If it goes ‘bang’, ban it – the right approach to gun control

The US Supreme Court – that most intensely partisan-political and utterly unaccountable branch of the US Federal government – has overturned the District of Columbia’s 32-year ban on handguns, declaring it to be unconstitutional. The decision and opinions can be found here. By a 5 to 4 vote (the usual lunatic fringe – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – plus the swing voter Anthony Kennedy, who this time joined the Dark Side) the Supreme Court decided that the the Second Amendment to the US Constitution: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” implies that “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” Apparently it also implies (in the words of Justice Scalia who wrote the majority opinion) that the Constitution does not permit “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.”

I don’t now what Justice Scalia and the other members of the majority were smoking when they wrote the majority opinion, but I would really like some of it. The statement “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” is no more than an assertion, supported not even by the selective reading of history cited in support of this view, or by the apparent mind-reading abilities of the Justices when it comes to the original intent of the framers of the Amendment. In truth, their opion is supported only by the simple arithmetic of a 5 against 4 headcount.

The Supreme Court also struck down requirements imposed by the District of Columbia that firearms be equipped with trigger locks or kept disassembled. This too is apparently implied by the Second Amendment protection of the right to arm bears, as long as they serve in the armed (bear) forces. Rather surprisingly, the Court left intact the licensing of guns – an oversight no doubt, to be corrected soon.

The D.C. case was the first time the US Supreme Court examined the Second Amendment in depth since its adoption in 1791. If ever there was an example of an activist Supreme Court making law, indeed making policy, driven by the personal views, opions, biases, prejudices, phobias and instincts of its members, this is it.

What was the response of the two leading candidates for the US presidency to this assault on the right not to be shot by your unfriendly neighbour?

Barack Obama is sitting so firmly on the fence when it comes to gun control, that the family jewels must be at risk. Read his full statement here and weep. Just a few nuggets of ambivalence: “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures.” Yes, Senator Obama, but it really isn’t possible to be a little bit pregnant on this issue. “As President, I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun-owners, hunters, and sportsmen.”

How could I possibly vote for a timid, weasely waffler like that? Isn’t it time for the Democratic candidate for the US presidency to overcome his fear of the National Rifle Association (an organisation that has damaged America more than the Mafia has), put on a clear pair of diapers and argue for stringent Federal gun control legislation, including a Federal ban on handguns? With a bit of luck the next Democratic President will be able to appoint at least one Supreme Court Justice. With a further bit of luck the next vacancy on the Supreme Court will result from the departure of one of the four right-wing loonies. When the new Federal gun control law ends up at the Supreme Court, the new Court can put the District of Columbia et. al. v. Heller ruling in the dustbin of history where it belongs. You must fight politics with politics.

John McCain proved himself to be a bear of very little brain by stating that the ruling was “a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom.” It’s an even more disastrous position than Obama’s; the only redeeming feature is that McCain, however misguided, may actually believe his public statements on gun control. It would not lead me to vote for him, but it does lead me to respect his integrity more.

Second Amendment freedom – my foot. The Second Amendment states that the armed forces ought to be armed. I fully agree. The decision of the Supreme Court is not just wrong, it is evil. It will contribute to the ongoing dilution of the rule of law in the US, the growth of vigilantism, fenced, gated and caged communities, and ultimately the complete breakdown of any sense of community and society.

Fear and suspicion by all towards all will become the norm in a country with 200 million individual self-defence forces. Only I myself can secure my safety against the imminent threat of violence/oppression from my fellow citizens and from the state. Therefore I must be armed to the teeth. Every gun in private ownership infringes on the rights and liberties of others.

The Supreme Court decision is a triumph of American infantilism – a monument to the country’s determination not to grow up. A nation that cannot get itself motivated and organised to ban the use of silly boys’ toys that kill, main and wound countless thousands every year is clearly not ready for self-government. Perhaps another century or so under benevolent colonial rule might help. The Brits had a go at it and failed. I suggest the Danes.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website