Dear Sens. Klobuchar and Franken, and Rep. McCollum:
As a resident of St. Paul, I’m your constituent. While I was going to send a letter to your office, I decided to make more of a public plea, figuring my comments might have more of an impact this way. I believe that thousands of the residents of the state’s 4th Congressional District, let alone the entire state of Minnesota, agree with my position. I hope many of them are in the process of contacting you in one way or another.
I urge all of you to support the stronger gun-control laws that have recently been proposed, including the prohibitions on certain types of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and the adoption of universal background checks.
The opponents of such measures have already lost the argument. I have heard no one who opposes theses types of proposals saying that they need assault-type weapons or high-capacity magazines for hunting or protection; nor have there been any arguments made against universal background checks. To the contrary, when opponents are asked about these specific proposals, they steadfastly refuse to address the questions directly, and instead choose to go back to talking points about the “best ways to protect children,” and the like.
Another common response of gun-control opponents has been to repeat straw-man-type arguments like: “The president is trying to infringe on the rights of law abiding gun owners.” This argument, aside from being false, is like saying drunk-driving laws infringe upon the rights of anyone who consumes alcohol. Such laws simply set the parameters of acceptable and safe behavior when one is consuming a substance that can, but does not in most cases, have deadly consequences.
The gun-control proposals listed above simply set the limits under which individuals can purchase and operate firearms, and do nothing to interfere with responsible gun owners. In short, opponents of these types of gun-control measures know that actually opposing them on the merits is the ultimate political loser, and so do all of you.
America needs a civics lesson
Moreover, this is the perfect time for America to get a civics lesson. Contrary to much popular commentary these days, interpreting the Constitution is not quite as simple as reading a grocery list. As Matthew Filner eloquently wrote in a recent Community Voices commentary, all rights have limits. All rights – including speech, press, religion, assembly, and yes, the 2nd amendment – have some limitations, as our courts have affirmed innumerable times over the last several decades. And this certainly includes the 2nd amendment rights, which Justice Scalia even conceded in his controversial majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller — he stated that the amendment did not preclude government from passing laws “imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
How about the idea of armed guards or law enforcement in every school in the nation? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 132,183 schools (public and private) in the United States in the 2009-10 school year. Presumably this proposal would involve more than one armed guard in each school (because at least one armed guard would have to be stationed at every entrance/exit), bringing the total number of armed guards to well over a quarter million.
These guards would have to be in the school for all the hours that the school is open, from early in the morning to well after school hours for sporting and other events. During a period of fiscal retrenchment at every level of government, it is difficult to even begin to consider the cost of such a proposal, not to mention the myriad potential consequences of increasing weapons in our schools.
Minnesotans ‘get it’
When voting on any gun legislation, have faith in Minnesota citizens. They get it. The best evidence of this claim can be seen in the results of the 2012 election, in which 76 percent of eligible state residents voted. When Minnesota residents learned that the marriage amendment was redundant of state law, not to mention discriminatory, they voted against it. More telling are the election results involving the voter ID amendment. When Minnesotans learned that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, and that the proposed amendment would effectively disenfranchise tens of thousands of otherwise eligible voters, not to mention the fact that it would be exceedingly expensive, they voted against it. The voter ID results are remarkable in light of the fact that a large majority of state residents supported the measure just months before the election.
Why the change? Because people learned about what the amendment would do, and a majority rejected it. This proves that citizens can listen and learn about the effects of proposed policies within the context of an intelligent debate.
The same goes with gun-control laws, which are much easier to explain than why we don’t need voter ID laws. Certain guns and ammunition go well beyond self-defense and hunting; many of these types of weapons have been used in various recent shootings across the country; and everyone who buys a firearm should have to undergo a background check. That’s it. Most people agree with these relatively modest measures. Besides, the burden is on the other side to explain why, according to their logic, they’re not entitled to things like machine guns, bazookas, rocket launchers, and bombs of all sorts.
In responding to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union comments, in which the president criticized those who adhere to absolutes on the gun-control issue, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre said, “Absolutes do exist, it’s the basis of all civilization. …Without those absolutes, democracy decays into nothing more than two wolves and one lamb voting on who to eat for lunch.”
And yet this is exactly the type of democracy that LaPierre is advocating with what is basically a might-makes-right approach to the world, where gun owners are the wolves and non-gun owners are the lambs. This position essentially endorses the notion that the rights of gun owners trump everyone else’s rights to everything else. Obama, as a former constitutional law professor, hinted at this point after Newtown, but it’s time to make this point more forcefully.
While modest gun-control measures tend to be popular, the people need leaders, and this is where you come in. When people learn about specifics, public opinion changes, as we recently saw with the Voter ID amendment. You need to lead, to speak out on this issue. As they have shown many times, Minnesotans will listen.
It’s time to publicly and repeatedly affirm that gun rights have limits, that current proposals are modest, sensible ways to make public places safer, and that they do nothing to infringe upon law-abiding citizens’ ability to hunt or defend themselves.
Neil Kraus, of St. Paul, is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.
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