Assumptions need to be tested as much as principles.

Commentary on yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (pdf) is widespread around the Internets. I won’t delve any deeper than to say I agree with the ruling and much of the libertarian commentary. The Second Amendment is an individual right. Reading it any other way is ridiculous. Yesterday was a good day for the Constitution.

With that behind us, Eugene Robinson understands and accepts the principle behind the Supreme Court’s decision:

This case, for me, is one of those uncomfortable situations in which my honest opinion is not the one I’d desperately like to be able to argue. As much as I abhor the possible real-word impact of the ruling, I fear that it’s probably right.

I’m not a fan of guns anywhere other than in movies and television. I don’t own one, and don’t expect to in the future. Partly this is because my father died in an accidental shooting. But that part of me can’t be used to interpret the Constitution. It says what it says.

Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson follows that reasonable statement with this support for his apprehension:

The practical benefits of effective gun control are obvious: If there are fewer guns, there are fewer shootings and fewer funerals. As everyone knows, in the District of Columbia — and in just about every city in the nation, big or small — there are far too many funerals. The handgun is the weapon of choice in keeping the U.S. homicide rate at a level that the rest of the civilized world finds incomprehensible and appalling.

The use of the word effective is key. Gun prohibition has been the law in D.C. for decades, yet people still die regularly. It doesn’t work, if only because we haven’t figured out how to make it effective. If a 100% prohibition is not effective, I’m not convinced anything could be.

There’s also the pesky matter of his unscientific assumption of what statistics would show. Theoretically it’s probably true that fewer guns would mean fewer shooting, but reality shows we’re back to (in)effective. And the idea that we’d have fewer funerals is little more than an appeal to “don’t kill Bambi”. There are plenty of ways to kill people.

But come on, it’s not as if the law was making gun violence in the city any worse — and it’s not as if striking down the law, and perhaps adding hundreds or thousands of weapons to the city, will make things any better. The law was flawed, but it was a lot better than nothing.

Do we really know that the law wasn’t making gun violence in D.C. any worse? It’s at least as reasonable to assume that a law-abiding citizen who owns a (legal) gun could stop her murder better than a law-abiding citizen who would own a gun if she weren’t prohibited by the D.C. City Council.

E.J. Dionne, meanwhile, sticks to his partisan line.

In knocking down the District’s 32-year-old ban on handgun possession, the conservatives on the Supreme Court have again shown their willingness to abandon precedent in order to do whatever is necessary to further the agenda of the contemporary political right.

The court’s five most conservative members have demonstrated that for all of Justice Antonin Scalia’s talk about “originalism” as a coherent constitutional doctrine, those on the judicial right regularly succumb to the temptation to legislate from the bench. They fall in line behind whatever fashions political conservatism is promoting.

Mr. Dionne fails to acknowledge the difference between a principle and a preference. He also can’t seem to understand that his boogeyman – the contemporary political right – is not quite reality. Agrees With Me and Disagrees With Me aren’t political parties.

Also, Justice Scalia is the broken clock of legal jurisprudence, not the bulwark of any particular principle.

Finally, this gem:

It was telling in the gun case that while Scalia argued that the Constitution does not permit “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home” — note that the Second Amendment says nothing about “self-defense in the home” — it was Justice John Paul Stevens in dissent who called for judicial restraint. He asked his conservative colleagues where they were able to find an expansive and absolute right for gun possession.

Mr. Dionne writes this despite having written in the previous paragraph that the Supreme Court “ran roughshod” in its ruling striking down a portion of campaign finance law. Where in the Constitution can he find the power in the Constitution for Congress to make laws abridging the freedom of speech?

The rest of his editorial suggests fealty to the democratic majority. I wonder how much he’d bow to that if his perception of that opinion if he felt the majority had a disdain for gun control. The Constitution may not be a suicide pact, but democracy certainly is.


Bonus question: Why does the editorial in favor of the Supreme Court’s ruling have a 600×204 pixel picture of a handgun? Admittedly I get most Washington Post editorials through RSS, but I’ve never seen a picture added to the editorial column. Perhaps a giant picture of the Constitution preceding Dionne’s editorial would’ve been equally appropriate?

One thought on “Assumptions need to be tested as much as principles.”

  1. I have to say I generally agree with this ruling. Though I haven’t yet read it I do plan on doing so soon. One thing that I have always wondered about this particular issue is that if nothing else, so far as I can tell, the other ten amendments of the bill of rights are broadly construed and interpreted to apply to the individual and not necessarily the States. For example the first does not mean that the state of New Jersey or Maryland has the freedom to choose its religious or of the press or to petition the government but each individual. The same can be applied to the others so it has always been strange to me that people would expect that the second amendment was meant to be a right of the individual States. Perhaps with the exception of number 10 which just says any power not explicitly given to the government is a power for the States to manage.
    It has also broadly been agreed that the bill of rights prohibits both the federal and state governments from abridging those rights though in practice we know there can be reasonable restrictions. So while DC, and others, won’t be able to ban hand gun ownership they could make it a relative pain in the ass to register a gun (but not too much).
    I think laws like those in DC were without doubt unconstitutional and if people really want to prohibit gun ownership then we need to do it honestly. Which to me would mean a constitutional amendment.

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