March 24, 2013

Where to draw the lines

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

— I try to not be cynical, as difficult as that is at times.

One response to the Newtown shooting tragedy is to hire up to 200,000 armed guards for every school in the country. Another is to arm teachers, presumably with semi-automatic rifles, if they are to effectively counter a madman bent on destruction. Aren’t these suggestions a bit bizarre?

Another suggestion is to ban violent video games, movies and art. This issue is complicated because it pits one constitutional amendment against another.

The first preserves the right to free speech. It was designed to encourage debate and discourage oppression. It was followed with the second amendment, designed to ensure a new country could defend itself against a larger opposing force. There, our founders stated:

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.

Our region certainly appreciated the challenges of a free state. The Battle of Plattsburgh preserved a fledgling nation that had threats from the British Empire. A young country certainly had to be armed to preserve our borders — then.

Does this well-armed militia need to preserve security from within rather than without? If so, let’s have that discussion. I will be the first to participate.

But, if we believe that, in our imperfect democracy, we must limit the first to expand the second amendment, we must have an open discussion of the relationship between two sometimes competing rights. The first promotes freedom of ideas and expression. I don’t believe that means cowardly anonymity, but I do believe in free expression, which might permit people to partake in violent video games and videos, as repulsive as they might be.

Advocates of the second amendment now ask us to trash the first. Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association claims we ought to arm all schools and ban violent video games and movies.

The first amendment was designed to create a free market for ideas and expression. Without the wisdom of Solomon, it is impossible to differentiate between valid expression and exploitation. I don’t know if violence and indecency in videos and movies creates a society more likely to tolerate violence and abuse. I hope not.

But, I fear more what would result if the government became the final arbiter of ideas and expression. The first amendment protects against that, even though we’ve yet to figure out how to prevent amplified expression based on the width of one’s wallet.

I cannot imagine everyone agreeing that the second amendment requires greater qualification. Obviously, our founders could not have anticipated nuclear or biological weapons. They could not have even anticipated semi-automatic rifles. We all agree a line should be drawn somewhere. We are now merely discussing where.

I appreciate the concern that any compromise puts the second amendment on a slippery slope. I know the line must also be drawn differently in a rural area where hunting is a way of life.

The amendment has morphed away from a fear of the British and toward a fear of those who would do you harm. While we can agree that the right to bear a nuclear weapon should not be read into the amendment, we can’t preclude the purpose that this right has come to represent. There’s a need in a region like ours for a modicum of protection in a world where help is not nearby, and there’s a legitimate need for hunters. In rural areas where 911 is a long time away, a farmer’s shotgun is a legitimate defense.

The modern semi-automatic assault rifle has little utility for a hunter, or even for protection for most users. Hunters do not need a military M16 rifle with a clip containing 30 high-velocity bullets. And, most people would be more effective stopping an intruder, or even half a dozen intruders, with a 12-gauge shotgun and a six round extension.

If people are really worried about keeping our own domestic forces in check, I don’t think all the AR15 rifles one could stock would prevail over a SWAT team.

What we need is a serious discussion without posturing from either side. Both will have to compromise. And, still, the lawless among us will have access to weapons dangerous to all for some time to come.

Colin Read contributes to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.