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Commentary

Which Amendment Matters Most?


     
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It’s no surprise, in the wake of the April, 2007 tragedy at Virginia Tech which left 33 people dead, that gun control has become an issue for the 2008 presidential race. In the aftermath of the shooting spree, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards of North Carolina called for more restrictions, while Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has said the incident would not sway him away from backing the rights of gun owners. And the National Rifle Association’s Institution for Legislative Action recently issued this news alert: “A one–sided hearing Thursday [May 10, 2007] in the House Oversight & Government Reform Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, chaired by long–shot presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D–OH) [rated “F” by the NRA], was used by anti–gunners as a platform for pushing the same, old, tired anti–gun restrictions.”

Inevitably, the issue of guns and gun ownership hinges on the Second Amendment (which some would argue is cryptically worded): “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.” So—in a sentiment shared by many gun owners—it is not surprising that Donald Harkrader, a gun dealer located just a few miles from the Virginia Tech campus, would say, “There is a reason we got the Constitution. I’d hate to see what this country was like if we started ignoring the Constitution.”

The implication is that the Second Amendment is the Constitution, or that it’s the single most important right enumerated therein. The question for Harkrader, the NRA, and especially presidential hopefuls who support gun ownership by law–abiding citizens is: where do you stand on the other amendments?

Since Republicans generally are considered more pro–gun than Democrats—and since gun control is potentially a litmus–test issue for the eventual Republican nominee—it’s worth examining where Republican hopefuls have stood on other important Constitutional matters, as they relate to granting the government additional, even more sweeping powers in the name of providing protection against not just lone shooters, but global terrorists.

The poster child for increasing government power in the name of fighting terrorism is the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), which allows “sneak and peek” searches—when law enforcement officers search a home or business without the owner’s or the occupant’s permission or knowledge—and expanded use of “National Security Letters,” which allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to search telephone, e–mail, and financial records without a court order. Both of these provisions are direct assaults on the Fourth Amendment, with its protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and its requirement for first obtaining a warrant. It was a Democrat who was the only U.S. senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act: Russ Feingold from Wisconsin (rated “D” by the NRA in 2004). And not a single Republican senator voted against the Act’s renewal in March, 2006.

On the House side, the only Republican hopeful (and considered a long shot) to vote against the Act both times was Ron Paul from Texas (interestingly, in the 2006 elections, the NRA gave Paul’s Democratic challenger a higher rating). It is also particularly telling that Representative Paul was one of the few Republicans—all members of the U.S. House of Representatives—who voted against the Iraq War Resolution in October, 2002. Understanding that the state poses the greatest threat to liberty and that the greatest expansions of state power occur during times of war, Paul clearly recognized that this was an unnecessary war against a phantom threat.

Whether it’s imposing the USA PATRIOT Act, or granting the president unilateral, unchecked power to declare U.S. citizens “enemy combatants”—denying them the due process guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment—watering down the Constitution in the name of protecting Americans against terrorism is fundamentally no different from eroding the Second Amendment in the name of saving people from gun violence.

So, Donald Harkrader is right about the significance of the Constitution. But either all of it matters or none of it matters—not just the Second Amendment. And presidential hopefuls of all stripes would do well to heed the admonition of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”


Charles Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.

WinningNew from Charles Peña!
WINNING THE UN-WAR: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism

According to President Bush, “the American people are safer” as a result of invading Iraq. True, Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. But al Qaeda, the group that planned and carried out the attacks on September 11, remains at large. Meanwhile, the White House has conceded that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks. Learn More »»






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