The Right Opinion

The War Between the Amendments

By Victor Davis Hanson · Jan. 17, 2013

The horrific Newtown, Conn., mass shooting has unleashed a frenzy to pass new gun-control legislation. But the war over restricting firearms is not just between liberals and conservatives; it also pits the first two amendments to the U.S. Constitution against each other.

Apparently, in the sequential thinking of James Madison and the Founding Fathers, the right to free expression and the guarantee to own arms were the two most important personal liberties. But now these two cherished rights seem to be at odds with each other and have caused bitter exchanges between interpreters of the Constitution.

Many liberals believe there is no need to own semi-automatic assault rifles, magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, or even semi-automatic handguns. They argue that hunters and sportsmen don't need such rapid-firing guns to kill their game – and that slower-firing revolvers and pump- or bolt-action rifles are sufficient for home protection.

Implicit to the liberal argument for tighter gun control is the belief that the ability to rapidly fire off lots of bullets either empowers – or indeed encourages – mass murderers to butcher the innocent.

Most conservatives offer rebuttals to all those points. Criminals will always break almost any law they choose. Connecticut, for example, has among the tightest gun-control laws in the nation. A murderer can pop in three 10-bullet clips in succession and still spray his targets almost as effectively as a shooter with a single 30-bullet magazine. Like a knife or bomb, a gun is a tool, and the human who misuses it is the only guilty party. An armed school guard might do more to stop a mass shooting on campus than a law outlawing the shooter's preferred weapon or magazine.

Homeowners should have the right to own weapons comparable to those of criminals, who often pack illicit semi-automatic handguns. If mass murders are the real concern, should ammonium nitrate be outlawed, given that Timothy McVeigh slaughtered 168 innocents in Oklahoma City with fertilizer? Banning semi-automatic weapons marks a slippery slope – each new restriction will soon lead to yet another rationalization to go after yet another type of gun.

Liberals counter that just as free speech is curtailed (you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium), the constitutional right to bear arms is no more infringed upon by the banning of semi-automatic, large magazine firearms than it is by current prohibitions against heavy machine guns.

Conservatives reply that the chief purpose of the Second Amendment was not necessarily just to ensure personal protection from criminals or the freedom to hunt with firearms, but in fact to guarantee that a well-armed populace might enjoy some parity to an all-powerful, centralized government. To the Founders, the notion that individual citizens had recourse to weapons comparable to those of federal authorities was a strong deterrent to government infringing upon constitutionally protected freedoms – rights that cannot simply be hacked away by presidential executive orders.

That may be why the brief Second Amendment explicitly cites the desirability of a militia. By intent, it was followed by the Third Amendment, which restricts the rights of an abusive government to quarter federal troops in citizens' homes.

So which amendment should we begin pruning to deal with monsters like those at Newtown and Columbine?

The Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, was known to be mentally unstable. He sat for hours transfixed with violent video games – in a popular culture of cheap Hollywood mayhem where bodies implode on the big screen without worry over the effect of such gratuitous carnage on the viewer.

Just as semi-automatic weapons mark a technological sea change from the flintlock muskets of the Founders' era, computer-simulated video dismemberment is a world away from the spirited political pamphleteering of the 18th century. If we talk of restricting the Second Amendment to protect us against modern technological breakthroughs, why not curtail the First Amendment as well?

How about an executive order to Hollywood to stop its graphic depictions of mass killings, perhaps limiting the nature and rationing the number of shootings that can appear in any one film? Can't we ban violent video games altogether in the same way we forbid child pornography? Isn't it past time for an executive order to curtail some of the rights of the mentally unstable – given that the gunmen in mass killings usually have a history of psychic disorders and often use mood-altering drugs?

If conservatives have ensured that there are millions of semi-automatic assault weapons in American society, liberals' unprecedented expansions of free expression have led to an alarming number of unhinged Americans on our streets, nursed on sick games like “Grand Theft Auto” and hours of watching odious movies such as “Natural Born Killers.”

Legislating away the evil in men's heads and hearts can be a tricky – and sometimes unconstitutional – business.



