In 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that people have the right to keep handguns in their home for self-defense. Two years later, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling in Heller with McDonald v City of Chicago, Illinois. In McDonald it was argued the 2nd Amendment did not apply to the States. However, in a 5-4 decision, the court essentially stated that the 2nd Amendment did indeed apply to the states, and the city of Chicago — who had restrictive laws on gun ownership in the home.
People may say that the ruling was conservative, but in the strict sense of the word, the ruling is very liberal — if the definition of liberal is to mean without much restriction. The use of a gun in the home for self-defense is something that millions of Americans have celebrated as a good day for liberty. But liberty is a tricky thing. My right to exercise the freedom to do X may cause harm to another person, group, or society at large, and in essence, infringe upon the liberties of others (most notably the natural right of life). So, according the Supreme Court, the right to have a handgun in the home for self-defense is just that — limited to a certain sphere; private space, if you will.
Justice Stevens — who delivered a dissenting opinion on McDonald, stated the limits of handgun possession more pointedly:
Neither submission requires the Court to express an opinion on whether the Fourteenth Amendment places any limit on the power of States to regulate possession, use, or carriage of firearms outside the home [emphasis mine].
The recent massacre of moviegoers in Colorado by James Holmes is but another incident in so-called “senseless crimes.” But almost everything Holmes did up to the moment he left his home for the movie theatre was legal and constitutionally protected. The minute he left his home, however, his freedom to carry firearms in public eroded to the point where when he entered the theatre (a private space that prohibits guns) it was all but gone. From a legal perspective, that’s cold comfort to those who lost loved ones, those who were injured and traumatized. Since I’ve read about this incident and the reaction to it on places like Facebook and websites, there have been a couple of opinions/reactions that stood out: one was Holmes’ act was an act of terrorism — a view I agree with, but one that will be marginalized because as we know terrorists are only supposed to be Islamic radicals who plot nefarious deeds in far away countries. The other was a comment made on the New Yorker magazine’s site by someone who claimed to be from Australia. This person had come the United States for a visit and was in Virginia where he/she ended up in a store that sold camping gear and, yes, guns. What transpired (and his/her opinion on guns) is pasted below:
The shopkeeper, on hearing that I was Australian, peppered me with questions about the appalling gun (restriction) laws that our nation had just brought into force that very year in the wake of the worst civilian massacre (discounting the murder of native Aboriginal peoples) Australia had ever experienced, when Martin Bryant murdered 35 people at Port Arthur, in Tasmania. I was, to put it mildly, flabbergasted that I needed to remind this man that the immediate cause of these new laws was the death of 35 people, including children as young as 2. He seemed unimpressed by this rationale. In the fifteen years since these laws were passed, Australia has experienced no further mass shootings. It beggars belief that the majority of American citizens are prepared to continue to suffer such outrageous infringement on the most fundamental of our common liberties, namely the right to live! Perhaps if a comparable country, like Australia, were to downgrade travel safety advisories for the US, putting it on par, say, with Indonesia, that might arouse sufficient embarassment for your nation to wake up to its singular plight. But knowing the knee-jerk insularity and defensiveness of your conservative media, and the lobby groups who fund it, that seems extremely unlikely.
The obsession among some about a right to carry a weapon to kill, wound, or intimidate others trumps one’s right to live. There’s a kind of knee-jerk reaction against any kind of regulation of weapons that says massacres like what happened in Colorado (and many other places in our country) are few and, in a way, an acceptable price to pay for the individual right to have guns. I find this view baffling. We consent to regulate food, vehicles, airplanes, the use of roads, and even privately consent to incredible invasions of privacy right here on the Internet (ever read the terms of service on Facebook?). But when it comes to guns, it’s “hands off.” Guns are designed for injuring or killing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hunter, private security guard, gangbanger, white power Nazi, believer in personal protection, or in the case of recent shootings, a terrorist, the use and abuse of guns will eventually lead to someone getting killed or injured if there aren’t limits on where you can legally use them.
We do have laws on the books that regulate guns, but because of the Supreme Court rulings, those laws may be liberalized in such a way that we’re going to see other constitutional questions of rights come to the fore if more and more people are killed in public. But we’re a country where fear rules us, a country that stockpiles guns because of a fear of the government enslaving us, fear of those who aren’t “like us,” fear of being robbed, raped, carjacked…in short, fear of feeling vulnerable to some kind of “Big Bad.”
Thankfully, those who harbor those fears are in the minority (well, except in Florida and a good chunk of the south). Every day, we leave our homes, and for the most part, feel secure that we’re not going to die because people are shooting at you. It’s not because we’re all armed (we’re not, even though there are millions of guns in homes around the country), but because we have trust that the society we live in is regulated by laws designed for a kind of ordered liberty whereby we are free to go about our business without a constant threat of violent conflict. However, that hasn’t stopped the NRA who have pushed lawmakers to enact laws like the “Stand Your Ground” laws in places like Florida where people have the right to shoot another person (or a group of people) if they feel like they are being threaten by them. And the kicker is that one can shoot another in self-defense with immunity from civil lawsuits. Mother Jones has a very informative article on the variations of these laws, so take time to read. I am all for self-defense, and I’m no academic specialist when it comes to case law and the constitution, but that immunity clause in the SYG laws, and the fact that guns can be legally fired in a public place, seem like a violation other constitutional rights. But that’s for lawyers to make a compelling case and for the Supreme Court to decide.