Responsible citizens, gun rights and the 2nd Amendment


Text of Paul Mero’s remarks, as prepared, at the KVEL Radio 2nd Amendment Rally in Vernal on Aug. 10, 2013:

I mentioned to our host that me sharing thoughts with you about the Second Amendment is like a student driver regaling Mario Andretti about what it’s like to drive a car. To help us bond, I can share with you that when I was 14 years old my friend, Dennis Halsey, shot me in the leg with my own Crossman pellet gun. Mom was against me buying it with my own hard-earned money – she told me someone would get hurt – so Dennis and I rushed home to fix me up before Mom got home from work. I was fortunate that we were using BBs and not pellets that day. I had a heck of time getting the BB out of my thigh. It was in there deep. I told Dennis to go get mom’s bottle of Scotch because I could tell I was going to be in need of some major disinfectant. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes of massaging that BB out of there, it popped right out.

My only other significant gun story happened 20 years later. I worked on Capitol Hill from 1987 to 1997. In 1994, you might recall, Congress passed the “crime bill” that included the “assault weapons” ban. I really hadn’t had a pressing desire to own a gun before that, but as soon as the House passed the first iteration of the bill in May, I and some friends drove to a little gun shop out on the northern neck of Virginia and I bought one of the banned weapons – a TEC-9 and an extended magazine.

I’ve often thought about what I was feeling at the time and since then about that purchase. Certainly, I felt offended enough to go buy the gun. I thought to myself, “Really? The federal government is going to tell me what gun I can or cannot own? Well, we’ll see about that!” As a side note, it’s interesting that the TEC-9 used in a couple of horrible shootings, such as at Columbine, wasn’t even the model that was banned – it was a modified TEC-9 not even covered by the ban. That’s how idiotic these gun bans can get – the federal government prefers to ban guns that look dangerous rather than guns that really are in the hands of crazy people.

I kept that pistol on the shelf in my bedroom closet for years. While I took it out to clean it, I rarely shot it. My lack of interest in it caused me to reflect why I still owned it and this one thought came back to me time and again: I owned that gun out of principle and the principle is that I’m a responsible, law-abiding citizen and, in a free society, responsible citizens have rights.

And this is the message I’d like to share: responsible citizens have rights; irresponsible citizens have diminished rights – and a free society requires us to be responsible (our Founding Fathers called it “virtuous”).

Because I’m a think tank guy, I prepared to meet you by studying the Heller decision from 2008 by the United States Supreme Court – that decision is now the law of the land regarding the Second Amendment.

I was gratified to read not only Antonin Scalia’s tongue-lashing of the liberal dissenting justices but, even more so, I was pleased with the basis on which the majority decided the case. Scalia, who really isn’t fond of natural law thinking – unlike his colleague, Justice Thomas – used natural law and natural rights to settle the majority decision. Here’s what that sounds like, from the majority decision:

[It] has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment, like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it “shall not be infringed.” As we said [prior], “[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendment declares that it shall not be infringed.”

Americans understood the “right of self-preservation” as permitting a citizen to “repe[l] force by force,” when “the intervention of society in his behalf, may be too late to prevent an injury.”

Scalia cited, “The right to self-defense is the first law of nature.”

The court’s majority ruled, finally, that the Second Amendment is an individual right.

When our rights are infringed, especially on a consistent manner as we see now with the Obama administration, there is a tendency to overreact – there is a tendency among patriots to claim rights they don’t have. It sounds like this, “I will do whatever I want to do whenever and wherever I want to do it. That’s my right as an American!”

My warning to these passionate friends of ours is not only that it’s not true but it also hurts the cause of freedom to claim some absolute right especially in the name of individual liberty – and the court’s Heller decision helps us to understand that better. The court’s decision is very clear: “Freedom, not license, is secured.”

Scalia wrote,

There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment’s right of free speech was not. Thus, we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.

He goes on to write,

From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever for whatever purpose. … Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, 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 forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

And, in a footnote to that comment, Scalia writes, “We identify these presumptively lawful regulatory measures only as examples; our list does not purport to be exhaustive.”

So, why am I emphasizing the limitations of the Second Amendment in front of a bunch of gun-lovers? I’m not. I’m emphasizing a key ingredient of responsible citizenship in the cause of freedom: Only responsible citizens have complete rights. When we defend bad behavior in the name of some imagined absolute individual liberty, we hurt the cause of freedom.

My cause is freedom and I protect the Second Amendment as a component part of freedom. I don’t defend it because I like guns or because I feel some imagined liberty to own any weapon and bear that weapon however I see fit. We’re here today, meeting as we are, because of freedom, not because we have a lot of really cool guns. The experience of our Founding Fathers shows that the possession of guns alone doesn’t make us free. They had guns. What they didn’t have was freedom.

Before I leave I’d like to commend the residents of Vernal and Uintah County for being shining examples for the rest of Utah of economic freedom. Sutherland Institute champions the right of Utah to control many of the federal lands currently under federal control – in fact, we’ve just created a new center on federalism in the West to address this precise issue. Until we break that unfair and unjust stranglehold on our lands, Utah will continue to be a second-class state. Imagine Utah’s economy if the rest of the state were producing income and jobs like you folks.

Thank you, so much, for inviting me to share this evening with you.