Defining Liberty - The Missourian: Editorials

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Defining Liberty

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Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 5:00 pm

In keeping with tradition, President Obama delivered an inaugural address that was infused with optimism and hope and one that didn’t dwell on some of the more pressing issues that have, and will continue, to bitterly divide the nation — like gun control.

For instance, the president mentioned Newtown, Conn., the town where 20 children and six adults were massacred, when he argued we need to keep our children “safe from harm.”

He followed that up with this statement: “Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness.”

Absent the lofty rhetoric, Obama could have just said we don’t all agree on the Second Amendment.

Restrictions on guns have always been a hot button issue in this country. But when Obama signed a series of executive orders in the wake of the Newtown tragedy designed to reduce gun violence, he was provoking a monumental fight and potentially a constitutional crisis.

Not that the executive orders were that outrageous. They served to strengthen background checks on gun sales, compel research on the causes of gun violence, and encourage mental health providers to report patients who own guns and may be prone to violence.

They all appeared to be fairly benign, commonsense solutions aimed at reducing gun violence. Polls suggest the majority of Americans support these actions.

But when the president encouraged Congress to ban assault weapons, it was as if he was poking the NRA in the eye. The fight was joined. This was a bridge too far for the gun lobby which has taken the position that any effort to reduce or ban the availability of military-style weapons to civilians is a direct attack on the Constitution.

The top NRA lobbyist framed it this way in a fund-raising email to members this past week: “The main goal of the gun banners [is to] abolish every last sacred right you have under the Second Amendment ... until they reduce your freedom to ashes,”

To be sure, the president did not propose amending or repealing the Second Amendment. Nor did he propose banning all firearms — just assault weapons which Congress has done before. In fact, the president couldn’t ban all firearms even if he wanted to because it would be unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that right recently in one of the seminal Second Amendment cases, D.C. v. Heller.

In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia wrote, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”

But the court went on to say that like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. And, “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on ... laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Justice Scalia also said “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.

So it is clear that some restrictions on gun ownership are constitutional. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a knock-down fight about whether any of the new proposals conform to the protections guaranteed in the Second Amendment.

Last week a bill was filed in the Missouri Legislature that would make it a crime for U.S. government agents to enforce new federal gun laws in Missouri.

Newly elected Osage County Sheriff Michael Dixon announced this week that he will not enforce any of Obama’s gun control proposals that violate the Second Amendment.

And so it goes in the pursuit of defining the liberties under the Second Amendment.

/opinion/editorials