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Friday, June 27, 2008

The Teaching Office and Homework.

The Supreme Court at long last acknowledged the obvious yesterday: the Second Amendment is not a dead letter, nor is it the crazy aunt in the Bill of Rights. To lay my cards on the table, I own three firearms. None of which is a handgun, though I have fired pistols before. I hunt--mostly unsuccessfully--every year. I keep them secured, too, and my children already know they are emphatically not toys.

Back to the opinion. Finally, the highest court in the land acknowledges that the second provision in the Bill of Rights has meaning, and it must be interpreted to assume that it has real and relevant content. As the Court stated, after acknowledging the undeniable problem of violence involving handguns:

"[W]hat is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct."

Just so.

This has provoked this remarkable cork-popping tantrum over at Vox Nova, which can be summed up as "I don't like it, and you're a bad Catholic if you do!" The reasoning employed to reach its conclusions would have to undergo substantial revision and improvement to rise to the level of "half-assed." It is so indiscriminate in its raging that it manages to misunderstand or misuse the following concepts: Positive law, the Enlightenment, principles of legal interpretation, Anglo-American history, Catholic principles of solidarity/the common good, the gay marriage decisions, to name but six fatal flaws. Oh, and there's the usual Morning Minion Papal Bull infallibly declaring anyone who disagrees with him Malum Catholicus. Which, for those of you unfamiliar with his style, is a feature, not a bug.

Since there's nothing else of substance to the rest of his fusillade (though, to be fair, it still manages to be better than a lot of the comments following it), I'll just focus on his waving of the bloody conference statement. The document in question is the 1975 statement from the then-NCCB's Committee on Social Development and World Peace, Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life. Let's avoid the potential pitfalls of evaluating the binding force, etc. of the teachings of the bishops in conference--it's an unnecessary, and I think, dangerous diversion. Bishops' statements shouldn't be shrugged off so readily. If your bishop is on the committee, it certainly reflects his thoughts and should be considered accordingly. On the flip side, such documents can't be brandished as holy writ, either.

Here is the Committee's proposal:

This is clearly a national problem. No state or locality is immune from the rising tide of violence. Individual state and local action can only provide a partial solution. We must have a coherent national firearms policy responsive to the overall public interest and respectful of the rights and privileges of all Americans. The unlimited freedom to possess and use handguns must give way to the rights of all people to safety and protection against those who misuse these weapons.

We believe that effective action must be taken to reverse this rising tide of violence. For this reason, we call for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.


First of all, the actual recommendations for immediate action are moderate and sensible, and for the most part I think they have been enacted.

But the goal is exceptionally radical, as it advocates the banning and confiscation of private property nationwide, with all that entails for police powers, search and seizure and expansion of the criminal code. Moreover, here we reach the problem: there's not a hint that the Committee considered anything other than a few select studies and statistics before coming to this conclusion. A lack of credibility will destroy even the best-intentioned statements, and the flaws here have that effect.

Sure, there are curt nods to the Second Amendment and very, very limited legitimate uses for "approved" firearms, but there's not a hint that the Committee comprehended in the least degree firearm mechanics and how "fungible" they are. With the exception of concealment, rifles and shotguns do the same things handguns do, mechanically speaking.

No, let me restate that: rifles and shotguns are, if anything, much more destructive than handguns. The sheer punching power of bullets/slugs/buckshot coming from long guns makes them much more dangerous. I can't be comforted by "we support the legitimate and proper use of rifles and shotguns for hunting and recreational purposes" when those devices aren't functionally different from what you say should be forbidden.

Now, the Committee can be forgiven its limited understanding of the Second Amendment in 1975. Frankly, the guidance from the legal community was lacking, even in secondary materials like law review articles.

Less forgivable is a lack of understanding of State constitutional bills of rights, which usually protect Second Amendment rights in crystal-clear language. A little better understanding of federalism would do everyone a lot of good, and would have done wonders for Handgun Violence. If nothing else, it would have underscored the radical nature of the proposal.

In fact, the Committee would have been on firm ground had it taken a look at other causes of handgun violence, which frequently correlate with factors other than firearm availability. A lot of my high school classmates vanished from the classrooms on November 15, the opening of firearm deer season in Michigan. None of them ever killed anybody with their weapons.

That aside, the document still displays a flawed understanding of the Bill of Rights, which was designed with the common good of the American polity in mind. It takes a hyper-individualistic mindset to see the rights to free speech, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure, etc. as solely individual rights. They aren't. They inhere in "the people" because the rights protect higher goods which accrue to the benefit of all. Sure, there are costs and risks stemming from each one, as the framers knew. But the need to explicitly protect established, customary rights was deemed to be worth the costs. Surely, uncounted lives could also be saved if the Fourth Amendment was read as a dead letter. But I don't think anyone wants to have their doors kicked in on the whims of armed authority.

Then again, YMMV, but doors are pretty pricey these days.

Let me, in genuine humility (for once), suggest that bishops who make radical proposals do a lot of homework and consultation beforehand, not least with knowledgable members of their own flocks. If the Committee talked to a single handgun owner before writing this, it's not evident in the statement. Which is pretty dismaying, when you think about it.

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