By Cottrol, Robert J.
The American Enterprise , Vol. 10, No. 5
A Liberal Democrat's Lament
Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that firearms should not be very carefully used and that definite rules of precaution should not be taught and enforced. But the right of the citizen to bear arms is just one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible. --Hubert Humphrey, 1960
My background is probably atypical for a somewhat high-profile supporter of the right to keep and bear arms. I am black and grew up in Manhattan's East Harlem, far removed from the great American gun culture of rural, white America. Although my voting patterns have become somewhat more conservative in recent years, I remain in my heart of hearts a 1960s Humphrey Democrat concerned with the plight of those most vulnerable in American society--minorities, the poor, the elderly, and single women--groups whose day-to-day realities are often overlooked in our public policy debates, people whose lives too often go unnoticed by our intellectually timid chattering classes. This is happening in the public debate over the right to bear arms.
For the nation's elites, the Second Amendment has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bill of Rights, constantly attacked by editorial writers, police chiefs seeking scapegoats, demagoging politicians, and most recently even by Rosie O'Donnell, no less. It is threatened by opportunistic legislative efforts, even when sponsors acknowledge their proposed legislation would have little impact on crime and violence.
Professional champions of civil rights and civil liberties have been unwilling to defend the underlying principle of the right to arms. Even the conservative defense has been timid and often inept, tied less, one suspects, to abiding principle and more to the dynamics of contemporary Republican politics. Thus a right older than the Republic, one that the drafters of two constitutional amendments--the Second and the Fourteenth--intended to protect, and a right whose critical importance has been painfully revealed by twentieth-century history, is left undefended by the lawyers, writers, and scholars we routinely expect to defend other constitutional rights. Instead, the Second Amendment's intellectual as well as political defense has been left in the unlikely hands of the National Rifle Association (NRA). And although the NRA deserves considerably better than the demonized reputation it has acquired, it should not be the sole or even principal voice in defense of a major constitutional provision.
This anemic defense is all the more embarrassing because it occurs as mounting evidence severely undermines the three propositions that have been central to the anti-gun movement since its appearance on the national radar screen in the 1960s. The first proposition is that the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, poses no barrier to radical gun control, even total prohibition of private firearms. The second is that ordinary citizens with firearms are unlikely to defend themselves and are more likely to harm innocent parties with their guns. The final proposition is that the case for radical gun control is buttressed by comparing the United States to nations with more restrictive firearms policies. These propositions, now conventional wisdom, simply do not stand up to scrutiny.
The proposition that the Second Amendment poses no barrier to gun prohibition--a claim largely unknown before the 1960s--has run up against stubborn, contrary historical facts. Increasingly, historians and legal scholars, including many who support stricter gun control, have examined the history of the Second Amendment, the development of the right to arms in English political thought, judicial commentaries on the right in antebellum America, and the debates over the Fourteenth Amendment. …