured the right to keep and bear arms, regardless of the verdict in the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision. And no thoughtful scholar I know believes that the Second Amendment, properly read, would or should foreclose universal background checks, prohibitions on bump stocks that converts rifles into automatic weapons, or limits on bringing firearms into public buildings or schools. It would help promote rational and civil public discourse if the NRA would keep its focus on the real issues.