A friend pointed me in the direction of a New York Times article that argues that both Second Amendment supporters and Abortion supporters are too quick to panic whenever the topics come up for debate, thereby precluding all rational discussion. After describing the way VP Biden’s mention of Obama and executive orders regarding guns got reported on the conservative side of the blogosphere as a putsch that would see Obama effectively overriding the Second Amendment, the editorial goes on:
The distance between what Mr. Biden said and what The Examiner reported gets at why it’s so difficult to conduct a national conversation on the regulation of firearms. If the gun-control camp mentions restrictions the anti-gun-control camp hears bans. If the former mentions a ban on certain kinds of guns, the latter hears all guns, plus confiscation.
Many gun-rights activists, moreover, seem to suspect that the other side argues in bad faith. In public, gun-control advocates may sound reasonable, proposing only limited regulations, but what they really want is to repeal the Second Amendment, or to overturn Heller, and force the complete disarmament of the civilian population. First they’ll come for our Bushmasters, then they’ll come for our hunting rifles.
The fear that restrictions are a Trojan horse, the prelude to outright prohibition, similarly animates the staunch defenders of another controversial right: Abortion.
Writing in Slate in 2006, during Samuel Alito’s confirmation hearings, the legal academic Dawn Johnsen argued that Senators asking whether he would overturn Roe were missing the point. He would more likely “hollow it out.” Ms. Johnsen suggested that Roe opponents have taken an “incremental” approach to eviscerating abortion rights. They’ve pushed for restrictions such as waiting periods and “informed consent” laws; restrictions “designed to sound reasonable while also limiting the number of abortions performed, ultimately as completely as would a criminal ban.”
Last December, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an abortion bill requiring doctors to screen women for coercion (among other measures). Supporters claimed the bill was necessary to safeguard women’s health; opponents said it was a paternalistic assault on women’s rights. The same argument played out in Kansas in 2011, when the state set compulsory standards for abortion clinics. Supporters claimed the regulations were an effort to protect women from unsafe conditions; opponents said they were a ruse to curb reproductive freedom.
The editorial is certainly correct that the debate on both sides tends to be argued most loudly at the extremes, rather than in the middle. It errs, though, insofar as it presumes a legal equivalence between the two issues. The primary difference between the two issues is gun ownership is an explicitly and affirmative stated Constitutional right, while abortion is an emanation of a penumbra — or, in other words, a judicially created right.
Moreover, for those who actually bother to read Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court made very clear that the state has a continuing interest in the fetus. As the fetus develops towards recognizable person-hood (meaning that it can survive outside the womb), the state’s interest increases dramatically. Although recent(ish) Supreme Court decisions have expanded a woman’s rights over the state’s/fetus’s rights, the Court has never erased that state interest entirely.
The Second Amendment, of course, vests all interests in the citizen. What this means is that, in theory, the State has no rights whatsoever when it comes to arms. That’s the theory. In fact, though, the Supreme Court has long allowed local and federal jurisdictions to place some limitations on arms in order to maintain the peace. Significantly, however, by imposing these limitations, the State is intruding on a citizen’s absolute constitutional right. In the case of abortion, the citizen seeking an abortion is intruding upon the State’s interest in nascent citizens.
Why does this distinction matter? Because while Roe gives the state the right, power, and duty to protect the smallest citizens, so that state interference is the appropriate way to approach the issue, the Constitution doesn’t grant the government the authority to interfere with the People’s right to keep and bear arms. Moreover, Obama, as the nation’s chief executive, has only a subset of the powers granted to the Federal government as a whole, and this subset is limited to those executive orders necessary to carry out Congress’s dictates. It therefore becomes a matter of supreme citizen interest when Obama’s minions announce that he intends to bypass Congress entirely and act in a way that diminishes an expressly stated Constitutional right vested in citizens, not government.
Rational discourse is a great idea. But it’s less of a great idea when it operates off the premise that, with regard to both abortion and guns, the State holds all the power cards. More than that, Second Amendment advocates would be fools to engage in a “gun control” debate, because framing the discussion that way automatically cedes to the government the right to control guns. Rather, we should be talking about the government’s actual responsibility in a civilized nation, which is exert some authority over violence. As I’ve noted before, statistical data indicates that framing the issue in such a way militates in favor of more arms, rather than fewer.