As Americans are again witness to the spectacle of the NRA moving back the line on what it will and won’t accept from Congress, while it simultaneously proposes solutions to all society’s ills that begin and end with “more guns”, is it time for us to question the loud claim of its members that it is a patriotic, freedom-loving organization?
The Constitution defines many separate rights and liberties for citizens. Over the two centuries plus of that document’s existence, we the people have tried to work out the nuts and bolts of these rights in practice, especially in determining the limitations of each when the exercise of one right conflicts with another.
We can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, libel or slander others, or shout down another under the guise of free speech. Freedom of religion does not extend to violations of civil law. The right to peaceably assemble can be subject to reasonable local fees and procedures meant to ensure public health and safety.
The NRA has taken its interpretation of one part, of one amendment, and treated that interpretation as unique, sacrosanct and untouchable among all the rights and provisions of the Constitution. If there is conflict, let’s say between First Amendment freedom of speech and the NRA’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, they will not hesitate to stomp down the former. This they have done to government workers at the ATF and the Centers for Disease Control, and to numerous citizens who have been viciously threatened for speaking out.
Imagine taking this same unlimited and unregulated attitude toward other provisions of the Constitution under the guise of “liberty” or “God-given right”. What would that look like in practice? Would our society be more free if citizens could shout down others who were trying to speak, leaving the public forum to those who could physically or financially shout the loudest? Imagine a society where individuals could sacrifice pets or children under the guise of freedom of religion. Absurd perhaps, but not out of keeping with the attitude that many gun-rights proponents hold toward the 2nd Amendment. Have reasonable limitations on the Constitution’s other rights and liberties been a “slippery slope” leading to the complete elimination of such rights, as the NRA and its members suggest would happen to the 2nd Amendment with reasonable regulations? Hardly.
Rather than weakening the Constitution, such limitations help strengthen it by both providing clear guidelines for exercising rights, and by creating an overall spirit and ideal for American society. All the individual Constitutional rights, it seems, have reasonable limitations to ensure the effectiveness of the whole. All, that is, except one.
The NRA insists on an infinite interpretation of the language of their one Amendment, refusing to even discuss such reasonable questions as: What do and do not constitute “arms” under the amendment? What is meant by “well regulated” and doesn’t this phrase itself legitimize some regulation and limitation?
Patriots? Or perhaps the opposite. By putting part of the 2nd Amendment above the rest of the Constitution, the NRA has revealed itself to be no patriotic friend of American Constitutional democracy, but rather the shrill proponent and enforcer of a singular edict, its own Bill of Right. Without respect for the dynamic interplay of all society’s rights and liberties, the NRA marginalizes the majority of our basic legal principles, and undermines the philosophy and sense of ideals envisioned by the Founding Fathers.