As a journalist, I’ve covered a lot or rallies and protests over the course of my 25-year career. Indeed I covered one on Saturday in the Berkshires. There’s lots of noise and colorful signs. Sometimes there’s over-the-top rhetoric. Typically, there is a call to action for a policy change or an expansion of rights.
But a Second Amendment rally is a horse of another color. The protest held on Saturday on the steps of the capitol in Hartford attracted a modest crowd. Capitol Police guessed it to be 1,500 — though from the video footage I saw, that seemed like a generous estimate. And it was part of a national happening. That same day, there were 45 other rallies sponsored by the National Constitutional Coalition of Patriotic Americans.
The extraordinary thing about Second Amendment rallies is they’re not really about expanding rights — or even curtailing them. More than anything else, they’re about maintaining the status quo and stopping the further erosion of rights. I’m guessing many of the attendees would like to expand rights by repealing existing gun control laws but they probably know that’s a lost cause.
In that sense, the anti-gun-control crowd has a lot in common with abortion rights supporters. Both know that expanding rights would be extraordinarily difficult, so they draw lines in the sand and protest bitterly against “gun grabbers” and “body controllers.”
The rally and others like it were no doubt initiated as a counterweight to the national March For Our Lives movement, which attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in a Parkland, Fla., high school.
In the case of Saturday’s Hartford event, the first since 2014, you would think the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, the gun-rights advocacy group that organized it, could have done a better job of attracting a crowd. After, all the CCDL boasts almost 30,000 members across the state.
But to be fair, the CCDL did far better than Second Amendment organizers in Massachusetts (a state twice our size), where only 75 people showed up on Beacon Hill, according to the Boston Globe, which ran the story under the playful headline, “Dozens gather for pro-gun rally on State House steps.”
Now on to the policies CCDL espouses. The organization, which seems to oppose almost all attempts at gun control, says it stands for the Second Amendment and asks elected officials if they support it, too? Implicit in the question is that support of the Second Amendment and the belief in reasonable restrictions on firearms are incompatible. That, of course, is nonsense.
To be clear, I am not a gun-phobe. I used to shoot birds with my grandfather when I was little boy in Texas. My ex-stepfather collected rifles and kept them locked in a glass case in his man cave right next a framed print of John Wayne with its own spotlight (I’m not making this up). My awesome son loves to shoot for fun and is about to become a Marine Corps officer.
As I have written before, my reading of the Second Amendment is that it protects the individual right to keep and bear arms, notwithstanding the “militia” clause. But of course there are limits to any rights, even those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. And as my colleague Dan Klau has pointed out, that’s essentially what Connecticut’s own state constitution says as well.
As best I can tell, the sentiment among gun zealots is that any limitation on the Second Amendment is a slippery slope that will lead to a ban on firearm ownership. Even while I disagree with that perspective, I can nonetheless empathize with it. I must confess I take the same dim view of placing restrictions on the First Amendment. There is the old saw about not having the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.
But of course there is no such law forbidding one from using that incendiary word in a throng. The crime is committed when people in the theatre feel compelled to flee and bystanders are injured or trampled to death. Same with burning Old Glory. The act itself is legal under the First Amendment and should be. Inciting people to violence in the public square is not.
The problem with the slippery slope argument put forth by CCDL and the NRA is there is no evidence for it. Yes, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has called for the repeal of the Second Amendment — and greatly setting back the cause of gun safety in the process.
But even there, the evidence that a #2A repeal would lead to the wholesale confiscation of the firearms of individuals is sorely lacking. I lived in Canada for five years. Canada has no Second Amendment or its equivalent. But licensed individuals can still keep and bear arms. The emphasis is on accountability, safety and registration. In other words, plain common sense.
I’m sure American gun zealots will tell me we don’t want to be like Canada. After all, why would we want emulate a nation that guarantees its citizens that they won’t go bankrupt from being sick? Or a nation where school massacres are as rare as big earthquakes in Saskatoon?
Of course, better firearm safety and licensing rules are not panaceas for the epidemic of gun violence that plagues the United States. Nor would a massive mandatory gun buyback of the sort undertaken in Australia, though it should be noted that gun violence and suicides in that country plummeted afterwards.
No, better gun safety rules will be most effective if they’re accompanied by a change in an American culture that devalues life and all too often neglects the mentally ill. And contrary to what partisans would have us believe, attacking those two problems isn’t mutually exclusive either.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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