According to a January 23 news release, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre told a Weatherby Foundation awards ceremony that the Second Amendment gives Americans the unfettered right to own firearms. “Absolutes do exist, words do have specific meaning in language and in law,” he said. “No government gave them to us and no government can take them away.”
It is not clear from the news release what LaPierre was referring to when he said no government gave “them” to us. Did he mean that government did not give us the right to own firearms? If so, LaPierre is utterly and frighteningly wrong.
Absolutes do exist. The speed of light. The charge of the electron. In fact, a whole list of physical constants. But the right to own firearms is not an absolute. The federal government has, in fact, given us this right in the Second Amendment. But the Constitution provided a mechanism for amending the Constitution. Therefore the Constitution, and the Second Amendment thereto, are not absolutes.
Furthermore, there is no absolutely clear definition in the Second Amendment of what these “arms” are supposed to be. It is illegal to own nuclear weapons or missiles. Are these arms? It is illegal to use, and in most cases to own, machine guns. Even the NRA has not dared to call for the legalization of private ownership of machine guns and nuclear weapons. The right to bear arms is therefore limited, not absolute, even if you were to interpret the Second Amendment as an absolute commandment from God.
One could interpret arms, within the Second Amendment context, as whatever is necessary to maintain a militia. But we don’t have militias anymore. There are groups of people who think that the government is restricting their rights, for example, to polygamy. Does the Second Amendment give them the right to have arms to resist the federal government from enforcing laws against polygamy? Could not Warren Jeffs claim that the Second Amendment gives his followers the right to armed resistance? Would this be an example of a militia? And, if so, his followers could most certainly use machine guns and cannons and nuclear weapons to defend their compounds, since the Second Amendment does not prohibit them from doing so. I am sure this is not LaPierre’s interpretation. But he has told us that it is not a matter of interpretation. It is a matter of absolute truth.
LaPierre, and many NRA extremists (a term LaPierre rejects), are using absolutist terminology that is usually associated with religion. Conservative religious leaders consider all of their beliefs to be absolute, and that God has given them the right to enforce their religious beliefs on others. This is why religion has been such a successful component of human evolution (this blog is about evolution, remember): it is an adaptation (genetic and memetic) that allows some people to subdue others and to gain evolutionary fitness at their expense. The NRA is promoting a new religion: the absolute right to bear arms, as absolute as God Himself. The absolute right to bear arms is not found in the Bible, by the way. Jesus said, “Put away your sword, Peter; for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” But the NRA is promoting a new religion in place of Christianity. And, like many other religions, the NRA religion sways people to adhere to its claims with visceral emotion rather than with facts. I am not saying that gun-rights advocates have no facts; I am just saying that whatever facts they may have are irrelevant when LaPierre talks about “absolutes.”
The talk of “absolutes” has made reasonable dialogue impossible. From the NRA viewpoint, there are only two choices: unrestricted ownership of weapons vs. total helplessness. The NRA has not permitted any discussion of intermediate possibilities. For example, what about stun guns? Could those be used as an intermediate form of school protection? I know that stun guns have a very limited range. But at least they provide some protection without actually killing people. At close range, a teacher’s stun gun could incapacitate a school shooter and allow his gun to be confiscated and for him to be subdued. What would be the strengths and weaknesses of a school stun gun policy? I would be interested in hearing this. But there can be no such discussion so long as the NRA divides the issue into helplessness vs. a full armor of assault weapons. I might want to hear a discussion of some intermediate possibilities regarding gun ownership and restriction; but I do not believe I shall ever hear such a discussion.
This is exactly the same approach used by creationists. They claim that if you do not accept a young Earth then you are an atheist. The NRA says you either accept unrestricted availability of weapons or else total defenselessness. Nothing in between. They have insisted on absolutes: an absolute dividing line between darkness and light, as between sun and shadow on the Moon. But this is Earth, with twilights and dawns.