Albany has passed and President Obama has proposed gun control legislation that responds appropriately – and constitutionally – to the horror of Newtown, Conn., and many other places where men armed with assault weapons committed mass murder.
To judge from recent polls, the moves will be supported by a majority of Americans. Nearly six in 10 want stricter laws in the aftermath of last month’s massacre, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
Despite that, Obama’s proposals are expected to encounter a rough ride in Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, where many members buy into the paranoia coming out of the National Rifle Association and similar groups. Unfortunately, a lack of effective federal legislation will undermine the efforts in New York, the first state to respond to the mass murders in Connecticut, and any other state that acts.
Still, given the facts of violence in this country and the national desire for tougher gun control laws, Obama is right to begin this fight and to take it to the districts of senators and representatives who might be influenced by constituents who understand that the Second Amendment, like the First Amendment, has limits.
These latest gun law proposals aren’t radical ideas. A ban on the purchase of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips isn’t much different from the ban on buying hand grenades; all are too dangerous for ordinary citizens to have. Hunters don’t need assault weapons with 30-round magazines any more than they need hand grenades or cannons.
Some people may like owning assault weapons just for the sheer enjoyment of it, but we all give up some things for the benefit of society. Speed limits are only the most obvious example of restrictions we tolerate to advance the safety of all. It’s not unreasonable to restrict the sale of weapons designed for killing on a large scale.
Importantly, Obama isn’t moving only on assault weapons. His approach also includes mental health and school safety along with a crackdown on gun trafficking. In addition, he signed 23 executive orders designed, among other things, to strengthen the background check system, support research on gun violence and provide training to law enforcement, first responders and school officials in dealing with “active shooter situations.”
Obama’s proposals came one day after the New York State Legislature finalized, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed, a bill that strengthens the state ban on assault weapon sales, limits the size of ammo clips to hold no more than seven bullets, mandates that mental health professionals notify authorities of patients deemed dangerous so their guns can be confiscated and creates a new statewide database of handgun and assault weapon owners.
These are important laws that will help to keep New Yorkers safer, but this effort will be weakened without federal action. It is too easy for those who want weapons of mass murder to travel to states with lax regulations and bring the weapons into New York. Indeed, the state’s new law could produce a black market in illegal weapons without federal legislation.
These measures will be bitterly opposed by some Americans, who have talked themselves into believing that any effort to restrict weapons is the first step on the road to dictatorship. If First Amendment defenders took a similar stance, lunatics would be shouting “Fire!” in crowded theaters and child pornography would be legal and freely available. That hasn’t happened because Americans recognize that these reasonable restrictions help provide the foundation of a civil society. Those restrictions haven’t produced abusive government. Neither will sensible restrictions on assault weapons.
Americans with a balanced view of the Constitution and the nation it serves can hope that opponents of sensible gun laws will someday get over their romantic fantasies that they are defending the nation from a rapacious government, but it won’t happen soon.
Until then, supporters need to ensure that their voices are heard in Washington. The country cannot, as a moral matter, fail to act in response to horrific crimes such as occurred in Newtown.
We are not helpless and do not need to be guided by those who insist otherwise.