KEVIN LEININGER: Call to repeal the Second Amendment at least puts the gun-control debate where it belongs

Gun-control supporters made their views known at the Allen County Courthouse last month. (File photo by Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
John Paul Stevens (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has been taking a lot of flak from conservatives for his recent New York Times essay supporting the repeal of the Second Amendment. But, in fact, the National Rifle Association should give the 97-year-old Gerald Ford appointee a lifetime membership — and not just because the Washington Post has disowned the suggestion as “unhelpful” to the cause of gun control.

By advocating the elimination of an amendment added to the Constitution in 1791, Stevens has tacitly acknowledged the very point he and many other gun-control advocates deny: The government does not have the unlimited authority to regulate firearms. If it did, there would be no need for repeal in the first place.

The language of the Second Amendment is familiar but worth repeating: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In 2008, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote ruled District of Columbia vs. Heller that the amendment guarantees individuals’ right to self-protection. Stevens, who in his dissent argued the amendment never mentions self-defense or even hunting, suggested in his March 27 Times piece that the notion of securing a free state through an armed citizenry “is a relic of the 18th century” and should be consigned to the history books once and for all.

It’s a weak argument. When the Second Amendment was written, obviously, gun ownership was not limited to government-regulated militias and, as the late Justice Antonin Scalia asserted in his majority opinion in 2008, the “people” to whom the amendment refers are the same people guaranteed the right to freedom of religion and the press by the First Amendment.

But the debate itself really isn’t the point. The proper method of settling it is.

The Constitution has been amended 33 times since its ratification in 1789, but not once since 1992. The process is indeed cumbersome, requiring a proposal from a two-thirds majority in Congress and approval by 38 states or action at a national convention called by 34 states and ratified by 38. It’s so much easier simply to ignore the Constitution and ask the Supreme Court to intervene, as it did by discovering a long-lost right to abortion in 1973. A justice who believed a “living, breathing Constitution” could and should be shaped by the court to fit today’s needs is now advocating precisely what its 18th-century framers explicitly anticipated and authorized.

It’s ironic, yes, but also entirely proper because Stevens’ suggestion puts the gun-control debate exactly where it belongs.

The Washington Post warned that Stevens’ op-ed piece “might as well be considered an in-kind contribution to the NRA, to Republicans’ efforts to keep the House and Senate in 2018 and to President Trump’s 2020 re-election bid,” and for good reason. For all the heartfelt but naive marches in Fort Wayne elsewhere calling for “something” to be done in the wake of the shooting deaths of 17 people at a Florida high school in February, Stevens has confirmed what many Americans have long suspected: a desire not only to limit gun rights but to eliminate them entirely.

But — and here’s the point — it’s a legitimate conversation. If Stevens and others like him can persuade enough Americans to agree, they can and should do precisely as he suggests. But as Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and gun-control supporter said last month, “there’s not a snowflake’s chance in hell we are going to repeal the Second Amendment any time soon.” The polls bear him out. Despite Stevens’ efforts and high-profile tragedies in Florida and elsewhere, just 21 percent of Americans favor scrapping the Second Amendment, according to a recent poll by the Economist and YouGov.

So let’s consider and quickly dismiss any fanciful thought of repeal and concentrate on achievable actions that might actually help limit gun violence, including sensible limits on high-capacity magazines, banning so-called bump stocks and elimination of the gun-show loophole on background checks. Even more important, schools and other potential targets should be hardened and security-enhanced, with swift, sure and severe punishment for violators.

And most crucial of all: We should ask ourselves why so many people continue to blame inanimate objects for what deranged or evil people do, and why we seem to have more such people than we used to.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)