This was the week when I was going to put anger aside and smile again. But then some fool at Virginia Tech picked up guns, killed 32 innocents and blasted the whole nation into sorrow.
There are some out there whose first instinct after such a tragedy is to grab their guns protectively to their hearts. There are others who want to talk about why the right to own deadly weapons is so carelessly granted in this country that murderers-in-gestation, boiling with their personal animosities, can obtain them with little inconvenience and scant limits.
I want to talk about that, too. But the trouble with knee-jerk discussions inspired by new tragedies is that they never rise to the cerebral heights above the knees. Both sides in this perpetual debate need to shuffle their rooted feet and give a little ground, if only out of honor and respect to the latest group of the needlessly dead.
So I will make a deal with those of you who worship gun ownership without any restrictions. The deal is that I will concede some crucial points if you agree not to be stupid. Forgive me for saying so, and maybe it is not in the conciliatory spirit of the moment, but you guys have quite a talent for stupidity.
So here’s what I will say that some in my camp cannot bring themselves to say: Gun ownership is an individual constitutional right and should be respected as a fact of American life.
Call it another “inconvenient truth,” but it’s written plainly in the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Of course, I recognize that the plainest of words can be parsed to hell and back in a nation of lawyers and that it can be argued that the word “militia” suggests not an individual right but a collective one. But it seems to me that this nation is nothing if not a collection of individuals.
If you accept the right of the people to bear arms, then the argument becomes about the nature of infringement. In that regard, my own personal favorite among the amendments, the First, may be instructive. Among other things, it not only protects religious practice, but also tells Congress that it may make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”
Yet this doesn’t allow me as a journalist to destroy someone’s reputation with a reckless disregard for the truth, although I know some of you out there who would richly deserve it. Nor can I, as a popcorn-eating citizen at the multiplex, shout out that there’s a fire in a crowded theater in an attempt to cause a riot. There are laws against such things — and rightly so.
Nobody seriously argues that commonsense restrictions are abridgements of the general right of free speech — and what is an abridgement other than an infringement? Yet, when we move down the list to the Second Amendment, common sense is jettisoned by gun nuts who think that their right is absolute. This position is absolutely stupid.
If people want to own guns, yes, they should be able to exercise their right, provided they are free of criminal convictions and are of sound mind, with no loopholes to avoid background checks at gun shows. I also believe in limiting the number of guns people can purchase at one time.
Gun ownership should not be casual. If it were treated with uniform seriousness across the nation, then we could mourn now without thinking that every sensible thing had been done. While the killer was legally entitled to buy his Glock 19 handgun, he got it all too easily.
If gun-control laws were tougher, they still would pose no threat to the legion of responsible gun owners. The first step to stopping the madness is for all sides to recognize reality.
That means that anti-gun forces need to stop giving the impression that they are there to take away everybody’s guns — they need to recognize the right. The gun absolutists need to put aside the dangerous fantasy that guns are the people’s only protection against tyranny.
Is our democracy really so feeble and degenerate that we need to contemplate another civil war? Many democratic countries, believing in the innate good sense and decency of their citizens, preserve their liberties quite well without guns.
Today I mourn 32 good souls by suggesting some middle path so that we might not repeat the national folly driving such disasters. If you still love your guns more than your fellow Americans, I would ask you this: What part of “well regulated” don’t you understand? And where is the security of a free state in the absence of sensible regulation?
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)