On Wednesday, 46 senators did the right thing. Although not a majority, it was enough to keep any new restrictions on the right to own firearms from passing. All of the gun control measures proposed in the Senate failed, including an “assault weapon” ban, limitations on the size of magazines and, most narrowly, the proposal by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Patrick Toomey (R-PA) to expand background checks to gun shows and online sales.
As a supporter of individual rights and liberty, I’m thrilled with the Senate vote. Universal background checks – as long as they only detect whether people have been convicted of crimes or declared mentally incompetent by a court – would not be the worst violation of liberty ever. But they would represent a decrease in privacy. By making it impossible to buy a gun in a way that preserves anonymity, increased background checks would contribute to the trend towards recording, documenting, tracking, and monitoring every aspect of people’s lives. Additionally, by requiring gun sellers to do the work of making sure purchasers meet the government’s criteria for gun ownership, background checks unfairly place the burden of law enforcement on private companies and individuals.
What I’m not so thrilled about are the reactions of those who oppose gun rights. To give just a few examples, President Obama called Wednesday “a pretty shameful day in Washington” Rev. Al Sharpton called the senators “political cowards.” Lori Haas, whose daughter was wounded in the Virginia Tech shooting, called the vote “appalling” and “disgusting.” Tucson, AZ shooting survivor Patricia Maisch yelled “shame on you” when the results of the vote were announced and said afterwards of the senators, “They are an embarrassment to this country. I hate them.” And in a New York Times piece, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords wrote that the senators “gave into fear,” “brought shame on themselves and our government itself,” and “stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful.”
I could not disagree with these comments more. I’m not going to win any popularity contests for taking the opposite side as many vocal crime victims, survivors, and family members, but the truth is that on this issue, the above people and those who hold similar views are completely wrong.
They are wrong to presume that they know the motivations of others, as Rep. Giffords does when she states unequivocally, “These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association.” How can she be so sure that none of the 46 senators voted “no” because they genuinely oppose universal background checks?
They are wrong about the purpose of government. Rep. Giffords wrote that the senators who voted to protect gun rights “failed to do their job” and “should have heeded the voices of their constituents.” I am sick of hearing again and again, ad nauseam, that 90% of Americans support universal background checks on gun purchases. No matter what polls this is based on, no matter how accurate or inaccurate those polls are, this fact is irrelevant. Rights are rights, and they cannot be violated, no matter how many people wish them to be. Government’s job is not to enact policies that please the majority of people, but to protect the rights of unpopular minorities against the tyranny of the majority. As MassEquality was so fond of saying when there was the possibility of a ballot initiative to overturn gay marriage in Massachusetts, you shouldn’t be able to vote on rights. Yet so many advocate doing exactly this with respect to the right to bear arms. CNN’s John Avlon, for example, writes that gun control should pass because “in a democracy, the will of the people is supposed to have some sway.” Boston Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem writes that passing background checks is “nothing short of a battle for democracy,” and her colleague Adrian Walker writes that we should have gun control because “the vast majority of us don’t believe that any piece of gun control legislation is a threat to the Constitution.” I suspect neither would consider making this argument when it comes to gay marriage.
And they are wrong to react with such anger, vitriol, and personal criticism of their opponents. Over the centuries since the Bill of Rights was passed, anti-liberty people have won the majority of battles, and freedom overall has been gradually shrinking. Is it too much to ask that liberty supporters be allowed to enjoy a rare victory without being personally insulted? I generally prefer to write about the merits of ideas and policies instead of criticizing people personally. But when gun-rights opponents decide to start personally attacking gun-rights supporters by calling us cowards, I think I am entitled to respond in kind. This is a debate about whether or not individual rights should be sacrificed and freedom shrunk in order to make the world safer. If either side of this debate is motivated by fear, it’s those who would allow rights to be whittled away bit-by-bit to decrease the chances of something bad happening.
One brave person who dared to speak the truth was Minnesota radio host Bob Davis:
“I have something I want to say to the victims of Newtown, or any other shooting. I don’t care if it’s here in Minneapolis or anyplace else. Just because a bad thing happened to you doesn’t mean that you get to put a king in charge of my life. I’m sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don’t force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss. I’m sick and tired of seeing these victims trotted out, given rides on Air Force One, hauled into the Senate well, and everyone is just afraid, they’re terrified of these victims… I would stand in front of them and tell them, ‘Go to hell.’”
Davis was widely criticized for his comments and later called them “an emotional predecessor to a thought which can and will find a more refined expression by me and others in the future.” Although I probably would have chosen to express my views a little more diplomatically, Davis’s opinion is correct and needs to be heard. No one disputes that it’s horrible to be injured or to lose a person you love to violence. I extend my sympathies to anyone in this situation and can understand why they would want to prevent similar things from happening in the future. But suffering something horrible does not give anyone the right to demand that other people’s freedoms be taken away. It does not make sense to react to a crime by punishing innocent people, yet that is exactly what so many victims and family members are demanding.
I can’t read minds, so I don’t know exactly what motivated each senator in choosing which way to vote. I’m not sure what percentage of Americans support infringements upon the right to bear arms. I’m not sure exactly how powerful the NRA or other pro-gun-rights organizations are, or how much money they spend on lobbying. But these things don’t matter. What I am sure about is that the senators who voted “no” on the Manchin-Toomey amendment and the other gun control measures took the side of individual liberty.
On Wednesday, President Obama asked, “I’ve heard some say that blocking this step would be a victory. And my question is, a victory for who? A victory for what?” To answer his question, it was a victory for the principles of freedom and individual rights, and therefore a victory for all people.