The first time I chose to swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution was in 1977, when I became a deputy sheriff in Leon County (Tallahassee), Florida. Each time I assumed a new responsibility in my 40-year career in law enforcement, I chose to swear that same oath.
I consider the Constitution and my allegiance to it sacred. But I will not use that great document as an altar on which to sacrifice innocent people, like grandparents shopping for food at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, people gathered in a church in Laguna Woods, California, or second, third and fourth graders attending a public elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Such sacrifices have seemingly become a uniquely American blood ritual. And in the lockstep of that ritual, many Republican lawmakers anoint themselves in the Second Amendment and invariably choose to block even the most modest of commonsense gun safety legislation.
It is past time for the GOP to stop acting as though the Second Amendment does not allow for limits on guns. Amid serial mass killings in America, the enactment of gun laws fails year after year. In law enforcement, I have seen the importance of balancing the rights of people with the law. The same is true when it comes to the Constitution.
Like virtually every right and prohibition in the Constitution, the Second Amendment is subject to legislation that defines and regulates its application.
In 1939’s U.S. v. Miller, the Supreme Court decided that the “obvious purpose” of the Second Amendment was to “assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of” state militias and “must be interpreted and applied” narrowly in that context. This was effectively nullified by a 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that the Second Amendment confers on an individual the right to possess firearms unrelated to service in a state militia. Even so, a subsequent ruling in 2010, McDonald v. Chicago, kept the door open to commonsense gun laws, including state and federal laws prohibiting felons and the mentally ill from possessing firearms and regulations prohibiting firearms inside public schools.
In effect, the current Supreme Court position is that while the Second Amendment confers a foundational right, that right is not absolute.
Thus, those lawmakers who put the desires of the gun lobby ahead of the will of the overwhelming majority of the electorate cannot legitimately dive for cover under the Second Amendment.
Clearly, legislation is still possible, viable and urgently needed.
This is supported by a majority of the public. According to a 2021 Morning Consult/Politico poll, at least 84 percent of American voters (including 77 percent of Republicans) favor basic background checks for all gun purchasers. Yet the Bipartisan Background Checks Act passed by the House last year is almost certain to be blocked in the Senate by partisan lawmakers who, in the name of the Second Amendment, will ignore the expressed will of the people.
Since we know who routinely votes against what we desperately need and want as a nation, the choice is ours. Vote them out of office. When we choose not to do this, we, the American people — enough of us, anyway — send a message that we do not care about the safety of the public. For those who continue to vote for a party that offers the customary “thoughts and prayers” while blocking commonsense gun laws, overcome your partisanship and vote against candidates who refuse to keep us safe.
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As I see it, a commonsense public safety agenda for firearms includes the Senate’s passing the House’s background check act, which would expand background checks to be required on all firearm sales, and closing the gun show and online sales loopholes, which exclude millions of sales from any checks at all. There should be strict federal regulation of military-style assault weapons, which are suited to the battlefield, not to the streets of our communities. Fully automatic machine gun weapons are already highly regulated under federal law. At minimum, a comparable level of regulation should be applied to assault weapons. Add to this federal restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines and stronger legislation to make gun trafficking a federal crime. Finally, we should limit civilian sales of Kevlar vests (body armor), limiting their use to law enforcement and licensed security personnel only.
There is no legal, constitutional or moral reason to oppose federal gun safety legislation that would help prevent another mass shooting. Of course, it would not end all violence, but it would be an important start to address this deadly problem of people accessing guns who should not have them.
This, in turn, may make possible a re-examination of our values. We need especially to examine our widespread misunderstanding of freedom as an individual “privilege” rather than a collective right and responsibility. My right to own a gun must not be purchased with your life, your child’s life or the life of your child’s grandparent.
For me, the Constitution is sacred. But I also believe in a much older text, and what comes to my mind in the aftermath of the slaughter of the innocent lives in a small Texas town is this Bible verse from 2 Corinthians: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” We must stop weaponizing the letter of the Second Amendment and instead embrace its spirit, which is one of protection and defense, not just of the self but of the community and the nation.
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