Gun Shy

Gun sales are said to have increased dramatically since September 11 -- to the bemusement of some, who point out that guns won't protect us from terrorists armed with viruses or nuclear bombs. Still, it's long been clear that many Americans feel reassured by firearms; and if you fear the civil disorder that further attacks might bring, the desire for a gun is not entirely irrational.

So it's not surprising that Americans might assert their rights to own guns while they cede less controversial rights, to privacy or speech, by embracing electronic surveillance or supporting repression of
dissent. But it's debatable whether an increase in gun purchases will protect people or endanger them.

Armed with studies and statistics, advocates and academics on both sides of the gun debate argue about whether gun ownership deters and successfully interrupts violent crime or simply increases the chances of a particular assault becoming deadly while raising overall levels of violence. People often choose sides in this debate reflexively--your views on gun control signal your position in the larger culture war--but questions about the practical effects of gun ownership aren't easily resolved. It's difficult to know how many people successfully use firearms in self-defense; estimates by dueling academics have varied. It's probably impossible to know how much crime is deterred by widespread gun ownership. How do you count crimes that never occurred or analyze their nonoccurrence? How do you compare them to the number of accidental shootings?

Questions about the cumulative effect of individual gun ownership are probably irrelevant anyway to someone who buys a firearm to feel more
secure. I suspect that individual decisions about gun ownership are based on instinct, ideology, or experience, not statistics. If, for example, you feel capable of safeguarding your own gun, you're probably not going to be persuaded to relinquish it because some privately owned guns are liable to end up in the hands of criminals.

Empirical debates about the relationship between gun ownership and violent crime are also peripheral to debates about the fundamental right to "bear arms." The fact that rights are abused by some people is no excuse for denying them to all: My right to speak freely is not contingent on my neighbor's willingness to refrain from spreading malicious libels or issuing true threats of violence.

Constitutional scholars and historians right and left have been engaged in a lively debate about Second Amendment rights for some years. But outside the pages of law reviews, liberals tend to embrace gun control and scoff at the Second Amendment, asserting that it only ensures the power of the states or the collective right of "the people" to organize armed militias.

The trouble is that the Bill of Rights was intended to empower
individuals, not groups--and certainly not governments. It was intended to restrain majorities, not to arm them. Indeed, most liberal civil
libertarians adamantly construe the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eight Amendments as a grant of individual rights. (They'd construe the Third Amendment similarly if the government ever tried forcing us to quarter troops.) Still, they perversely single out the Second Amendment as a grant of collective rights, mostly because of a cultural aversion to guns. Liberals tend to disdain the right to own a gun the way conservatives disdain the right to read pornography.

I'm not advocating gun ownership or an end to gun controls. But considering my own fierce attachment to the First Amendment, I have some sympathy for people fiercely attached to the Second Amendment, because they believe that individual autonomy depends on a right of self-defense. It's long past time for liberals to stop demonizing gun owners and fantasizing about virtually eliminating guns. We'd have to erase the Fourth Amendment--or what's left of it after the drug war--to rid American households of their firearms. We should, by now, have learned the lessons of Prohibition. The failures of efforts to ban alcohol, abortion, and various drugs have made clear the futility (and socioeconomic costs) of campaigns to criminalize behaviors in which millions of Americans indulge.

Consider the practical and political benefits of recognizing a basic right to own a gun. Liberals would be spared the embarrassment of passing foolish, largely symbolic laws like the 1994 ban on "assault" rifles, which arbitrarily applied to a small class of semiautomatic weapons, when most gun crimes involved handguns. Democrats would greatly enhance their electability in regions where support for gun ownership is high and lobbying by the National Rifle Association is intense. And opposition to gun controls might decrease if gun owners did not fear that every restriction on their rights was leading down a slippery slope toward prohibition.

There are, all in all, compelling reasons to regulate guns, even if people have a basic constitutional right to own them--as a recent federal court decision suggests. In United States v. Emerson, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to own a gun, a right that may be subject to narrow, limited restrictions in particular cases. In this case, the court upheld a federal statute prohibiting possession of guns by people subject to restraining orders in domestic-violence cases. Gun-control advocates who have denounced the Emerson decision might someday find themselves indebted to it. To restrict gun rights effectively, we may first have to acknowledge that they exist.