St Edmund's Episcopal Church San Marino

Guns and Civil Discourse

This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for October 13, 2017.

On December 15, 1791 the ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States known as the ‘Bill of Rights’ became the law of the nation, and for 226 years our citizenry has been tasked with their correct interpretation. In 2008, in a close 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the 1975 Firearms Control Regulation Act. This was the first Supreme Court case to interpret how the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms, and it was seen by some as license for the general sale of high-powered weaponry.

For the first century after its founding in 1871, the National Rifle Association dedicated itself to educating the public about firearm safety and reasonable gun-control legislation. After a hostile leadership coup in 1977, it morphed into what we know today as the most powerful and well-financed special interest lobby in the United States, with vast amounts of money and a demonstrated ability to intimidate lawmakers.

The Las Vegas mass shooting at a country-music festival, at which a warm acquaintance of mine was badly wounded, suggest to many of us that the time has arrived to more aggressively challenge the gun lobby in favor of reasonable restrictions on the availability of weapons ill-suited for hunting or for self-protection.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech,” but we know this doesn’t mean that government cannot constitutionally regulate speech. The United States rightly forbids inciting murder, blasting music in residential neighborhoods, or the distribution of child pornography. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes affirmed in 1919, the right to free speech does not protect a person falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater, thereby causing panic.

Nor does an invocation of the Second Amendment (“a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”) forbid the citizenry and the government from the regulation of lethal weapons. Since 1970 more Americans have died from gun violence than have died in all the wars fought in the history of our nation, and the litany of public shootings…Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino, Isla Vista, Orlando, Las Vegas…are no longer much of a surprise. When in large public gatherings, many of us now assess, almost unconsciously, what an exit strategy might look like, and I have had friends say they are no longer interested in attending the Rose Parade…it seems to them an easy target.

I hunted wild game as a boy, and continued to hunt on occasion well into my thirties. I was a member of the NRA, though, with the increasing radicalization of that organization, I renounced my membership a long while back. I am a gun-owner still. But the unregulated proliferation of weapons…more than 300 million now in the U.S…merits considerably more public conversation than the gun-lobby wishes to permit, and invites our lawmakers to discover their backbones.

A column last week by former congressman Steve Israel declared: “Nothing Will Change After The Las Vegas Shooting,” and he is probably correct. The NRA lock on Congress is firm. But there are many who share my belief that further conversation regarding the present interpretation of the Second Amendment is in order, and perhaps, if we are not complacent at this juncture, Israel’s prognostication will be proven false. Perhaps wealthy and powerful lobbyists with politicians in a vice-grip can be resisted and public conversation re-engaged about how a free people may wish to regulate public safety, protect our children, affirm a civil-society, and promote a higher-functioning democracy.