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In gun debate, it's details vs. generalities

Associated Press

There are now five far-right Republican senators -- and counting -- who have vowed to filibuster any legislation that strengthens any gun laws in any way. But I re-read the letter last night that the five of them have co-signed, and it got me thinking.

"We, the undersigned, intend to oppose any legislation that would infringe on the American people's constitutional right to bear arms, or on their ability to exercise this right without being subjected to government surveillance," [Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)] wrote in a statement on his website.

"The Second Amendment to the Constitution protects citizens' right to self-defense. It speaks to history's lesson that government cannot be in all places at all times, and history's warning about the oppression of a government that tries."

This is the rationale embraced not only by Rubio, but also by Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Texas), and James Inhofe (Okla.). The letter lacks specific concerns or detailed policy arguments, and that's by design -- the more the larger debate emphasizes substantive details, the more likely it is these far-right senators will struggle.

Indeed, this may well help explain why the senators are so deeply afraid of a debate. Why welcome a discussion that would provide a platform for the one thing that hurts your side most: specific facts?

Put it this way: the United States already has a system of background checks for firearm purchases, and no one has said this system infringes on anyone's rights or limits citizens' right to self-defense. So how could it be unconstitutional to close a gun-show loophole?

The United States already makes it illegal for straw purchases of firearms, in which one person who can pass a background check buys a gun for someone who can't, and no one believes these existing laws infringe on anyone's rights or limit citizens' right to self-defense. So how could it be unconstitutional to strengthen criminal penalties for laws that are already in place?

The United States, since 1934, has placed strict legal limits on how certain kinds of automatic weapons can be bought and sold, and no one is arguing that these existing laws infringe on anyone's rights or limit citizens' right to self-defense. So how could it be unconstitutional to place similar limits on a slightly larger number of weapons, while exempting thousands of firearms for consumers?

These aren't rhetorical questions.

The GOP senators pledging to block a debate on any possible legislation claim say they're afraid of government confiscation, but confiscation isn't on the table. They're afraid of a federal registry, but that's imaginary. They're committed to protecting the Second Amendment, but there's nothing in the proposals being considered that's unconstitutional.

Indeed, even in his Heller ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia -- not exactly a moderate -- endorsed "longstanding prohibitions" on firearm ownership from felons and the mentally ill, guns in government buildings, limits on the commercial sale of guns, and bans on "dangerous and unusual weapons," including "M-16 rifles and the like."

It would appear that Rubio, Rand, Lee, Cruz, and Inhofe believe Scalia is too liberal and Congress would be better off ignoring what the Supreme Court considers constitutional.

If Republicans want to argue that Democratic policies on guns would be ineffective, fine; that would at least be the basis for a substantive debate. Serious people interested in addressing a national problem could, at a minimum, have a credible conversation over whether the ideas pushed by the White House and others would save lives or not.

But we are, once again, stuck in the wrong conversation.