The Second Amendment has failed us.
Time after time, in the wake of a tragedy, we are told that we cannot ban the weapons used in these attacks because the Second Amendment is necessary to keep a tyrannical government at bay. We can’t limit it, the argument goes, because it’s the only thing protecting all the other ones. In the face of our constitutional rights, any pragmatic concerns regarding losses of life are irrelevant.
If only such logic applied elsewhere. Of the first eight amendments to the Constitution, there are three untouched by the War on Terror—the Seventh Amendment, which only applies to civil trials, the Third Amendment, against forcing civilians to house soldiers, and the Second Amendment.
We’ve allowed mass surveillance on the phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens without probable cause or a (traditionally constitutionally required) warrant. We’ve allowed the monitoring of emails of professors, attorneys, and even a former Republican candidate for legislative office. We have placed U.S. citizens on watchlists, encouraging law enforcement to compile and share data on people, including biometric data, even those with no named connection to a foreign terrorist organization, implicating a huge change in Fourth Amendment protections. We have sent FBI agents into houses of worship to gather information on U.S. citizens, undermining the faith citizens have in their community, and their ability to discuss political and religious issues in those communities. The FBI has also infiltrated protests and civil rights activists, clearly reaching into traditional First Amendment territory.
And it doesn’t end there. We’ve allowed more and more classified information into our court cases, undermining the ability of lawyers to investigate and present a defense to charges. This fundamentally alters our adversarial system and our understanding of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments on which it is based. We’ve placed more and more U.S. citizens in solitary confinement, even prior to trial, based on the notion that it is simply too dangerous to allow them to communicate with the outside world. This implicates not only the Sixth Amendment but the Eighth Amendment as well.
How is it that the Second Amendment is the only relevant amendment that we cannot bear to impose upon at all? If the logic is that the Second Amendment protects all the others, it has failed.
Worse yet, our extreme protection of the Second Amendment adds to the stated need to infringe on all the other amendments. In the wake of two mass shootings in 24 hours, law enforcement experts have demanded that we give law enforcement the same powers in domestic cases that they have in international investigations. But the invasions allowed in the international realm were meant to be an exception, not the rule, because in order to maintain our control of government we need to be able to criticize it and explore political complaints without fearing arrest from our statements. Treating domestic anti-government rhetoric the way we treat international anti-government rhetoric would destroy the traditional limits on government interference in political speech.
Once, banning pure speech without evidence of imminent danger from that speech was unthinkable. Now, with guns so readily available, all threats become imminent. And still Second Amendment proponents insist that it is sacrosanct, but that the government should monitor speech and association more heavily instead. Apparently, not only our children, but all our other rights and liberties must be sacrificed at the altar of the right to bear arms.
Can its existence justify the loss of all the others? Would assault rifles enable fighting off the U.S. government, while weapons of mass destruction (such as improvised explosive devices) and surface-to-air missiles are banned? Even with weapons of mass destruction, how far could political opposition get when all our conversations are monitored, political advocates are afraid to talk to each other, and members of unpopular groups are afraid the government might find any excuse to arrest and prosecute them? Just what type of American liberty are gun-rights advocates hoping to protect?
There is a cannibal hiding in our Bill of Rights, devouring the fundamental freedoms of our society. We are down to three choices—chain our demon, devolve into a Orwellian tyranny of omnipresent surveillance, or continue to watch our children die. The NRA and its supporters have decided the Second Amendment is more important not only than our children’s lives, but than our very concept of liberty in the United States.
It must be checked, before it consumes the freedoms it was conceived to protect.