Howard Last in Wyoming said:

Semi-automatic assault weapon is an oxymoron as an assault weapon has to have full automatic capability (a machine gun). A M-14 is a full auto while a M-1A the civilian version is a semi-auto. A M-16 fires a 3 shot burst while an AR-15 is a semi-auto. A semi-auto requires a separate squeeze for each shot. If modern guns should not be allowed because they were not available in the 1780's then TV and radio propaganda (oops news) should not be allowed either. Just think no Rather Liberal on TV.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 1:25 AM

Tapdaddy in Indiana replied:

Great point, Howard. No Dan Blather? Also, everybody uses the term AR-15
thinking that the AR is for Assault Rifle and knowing nothing about Armalite.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 3:07 PM

M Rick Timms MD in Georgia said:

If the left wants to limit guns to the Militia, then they must limit free speech to the Press. If the government can restrict the number,type and use of guns, then we must also limit the type, number and use of words. And let's register free speech " speakers" as well. The problem is that once those things occur, liberty is lost and we will be subjected to the tyranny, genocide, and social cleansing of Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin et al.

This is about control, not about guns.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 2:57 AM

Kevin from Arkansas in USA replied:

The Left and their logic: Free speech entitles one to own newspapers, transmitters, computers, the Internet, word processing and typewriters, but self-defense only justifies lunging with bare hands.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 4:52 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

The Park Police in North Dakota, guard Mount Rushmore, just as we guard our Constitution. Renegades and vandals will not be allowed to chip off shards for souvenirs ! Christ can change selfish hearts, but that takes time and patience."Ask what you can do for your Country." JFK-The last real Democrat. Chingachgook and Uncas-last of the Mohicans.LOL VDH.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 6:39 AM

Bob in Hattiesburg, MS said:

For the Left, the First Amendment is a precious tool they can use to enrich themselves while undermining faith, morality, and the Constitution. The Second Amendment is an impediment to their statist dreams.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 7:44 AM

Rod in USA said:

the word “infringed” means to “act so as to limit or undermine (something)”; so the liberal argument there is specious at best.

the definition of the word “bear” means to carry on one’s person; limiting when, where or how I can carry is an infringement andun constitutional;

I understand the problem: Liberals are illiterate.
Well, that's not the only problem.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 7:54 AM

Mikey in Southwest Idaho said:

The left does not want to limit the possession of arms to the militia, at least not the militia of the founders. George Mason, one of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, said, "Who are the Militia? They consist now of the whole people, except for a few public officers." Clearly, the left wants to disarm the militia of the second amendment. Just a little more revisionist history from the enemies of liberty.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 9:45 AM

Dave in SoCal said:

I respect all the amendments in the Bill of Rights, so the following suggestion is somewhat toungue in cheek. That said, how about we make any movie that shows the use of a so-called "assault weapon," or the illegal use of a firearm, automatically be rated NC-17? Hit them in the bank account where it hurts the hypocritical Hollywood progressives.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 11:13 AM

Cal in in SoCal said:

Interesting how the Libs can't wait to jump on and take advantage of anything that gives them a chance to promote their "tender" concerns. I have trouble deciding whether they are just flakes who rush to show their ideology - that they "care so much" to cover their own shortcoings, or they
really want to take this country down. Probably both. The point to keep in mind is: the politicians want power and control, the "bleeding hearts" just want to feel superior - especially Hollywood. Multi-millionaire actors hire
gun-toting security, but are far above the common slobs who pay them.
As usual, Mr. Hanson writes another brilliant column. I wish he could be President. We would get our country back.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 1:16 PM

JAC in Texas said:

These idiots think you only need two or three shots to defend yourself because they watch T.V. and believe the nonsense they see actors doing when they "shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand," or "just wing him." Most experts can't do that on a regular basis, let alone we amateurs. That's why arms instructors teach you about going for the center mass of your target. If someone wants to kill me, I could care less if he survives my defensive response so he can stand trial later and have a liberal court set him free to try it again.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

The "so-called" elites in Washington and Hollywood believe they are superior to us common folk. We are to dumb to make any rational decisions so we need the over-educated, no common sense, liberal idiots to tell us what is good for us. That is why it is alright for them to send their kids to a private school, Sidwell Friends in Washington is a good example, where 11 armed guards are on duty not to mention the Secret Servics. But of course their children are more important than ours. They will follow Daddy and Mommy's path down the road to Socialism-Marxism. Our children in their eyes are the peons who will kowtow to their superiors. Rotten, despicable, moronic fools who only agenda is to destroy this country and then rebuild it into a Socialsit Utopia.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 6:55 PM