After the horrifying murders in San Bernardino Tuesday and Colorado Springs last Friday, democrats are following the advice of former Obama Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: never let a “serious crisis go to waste.” Emanuel, of course, is so morally bankrupt he apparently slowed an investigation into the death of an African-American teenager at the hands of a Police Officer to preserve his re-election chances. Sensing political advantage, democrats are out in full force, attacking republicans, demonizing those who pray for shooting victims, and urging new laws irrespective of their efficacy. They have entered full “do something for the sake of doing something even if it achieves nothing” mode while poisoning our political discourse, thereby making it harder to actually solve the problem of gun violence.
Make no mistake, gun violence is a serious problem. However, we should note that gun crimes have been halved since the early 1990’s while violent crime is back to 1970’s levels. I say this not to diminish current violence, which remains intolerably high, but to provide context as facts tend to improve the quality of solutions put forth. Even though we are safer than ever before, we are averaging roughly 1 mass shooting (the FBI defines a mass shooting as 4+ victims; depending on definition parameters, there have been anywhere from 70 to 355 “mass shootings” this year) per day. Yet for many, it feels as though violence has escalated to unprecedented levels in recent years. For this, I would point to the proliferation of social media and 24-hour news channels, which make us far more aware of these acts of violence. On net, this is a good thing as the constant reminder of human suffering will hopefully further our resolve in solving the underlying problems that beget such violence. Sadly, some, typically but not exclusively, on the left exploit these tragedies to whip up a frenzy, divide us, and all but suggest the NRA’s millions of members are callous, blood-thirsty monsters.
Sensing an opportunity to feed off Americans’ heartbreak, Democrats are pushing reforms that would do little to stop gun violence and severely undermine Americans’ fundamental rights. Let’s focus on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposed amendment (supported wholeheartedly by Obama and Senator Harry Reid) to block Americans on the Terror Watch List from purchasing guns. Republicans kept this proposal from becoming law by a vote of 45-54. Now, one does not need to have much political acumen to recognize the Feinstein proposal would poll extremely well (my bet would be 90-10 or better initially); after all, who wants terrorists to get guns? However, the facts are a bit more complicated, and strong polling doesn’t make it wise policy.
For perspective, the terror watch list likely contains the names of about 1 million Americans. I would note that the Terror watch list is far more encompassing than the No-Fly list, which includes about 800 Americans. In the past even The Huffington Post has ridiculed the relative ease with which one could get on the terror watch list, and I would emphasize authorities merely need “reasonable suspicion” to put someone on the list. This is a different, lower standard than the one our system of due process demands in criminal cases (beyond any reasonable doubt). That is critical because the Feinstein proposal would strip Americans of a fundamental right without affording them due process. (As an aside, democrats blocked Sen. John Cornyn’s amendment that would have given authorities 72 hours to ask a court to block a gun sale to someone on the watch list thereby preserving due process while achieving what democrats wanted. I will leave you to decide whether the left was interested in merely scoring political points or in solving the problem.)
Our constitutional architecture affords the preservation of Americans’ fundamental rights, which we may only be deprived of with “due process of law.” The Supreme Court reaffirmed that individuals have a fundamental right to bear arms in 2008’s DC v. Heller. Due process includes things like facing one’s accuser, having a jury of peers, the presumption of innocence, and so on. The Feinstein bill undermines this basic tenet of our Republic. I ask:
- Should the government be allowed to do warrantless searches of Americans on the Watch List whenever and wherever it wants?
- Should the government be allowed to regulate the speech of those on the Watch List or bar members from associating with certain other people?
- Should the government be allowed to proactively detain people on the Watch List for indeterminate periods of time?
