The Constitution

05.05.13

There Are No ‘Absolute’ Rights

Nearly every idea in the Bill of Rights comes with restrictions and limitations. To think that the Second Amendment should be any different is absurd, writes Michael Tomasky.

Every time I write a column on guns, the howl arises that I am talking about a right that is enshrined in the Constitution, buddy, and I better watch myself. The howl then transmutes into an extended harangue that this right is absolute, and no libtard fascist, whether me or the Satanesque Dianne Feinstein, is going to limit the right in any way. The first soldier to charge across this rhetorical veld is followed by hundreds harrumphing their assent. The only problem is that it’s an ahistorical, afactual, and barbaric argument. No right is absolute. In fact, the Second Amendment arguably has fewer restrictions on it these days than many of the other first 10, and there is and should be no guarantee that things are going to stay that way. In fact, if we’re ever going to be serious about trying to stop this mass butchery that we endure every few months, they cannot.

Let’s begin by going down the list and reviewing various limits placed on nearly all the amendments of the Bill of Rights (I thank Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center for helping me out here). The First Amendment, of course, guarantees the right to free speech and assembly, and to worship as one pleases. There haven’t been that many restrictions placed on the freedom to worship in the United States, although there is a steady stream of cases involving some local government or school board preventing someone from wearing religious clothing or facial hair or what have you. Sometimes a Christian school or church is denied a zoning permit; but more often it’s the freedom to worship of a minority (Muslim, Sikh, etc.) that is threatened.

As for free speech, of course it is restricted. Over the past 50 or so years in a series of cases, courts have placed a number of “time, place, and manner” restrictions on free speech. To restrict speech in general, the government must meet four tests. But this is always being revised and negotiated. Here’s one restriction on the Bill of Rights that I’d wager most conservatives would happily approve of. In 1988, the HHS under Reagan promulgated rules prohibiting a family-planning professional at a clinic that received federal dollars from “promoting” (i.e. telling a woman about) abortion. This was challenged partially on free-speech grounds. In Rust v. Sullivan (1991), the Supreme Court held that these rules did not violate the clinicians’ free-speech rights. So far as I can see, this is still law. It’s just one example from many free-speech restrictions that have been imposed over the years, as you can see here.

Let’s skip the Second Amendment for now. The Third Amendment—my personal favorite—proscribes the private quartering of troops. Not so relevant to life today—in fact, the Supreme Court has apparently never considered a Third Amendment challenge. Onward.

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These senators voted 'no' on background checks.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and of course there are loads of exceptions to this right, the most notable being that whenever an officer of the law has reason to think an imminently dangerous situation exists, s/he may invade a citizen’s privacy. Then there’s the question of the “exclusionary rule,” by which evidence deemed to have been improperly obtained can be excluded as evidence. Jurisprudence on this question goes back 100 years, and this very interesting paper notes that it has been two decades since the court upheld the application of the exclusionary rule in a search-and-seizure case. Since then, the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts have ruled six times—every time for the government, i.e., limiting the constitutional protection. (Funny, isn’t it, how many of these other, non-gun limitations on the Bill of Rights are championed by conservatives?)

The Fifth Amendment most famously protects against self-incrimination. Kendall notes that there have indeed been almost no restrictions placed on this right—inside the trial courtroom. Outside the courtroom, however, limitations are rife, having to do mostly with circumstances of interrogations and confessions made within them. This amendment also provides for due process, and that means Miranda rights, and again here, we know from recent news stories that not everyone is immediately read them, and we also know that it’s conservatives who have always despised Miranda in the first place and seek to limit or overturn it today.

The Sixth Amendment provides the right to counsel and a speedy trial, and here again, our time is witness to a slow watering down of these rights by the court’s conservative majority, as in 2009’s Montejo v. Louisiana. The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury in civil cases, and this contains a blatant restriction: the court has never “incorporated” this right to apply to states, where the majority of civil cases are tried, so most civil cases don’t include this right. And the Eighth Amendment, against cruel and unusual punishment, has been much contested with respect to issues like juvenile crime. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments don’t enumerate specific rights as such and so aren’t relevant.

The idea that any right is unrestricted is totally at odds with history, the law, and reality.

Now, back to the Second Amendment. I’m sure that pro-gun extremists know very well about Scalia’s famous opinion in Heller (2008), which dramatically expanded gun rights. But even in that decision, Scalia himself said that Second Amendment protections could apply only to weapons “in common use at the time.” Chris Wallace asked Scalia in 2012 about semiautomatic weapons and extended magazines, and he said: “What the opinion Heller said is that it will have to be decided in future cases. What limitations upon the right to bear arms are permissible. Some undoubtedly are, because there were some that were acknowledged at the time. For example, there was a tort called affrighting, which if you carried around a really horrible weapon just to scare people, like a head ax or something, that was I believe a misdemeanor. So yes, there are some limitations that can be imposed.”

Now I don’t trust him to rule that way as far as I could throw him, but if even Scalia is saying that, then yes, limitations are both possible and reasonable.

Imagine what conservatives would think of a group of liberals who insisted, while threatening an insurrection, on a pure and absolute interpretation of the Fourth or Sixth Amendment—and imagine how ridiculous they would look to average Americans. Hunters, sportsmen, collectors, and even defenders of their homes (misguided as they may be, according to the statistics) certainly do have rights to keep and bear arms that are reasonable and should not be trampled. But the idea that any right is unrestricted is totally at odds with history, the law, and reality. And the idea that a group of Americans possesses an absolute “right” to own and keep weapons that can—and in practice do—kill numerous innocent people in seconds, destroying families and communities and tearing at the nation’s collective soul, is barbaric and psychotic. As the old saying goes: if you want to shoot an assault weapon, go enlist.

For civilians, meanwhile, we’re one Supreme Court justice away from getting some sanity and balance to interpretations of the Second Amendment, and the only thing I can’t decide is whether it would be more delicious for Barack Obama to appoint that judge or for Hillary Clinton to do it.