May 19, 2024

Former Justice Stevens takes on the NRA


Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is creating a stir with his new book, “Five Chiefs: A Supreme Memoir,” in which he makes the case for six amendments to the Constitution, including amending the Second Amendment. The title of the book refers to the five chief justices that Stevens served with during his long tenure on the Court, but it also evokes the 5-member ruling on guns that is at the center of his argument that change is needed.

Stevens, now in his nineties, was appointed to the Court in 1975 by Pres. Gerald Ford, and by the time he stepped down in 2010, he had stories to tell about Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts, a span of history shaped by these men and the presidents who appointed them, going back to Harry Truman.

Some of the justices are more known than others with the activist Warren Court ending school desegregation with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 the high point for liberals. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the current Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has a strong record of conservative rulings, most with narrow 5-4 majorities.

Stevens was still on the Court when it ruled 5-4 in the District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment recognized an individual right to bear arms, and that handguns, previously banned in Washington, D.C., were legitimate “arms” under the Second Amendment.

The 2008 ruling opened the door to a wave of laws expanding gun rights, accelerating with Barack Obama’s election and a fear stoked by the NRA that Obama wanted to take away everyone’s gun. Gun safety proponents pointed in vain to the language in the Second Amendment indicating that the founders’ intent was to arm and equip a militia, not arm and equip every Tom, Dick and Harry with a gun without proper training and licensing.

To restore what the Founding Fathers intended, Stevens suggests adding these five words, “when serving in the militia,” to the Second Amendment. It’s a nice idea but it won’t happen. The gun lobby is too powerful. Still, Stevens is right to steer the conversation away from the slavishly narrow interpretation of a document written when most of what we enjoy or fear in life today, from the Internet to nuclear weapons, would have been unimaginable to the Founding Fathers.

Life was much simpler in the 1700’s. For one thing, the National Rifle Association didn’t exist, and people with guns didn’t go around shooting children. The gap between public opinion when it comes to guns and what Congress has been able to do to curb violence, which is zero, is directly attributable to the power of the NRA and the gun manufacturers. Guns are a big business in America where there are more guns than people.

A counterweight to the NRA is beginning to take root, and it was welcome news this week that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is putting $50 million of his own money into an “Everytown for Gun Safety” political movement that will consolidate two other groups he founded, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense.

Bloomberg is doing what few politicians dare do, and that’s to take his challenge directly to the NRA by mobilizing grassroots support and energy that can be translated at the polls into political victories. Like the NRA, Everytown will track how legislators vote and leverage its contributions accordingly. Everytown’s initial focus will be on strengthening background checks to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and known zealots, like the white supremacist that killed three people at two Jewish facilities in Kansas last week. The Second Amendment was not written to protect his right to bear arms.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound
© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.


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