Gun rights more important than safety: Supreme Court edition

Cross-posted at

I’ve been mulling over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Chicago’s handgun ban since the news came out yesterday. Two years ago, the Supreme Court also struck down DC gun control laws in District of Columbia v. Heller, but went even further in the 5-4 decision yesterday in writing that the Second Amendment applies not only to federal gun control laws, but supersedes state and local efforts to curb gun ownership as well. Basically, Chicago’s 1983 law prevented the ownership of handguns – presumably because they are portable and easier to carry and conceal than, say, a giant rifle. Thereby a ban made sense for limiting violent street crime. The law doesn’t say nobody in Chicago can own a gun, it just bans handguns. I really have no idea what guns rights advocates were so up in arms about, pun intended. Do they need an arsenal on their person at all times? Now guns rights advocates are cheering that the evil dictatorship of state and local governments can’t curb what firearms law-abiding citizens can use.

I think I need to add some nuance to my own guns-rights position. I like most of the other protections in the Bill of Rights, so you know what? I think I can lend my support to the Second Amendment right to bear arms. However, since many who vocally argue for gun rights argue that it’s what the Founding Fathers wanted and we should read the Constitution not as a historical document but a perfect framework for the problems we confront in this day and age, we should take them at their word. The Founding Fathers had muskets to defend their homes, and that’s what we should have. You know, those old-fashioned firearms you see in movies, where people had to load gunpowder and bullets before they took a shot. Then you actually had to think before you took aim. There was no such thing as handguns or automatic rifles, and I doubt the Founding Fathers had the ability to divine the future to guess what their role in our twenty-first century society would be. Therefore we should take a historical approach to gun ownership in homage to the real rights granted by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I say this because I live in New York City, where our (Republican) mayor is for gun control, crime decreased for years until recently, and the city ranks as one of the safer cities in America in terms of violent crime, which is astounding for its size and history. I wonder how cities will be able to ensure the safety of its citizens now that their ability to write gun control laws has been circumscribed. As a city dweller, I like being able to walk down the street knowing my likelihood of taking a bullet to the chest is a little lower. Why is my personal safety secondary to the rights of gun owners? (Or, as The Awl put it in my favorite headline of the day, "When Will the Supreme Court Affirm the Constitutional Right to Not Be Shot?") At least the "party-line" dissenters did:

“The reasons that motivated the framers to protect the ability of militiamen to keep muskets available for military use when our nation was in its infancy, or that motivated the Reconstruction Congress to extend full citizenship to freedmen in the wake of the Civil War, have only a limited bearing on the question that confronts the homeowner in a crime-infested metropolis today,” Justice Stevens wrote in his final dissent before retiring.

He said the court should have proceeded more cautiously in light of “the malleability and elusiveness of history” and because “firearms have a fundamentally ambivalent relationship to liberty.”

In a dissent joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, Justice Breyer said that history did not provide clear answers and that the empirical evidence about the consequences of gun control laws are mixed. But there was evidence, he said, that firearms caused 60,000 deaths and injuries in the United States each year and that Chicago’s handgun ban had saved many hundreds of lives since it was enacted in 1983.

 Clearly, Justice Breyer and crew fundamentally misunderstand the crime-fighting tactics of the pro-guns-all-the-time wing of the country. See, if we all carry guns, we will all be able to defend ourselves and therefore keep crime stats low with the threat of vigilante justice! No way could that go wrong! I don’t think I need to underline how patently absurd it is to believe violent crime will decrease if you put a gun in the hand of every man, woman, and child – it speaks for itself. Any reality-based person knows the math doesn’t add up. Conservative Thomas Sewell writes in RealClearPolitics, "Those who have no confidence in ordinary Americans may expect a bloodbath, as the benighted masses start shooting each other, now that they can no longer be denied guns by their betters." First of all, that’s a tad hyperbolic. Nobody is denying anybody guns entirely – Chicago just had a handgun ban. Also, guns rights advocates talk about how "ordinary Americans" and "law abiding citizens" shouldn’t be denied guns. Well, citizens are law abiding until the second they aren’t. Until the second a bar fight goes bad, or a road rage incident gets out of control, or you get into a fight with your significant other and the weapon is a little too close. Yes, ensuring public safety will always be a guessing game, an approximation, but that doesn’t mean we should scrap all of our efforts and have a free-for-all. (By the way, this is exactly where the musket would come in handy.) Sewell also writes, "If the end of gun control leads to a blood bath of runaway shootings, then the second Amendment can be repealed, just as other Constitutional Amendments have been repealed." He conveniently ignores that we’re already in a bloodbath – 60,000 casualties a year. If that doesn’t sound like a bloodbath to him, I shudder to think at what his nightmares look like.

(By the way, bonus points for how he says "We hear a lot about countries with stronger gun control laws than the United States that have low murder rates. But we seldom hear about countries with stronger gun control laws than the United States that have higher murder rates, such as Russia and Brazil." Really? That’s because we usually compare ourselves to European nations that have been developed for some time and have evolved and stable systems of government. I’m  not sure Russia and Brazil are the public safety standard against which we should measure ourselves, even if their economies are rapidly developing. I think he just lost the argument with that comparison.)

Perhaps my perspective is a little different as a woman, since I am aware that statistically, guns play a significant role in abusive relationships that end in death, and violent crime against women in general. (And when men kill women, more often than not it’s with handguns – like those Chicago banned.) Often when I go through street harassment I snap and mouth off to my harasser. It’s only later that I think to myself, "What if he had a gun? He could have just shot me for rebuffing my advances." I’m not trying to be dramatic – this is literally something women have to think about when it comes to their own safety.

So, thank you Supreme Court. I will feel a lot safer when I walk down the street knowing the threat I may be carrying a handgun might just deter my possible attackers. Fantastic.

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