I expect (and certainly hope) you would answer “no” to all these questions. Even though we want to stop suspected terrorists, we as a society recognize that fundamental rights are sacrosanct, and abridging them is very serious (and dangerous). As such, we afford suspects a fair legal process that puts the burden on the government to prove its case in a court of law before punishing the accused. There are times that our nation has grown emotional and forgotten this system, and it has been a stain on our history. In particular, I point to the internment of Japanese-Americans, violating their fundamental rights without due process. Shamefully, the Supreme Court upheld internment in Korematsu v. US. That decision, along with Dred Scott and Plessy, still impugns the reputation of our highest court.
I do not think the Feinstein proposal, had it been enacted, would ever be so damning as Korematsu, but violating fundamental rights has virtually never looked wise in hindsight. Some undoubtedly have the greater good in mind in their support of this proposal, but sadly, in no cause has more harm been done that of the greater good. Such thinking too often descends into an “ends justify the means philosophy” that airbrushes increasingly grievous wrongs in the name of safety, supposed equality, or other catchy slogans (“workers of the world unite”…). The fact is that gun ownership is a fundamental right, and stripping such rights is anathema to our values.
Yes, those on the Watch List can appeal to get off it, but this is an individual, presumed guilty, attempting to prove innocence, throwing the basic tenet of our justice system on its head. Further, the threshold for being on the watch list is lower for being convicted of a crime, making it even harder for individuals to get off the list. We afford accused murders with far greater protections than people on this list (who can include the relatives of suspected terrorists whom have not engaged in radical activities themselves). That is unjust.
We also must reject the notion that if we don’t let someone fly on a plane we shouldn’t let them own a gun (though again I emphasize the no fly list is a small subset of the watch list. We allow most on the watch list to fly, albeit with stricter scrutiny). While again I see the appeal of the argument, there is a key distinction. Flying on planes is not a fundamental right; it is a privilege, giving the government far more latitude to regulate who flies. It is similar to how states only allow licensed individuals to drive, requiring people to pass a driving and eyesight test. These are not fundamental rights, like gun ownership, religious freedom, undue searches etc. Rather than facing strict scrutiny, the government only needs a rational basis to deny a license or keep someone from flying. Comparing guns to planes, while appealing, is ultimately flawed legally.
In reality, many on the left don’t believe gun ownership should be a fundamental right, and they push policies like this one to degrade its status over time. Let’s be honest, and have the real debate, not one that appeals to emotions during times of duress but has severe legal consequences. Let’s discuss whether we should leave the constitution as is or roll back the 2nd amendment and make gun ownership a privilege like riding an airplane. Many on the right would welcome this debate, and we should have all-encompassing discussions on guns, the acceptance of violence in society, and mental health. It is the left, which knows deep down most Americans don’t want to repeal the 2nd amendment, that is avoiding this debate.
Instead, it finds back doors that actually would not do much to solve the underlying problem to score political points and feel better since they will have done something (even if that something does not solve the problem). The Feinstein amendment would place an undue burden on Americans wrongly on the watch list, probably numbering in the tens of thousands, while likely failing to deter terrorists. Do we seriously believe someone willing to die for a depraved, hateful cause will give up and turn away from violence if they can’t buy a gun, or will they look to the black market, use our porous borders to smuggle weapons, or build improvised explosives?
If democrats were so serious about solving the issue of gun violence, why didn’t they address it via sweeping reform when Obama was President and they controlled both chambers of congress? The level of violence in this country is still unacceptable, and we all bear some blame for not doing more to help the mentally ill, the economically hopeless, and to build a culture that shuns violence. We need to get serious about these issues, but in our haste, we must remember the civil liberties on which this nation was founded and avoid the temptation to undermine fundamental rights in the name of the greater good.
There are things we can do to help the mentally ill, give doctors more power to treat, improve background checks (and unlike most conservatives I would personally support the thrust of Manchin-Toomey to close the private sale transfer, though almost no mass shootings have been committed by people using this “loophole”), and stiffen penalties for those who traffic weapons.
Maliciously attacking those who pray for the grieving will not solve the problem. Nor will pushing constitutionally doomed legislation to score political points. Rather than restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens, let’s focus on solving real problems. Over-riding due process is not the solution. It rarely, if ever, is.