When rights become ridiculous
The shooting in Aurora demands a common-sense approach to gun control
By Barry Gordon 07/26/2012
Here we go again …
In the wake of the horrific midnight shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., on July 21 that took at least 12 lives, including that of a 6-year-old girl, we strain to make sense of the senseless, to find reasons where there are none and ask what we might have done as a society to prevent such a tragedy from occurring.
More and better treatment for the clinically depressed, fewer movies or computer games that bombard our brains with violent images, a greater ability to recognize the warning signs before it’s too late — these are all topics worthy of discussion and debate.
And, of course, we talk about the easy availability of guns, especially guns that hold gargantuan amounts of ammunition, which spray bullets with the touch of a finger and are capable of wiping out a small village. And here, all too frequently, the debate we should be having, that we have a right to have as a free people, is ended before it begins. Because, apparently, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution doesn’t permit such a debate, and it certainly doesn’t permit our society to take any action that might make a difference, at least according to the National Rifle Association, a meaningless and anachronistic name for a powerful lobby that fights for our right to “bear arms” that often bear very little resemblance to what could honestly be called rifles.
Shootings such as the one in Aurora give conservative gun enthusiasts the opportunity to troop out their case studies and charts that show that there is “no correlation” between the easy availability of guns and gun homicide. They point to countries with both high numbers of gun deaths and strict gun control laws, such as Russia, as evidence of their claim. The numbers support their position, they say, and in some cases they are probably right.
I don’t intend to cite a bunch of studies to prove that they’re wrong because, to me, none of this is relevant. I will simply use common sense to make my case. If you took a semi-automatic military rifle away from James Holmes on that night and restricted him to weapons that shoot limited numbers of bullets (as we do in California), he would have had to pause to reload and, during that pause, in a movie theater of several hundred people, Holmes could have been taken down by audience members overpowering him. How many cop movies have we seen where the good guy, pinned down and in a seemingly hopeless position, simply counts the number of bullets fired, waits patiently for the reload moment and then pounces? So, while it may be true that a required waiting period or other regulations might not have kept Holmes from carrying out his seemingly well-planned mission, a limit on the ability to fire so many bullets without reloading might have made a significant difference in the outcome.
Naturally, many of you out there will argue that if these multiple-round semi-automatic weapons had been banned, Holmes could have always gotten them illegally on the black market. That’s no doubt true, but again, I simply ask you to consider common sense. I don’t know where the black market for guns is. Do you? I would have to do a great deal of research (some of it potentially dangerous) to locate and contact an illegal gun-runner — kind of like trying to find a hit man. However, it’s no work at all for me to walk into the gun store in the shopping mall next to my pet supply place. And take away stringent background checks, reasonable waiting periods and my ability to buy and own multiple weapons, I’m good to go. You are free to agree or disagree with these conclusions, and I welcome the debate. But that’s the problem. Rather than talk about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of these arguments, I’m pretty sure many of you will confront me with the simple statement that you have a constitutional right to bear virtually any arms you choose.
We have too frequently in this country treated our constitutional rights as absolute on both ends of the political spectrum. Mary Ann Glendon, in her excellent 1991 book, “Rights Talk,” tells us that “[o]ur rights talk, in its absoluteness, promotes unrealistic expectations, heightens social conflict, and inhibits dialogue that might lead toward consensus, accommodation, or at least the discovery of common ground.” She also points out that no right is absolute, nor can it be or should it be. There are many restrictions, for example, on our First Amendment right to free speech, ranging from obscenity to libel. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that we do not have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater because of the harm to innocent persons such an act might cause. We must then ask ourselves why we should have a constitutional right to walk around with any weapon we choose in public, as many states allow. If the First Amendment doesn’t confer an absolute right, then why should the Second Amendment?
The most ludicrous argument I’ve heard in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting comes from those who insist that if the movie theater had not prohibited customers to bring their own guns in with them, the tragedy would have been lessened. Sounds good to me — bullets flying in every direction in a full-on firefight in a darkened theater. I would have felt much safer.
By the way, the Second Amendment has existed since the 1790s, but the absolutist interpretation has only existed for around twenty or thirty years. We might want to consider that Wyatt Earp may have had a good reason to make all those ornery cowpokes check in their guns with the sheriff before entering Dodge City. That crazy liberal.
Barry Gordon is the co-host of “City Beat” and is an adjunct professor at Cal State LA.