This past week’s Supreme Court ruling, invalidating Washington, DC’s handgun ban, demonstrates just how far afield “movement conservatism” has taken our country. For that, we have an irresponsible Republican Party to blame; tragically, real people will have to pay dearly.
For years now, the GOP has embraced crackpot conservative theories for political advantage. “Trickle-down economics” helped convince middle-class voters to support reckless tax cuts for the wealthy. Global-warming denial was dreamed up and propagated by corporations who wished to avoid regulation. Myths of a “war on Christmas” and doomsday consequences of same-sex marriage have pulled evangelical Christians to the voting booth to elect Republicans.
Firmly held, irrational, absolutist beliefs may be good short-term politics, but they make for terrible policy — somewhere along the way, the political right lost control of the distinction. Ever since Congress subpoenaed Terri Schiavo’s vegetative body, it’s been clear that the Republican Party is being ruled — and destroyed — by right-wing nut cases.
“Gun rights” has been for the Republicans one of the most important, and most crass, of these foolish ideas. Most reasonable people agree that private ownership of weaponry should be carefully controlled and regulated — as a public issue, guns are not all that different from automobiles. Debate over the details properly belongs in the venue of local, state, and national legislatures, to be shaped through discussion, lobbying, public pressure, and ultimately elections.
But that approach doesn’t get people riled up to pay membership dues to the National Rifle Association (NRA), or to vote Republican out of the belief that Democrats intend to take away one’s hunting rifle.
So, since the early 1970s, the NRA and its ideological brethren have pushed the novel, and unjustified, theory that private gun ownership (for other than state-militia purposes) is an enshrined constitutional right. Republicans latched on, and won over millions of working-class voters.
Now, five justices have turned this ludicrous idea into constitutional law, proving that years of nominations made to appease the far right have at last given us a crackpot Supreme Court.
For a full dissection of the case, see the well-argued (and appropriately outraged) two-part dissent written by Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer. Suffice to say that Justice Antonin Scalia, in his almost willfully irrational majority opinion, finds that the Second Amendment “elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.” If you can find anything in the Second Amendment’s 27 words that remotely supports that conclusion, well, you apparently are fit for today’s Supreme Court. Talk about “activist judges”!
Movement conservatives are delighted with this decision. Joining them is presidential nominee John McCain, who until recently was a proud enemy of the NRA (for daring to support background checks at gun shows). McCain, a solid conservative who nonetheless used to stand up against crazy ideas — he acknowledges global warming, for instance — has now, in his quest for the White House, fully succumbed to them. He now grovels before the Christian-right demagogues he formerly denounced. Where once he strived for rational immigration policy, he now calls for mass deportations and a gynormous wall to keep out the brown-skinned. His previous resistance to President George W. Bush’s fiscally irresponsible tax cuts has dissolved; he now supports adopting them permanently.
Fortunately, Americans have lately been making Republicans pay for the consequences of their idiotic theories — consequences that range from climate change to ballooning national debt and a needless, bloody war. Hopefully, they will make McCain pay for his recent shift to the radical right.
Regardless, the die is now cast on gun control. With the newly created constitutional right to carry weapons for self-defense — a right Scalia explicitly equates with the protection against warrantless search and seizure, and the right to peaceably assemble — current gun regulations will almost certainly collapse. Indeed, our own state’s laws are now very much in jeopardy. (For other views on this, see “Supreme Court Makes Gun Laws Target for Debate,” This Just In, page 6.)
Scalia’s glib statement that, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” glosses over the extraordinary weight of constitutional guarantees. (Perhaps that’s not surprising, coming from someone who denies that habeas corpus extends to detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, and withholds from a student holding a BONG HITS 4 JESUS sign the right to free speech.) It seems likely, as some legal analysts have already noted, that this new right will have to extend to felons, to public places (including schools), and to ever more dangerous weaponry.
As Stevens points out in his dissent, the majority justices have now tied the hands of legislatures and law-enforcement professionals in this country. This comes just as Boston’s gun violence has taken a huge early-summer surge: at least 27 people were shot — three of them fatally — in the last 17 days of June. The victims include a baby girl and, most recently, a young boy shot while playing with friends.
Perhaps the gun-rights advocates will be proven right, and the end of gun regulation will somehow result in a safer country. We’ll have to hope so, because there’s nothing we can do to go back now — short of amending the Constitution.