This week's U.S. Supreme Court decision on the scope of Second Amendment rights and this weekend's celebration of America's Independence Day bring up the good question of whether having an armed populace means having a free citizenry. Guns are everywhere in this country, but, unfortunately, personal freedoms continue to diminish.
As most folks know, the Supreme Court, on its last day in session prior to its three-month recess, issued a split decision that has been widely regarded as expanding the Second Amendment right to "keep and bear arms."
The case in question concerned the city of Chicago's 30-year ban on handguns, which plaintiffs said violated the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court overturned a similar ban in the District of Columbia two years ago and laid the groundwork for the latest suit by ruling that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to own and possess guns for self-defense in the home.
Chicago, and its suburb of Oak Park, are said to be the last two remaining municipalities in the nation that continue to enforce a local ban on gun ownership. The Supreme Court's decision will likely invalidate those local ordinances by declaring the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution supercedes state statutes, local ordinances and federal laws. Although the court did not specifically override the municipal ordinances, its ruling sends the case back to the Federal Court of Appeals where the local ordinances will likely be struck down.
Both sides in the issue say the ruling does not, however, completely slam the door on what states or localities can impose in the way of gun control. The most often-used example is the reaction of the District of Columbia's post-ruling efforts to comply with the Second Amendment, but still limit uncurtailed gun ownership in the District. In that instance, new requirements for handgun owners include a variety of hurdles including fingerprinting, a written test, ballistics test, classroom instruction in gun handling and verified time spent on the range. For what it's worth, some 800 citizens have now jumped through those hoops to obtain legal handguns.
Justice Alito, writing for the conservative majority, noted that while the Second Amendment overrules local, state and federal laws, it merely "limits their ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values." The dissenting justices, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Stevens and Breyer, issued individual opinions perhaps best summed up by Stevens, who wrote that the decision "could prove far more destructive—quite literally—to our nation's communities and to our constitutional infrastructure."
Not surprisingly, the entire Montana congressional delegation jumped on board with the majority ruling and lauded the Supreme Court's decision. Montana's senior senator, Democrat Max Baucus, called the ruling "a big day for protecting Second Amendment rights," while Sen. Tester, also a Democrat, hailed it as a "major victory." "Today, we ensured that law-abiding folks have the same Second Amendment rights no matter where they live in America," said Tester. And Montana's lone representative, Republican Denny Rehberg, not only praised the decision, but took a backhand swing: "Progressive groups will maintain their assault on the Second Amendment and it is important for gun owners to keep up the fight."
For Montanans, gun advocates like Gary Marbut, of Montana Shooting Sports Association, says it's more philosophical than theoretical because we have gun ownership enshrined in our state constitution. And that, of course, makes the big hoo-haw raised by Baucus, Tester and Rehberg seem more about political theater than addressing a substantive issue in their own state—which brings us to the question of guns and their relationship to actual freedom.
By any measurement, gun ownership in the United States has skyrocketed since President Bush took office. It took another upturn when President Obama replaced him in the White House. If you accept the logic—and there are lots of reasons to do so—the left bought guns fearing that Bush and his Republican-controlled Congress were taking Draconian measures, such as the Patriot Act, that would lead to a police state. Conversely, the right bought guns fearing that Obama and his Democratically controlled Congress would leap to ban ownership of certain types of guns, such as so-called "assault weapons," as had been done under President Clinton.
But here's the rub. I own guns, as do most of the Montanans I know. It is common for Montanans to have rifles and shotguns for hunting, pistols for self-defense or popping the occasional pack rat, and a variety of other guns for recreational shooting at the local range. No surprises there.
But how does owning guns protect me from the blatant abuses of freedom and liberty the Patriot Act imposes? One can wave a pistol at the phone, but that won't remove the illegal, warrantless wire tap. You could put an AK-47 next to your computer, but that won't stop the federal government from reading your e-mails.
Simply put, guns don't guarantee freedom.
There will undoubtedly be those who point to the American Revolution and assert that without guns, we'd still be under British rule. They'd be right. Others, of perhaps more left-leaning persuasion, might quote Mao Tse Tung's famous words: "Power comes from the barrel of a gun." In both instances, one that inaugurated America's independent democracy and one that brought China's Communist Regime to rule, the power of guns established what individuals at those times and places considered freedom—one nation freed from Empire, one from corrupt rulers. In both cases, the argument could be made that while the guns established freedom, in neither case did they preserve it.
It's easy to remember Sen. Tester's campaign promise to repeal the Patriot Act. Yet, despite the complete change in control of the White House and Congress from Republican to Democrat, the Patriot Act has been extended and expanded, not repealed. If freedom is the goal on this Independence Day, it'll take commitment and courage from Congress to get us there, not more theatrical grandstanding about gun ownership.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.