Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Supreme Court and Guns

I have a confession to make.

I'm not a gun owner.

I didn't grow up in a household where guns had a place. My father wasn't a hunter — well, that's not exactly true. He was a butterfly hunter, and he did his hunting with a net.

He knew how to shoot a rifle, though, and he taught me how to do it once, when I was a kid. My father is left-handed and I'm right-handed, but, to this day, whenever I pick up a rifle — and it's something I rarely do — I aim and fire from the left side. I can't do it from the right.

That's also how I shoot pool — probably because my father was the one who showed me how to do both things.

Anyway, guns have never been a part of my life. Unless, of course, someone else was on the news for using a gun — at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech or after going postal in the workplace.

Or after shooting at someone famous, like John Lennon or Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II.

When that happens, I'm like everyone else. I have to think about guns and talk about their role in American life because that's what everyone is talking about and thinking about.

Today, the Supreme Court focused that spotlight directly on guns. The justices ruled, 5-4, that the Constitution guarantees the right to keep a loaded handgun in your home for self-defense purposes.

The ruling overturned the D.C. handgun ban, which is "the strictest gun-control law in the country," writes the New York Times. The Times speculates that the ruling "appeared certain to usher in a fresh round of litigation over gun rights throughout the country."

My feeling is, when it comes to guns, that genie is already out of the bottle. There's no way to outlaw guns at this point. Not with nearly 300 million of them out there in private hands.

Personally, I think the Founding Fathers made a mistake when they wrote the Second Amendment — even though they did include that part about the right to keep and bear arms being connected to being part of a "well-regulated militia."

But it's kind of tricky to see into the future — and we are living in an America that has evolved for more than 200 years since the Constitution was written. And, as brilliant as they were, I don't think Thomas Jefferson or James Madison foresaw the coming of the cotton gin, much less a world of jets, cell phones and computers.

Still, for the most part, I think the Founding Fathers did a pretty good job of crafting a Constitution in the 18th century environment they were living in. And they showed some humility — and wisdom — by including a mechanism for amending it when necessary.

But that gun thing has been giving us problems for a long time now.

Now, D.C. may well have the strictest gun laws in the country, as the New York Times and countless others have said. I don't know. I haven't researched all the gun laws in the country.

I live in Texas, where the gun laws are — if you'll pardon the expression — liberal.

But I feel that this is a matter that falls under the heading of "states' rights." I don't believe the people in Washington are qualified to make decisions about the licensing — or the prohibition — of guns in any state or community.

Of course, I'm not saying that I think the lawmakers here in Texas are any better than the ones we've got in Washington. But at least they're familiar with the communities here and they know what the crime rates are. (And I would expect them to get input from local law enforcement and local residents.)

Well, they should know those things. To be candid, I'm not sure most of them do! So many of them seem to have knee-jerk reactions when this kind of issue comes up.

You want to know what really concerns me about today's ruling?

I'm not concerned about the Supreme Court deciding to hear the case. This is the kind of thing the Supreme Court is supposed to be doing. (That's something everyone should think about when deciding who to support for president — what kind of Supreme Court do you want for the next, oh, 20 or 30 years? Because the next president will probably get the chance to make a few appointments.)

I'm concerned about the timing. I'm worried that this has the earmarks of an issue that is going to distract the voters from the things they should be talking about in this campaign — the war in Iraq, the economy, energy, food, housing, health care. And there are some issues on education that need to be resolved. And we need to talk about environmental policy.

It's not just about homeland security and terrorism. Those are important and they need to be discussed, but they're not the only things we need to be talking about.

Actually, being distracted from the important issues is nothing new in America. I guess it's one of the hazards of free speech, but we allow made-up issues, like gay marriage and flag burning, to dictate the terms of our political debates all the time.

I don't believe we can afford to wait until 2012 to talk about the issues. Do you?

It's appropriate, in a way, that this ruling should occur today. Yesterday was the anniversary of Custer's Last Stand, in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

After the battle, one of Custer's surviving officers (and there weren't many of those) was asked by an investigator from Washington what had happened. The officer replied, "Mistakes were made."

Is that what we'll be saying after an election dominated by non-issues? It's the kind of non-denial denial we've heard from Washington so many times before. "Mistakes were made."

Maybe we get the government — and with it, the Supreme Court — we deserve.

That's what the late, great George Carlin said about our elected officials. He said we got from government what we put into it, that our officials were the embodiment of "garbage in, garbage out."

Well, anyway, here's the Supreme Court's ruling in the D.C. gun case. Read it and tell me what you think.

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