Tilly: An open letter on guns

BY ZACH TILLY | APRIL 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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I’m writing in response to the letter, published Wednesday (April 24) on this page, in which the UI College Republicans defend the group’s stance on gun-control laws. The Editorial Board previously criticized your position as absolutist and “factually (not ‘fatally’ as your letter says) suspect.”

At the risk of outing that piece’s author, I’ll come to the defense of the Editorial Board here.

The editorial in question was built in part around a quotation from Mary Kate Knorr, the president of the College Republicans and one of the folks to whom this column is addressed.

“Any efforts on the part of the government to make it more difficult to obtain firearms is a breach of our Constitutional rights,” she said.

This is a position you reaffirm with a few minor caveats in your letter, as quoted in the next paragraph. Your view is notable for its Constitutional absolutism; you argue that any new limitation on gun ownership for law-abiding people is unconstitutional, but this idea is legally, historically, provably incorrect.

You argue that the recent cases D.C. v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010) “have made it clear” that “[a] law-abiding, mentally stable citizen has the irrevocable right to keep and bear arms, and any further infringement on this right is a violation of our Constitution.”

Those cases have not made that clear at all.

D.C. v. Heller established a firm Second Amendment right to keep a handgun in one’s home, but in the majority opinion Justice Antonin Scalia (Scalia!) wrote that “[l]ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

“… nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill … or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” Scalia wrote.

He also noted that the government’s ability to ban certain types of weapons as established in U.S. v. Miller is “supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’ ”

Because of the narrowness of the Heller ruling, the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., was able to uphold the city’s assault-weapons ban in 2011.

McDonald simply expanded that narrow Heller ruling to all 50 states.

Clearly, there are many limitations to gun rights precisely like those voted down in the Senate last week that are well within the scope of the Constitution.

Let’s turn our attention now to what would have been the centerpiece of any Senate gun bill: an expanded background-check program.

You oppose this measure because “expanded background checks prior to firearm purchases would hardly be effective when it comes to keeping weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals.”

My question is: Are you sure?

In your letter you concede that you believe felons should not be able to purchase guns. It stands to reason that you must believe that allowing a felon to own a gun introduces a greater risk to society than allowing a non-felon to own one.

Background checks prevent felons from legally buying guns. But under current law, a felon need only hit up a gun show or do a little online shopping to circumvent that process. So why wouldn’t closing that loophole be effective policy?

Sure, some of the dangerous folks turned away from legal purchases might seek out illegal weapons.

But, realistically, how many would buy black-market guns? And how many would do that if stricter laws for gun trafficking — another gun amendment that you say “rightly” died on the Senate floor last week — were also passed?

It seems to me that expanding background checks couldn’t hurt, could it?

The most popular argument left standing is that such a policy could infringe on Second Amendment rights of upstanding gun buyers.

To that I ask whether the current background-check system constitutes a violation of the Second Amendment? If your answer is yes, then I wonder if you’re willing to advocate for abolishing background checks altogether?

Not likely if you truly believe that felons should be prohibited from owning guns.

And if the answer is no, I wonder how eliminating the loopholes in the existing background-check law might render it unconstitutional or overly burdensome.

And so here we are, left with a Second Amendment that allows for a surprisingly wide variety of gun-control legislation and a relatively innocuous proposal to expand background checks that could possibly help but certainly couldn’t hurt.

So — in response to the case made above — why do you guys oppose expanding background checks? I don’t accept “they probably wouldn’t work” as sufficient rationale for doing nothing.

This is an important conversation; I think this is as good a place as any to have it.

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