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The Lighthouse is the weekly email newsletter of the Independent Institute.
Subscribe now, or browse Back Issues.

Volume 15, Issue 8: February 19, 2013

  1. Do the Feds Have the Authority to Ban Certain Guns?
  2. Obama’s Green Theology
  3. More Sin Taxes Are Not the Answer
  4. Drone War Targets American Principles
  5. New Blog Posts
  6. Selected News Alerts

The Independent Review: Subscribe or renew today and get a free copy of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Crisis and Levithan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, by Robert Higgs.


1) Do the Feds Have the Authority to Ban Certain Guns?

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama repeated his call for Congress to ban semiautomatic weapons, limit magazines to 10 bullets, and establish a universal background check for all gun buyers. Advocates of these proposals argue that semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines aren’t necessary for hunting or home defense, whereas critics tend to argue that criminals will find a way to acquire guns no matter what kind of restrictions are passed. Both camps, however, have neglected to deal with the question that Independent Institute Research Fellow William J. Watkins, Jr., considers fundamental: Does Congress possess the right to regulate or ban certain weapons or magazines, and if so, what’s the basis for that right?

The Constitution itself says nothing about restricting guns. Nor has the U.S. Supreme Court ever said how Congress came to possess the authority to restrict access to guns for normal law-abiding citizens. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), a majority of the Court decided that the Second Amendment is a right held by individuals, but it also upheld the legality of certain “longstanding prohibitions” and regulations, such as laws that prohibit felons and the mentally ill from carrying weapons. But nowhere in the majority decision did the Court “explain the fount of federal authority for these prohibitions,” Watkins writes in a new op-ed. The Heller decision didn’t even say that federal authority came from the common law at the time of the Constitution’s ratification.

Nor, as some claim, does the Commerce Clause imply that the federal government has the authority to keep certain weapons out of the hands of sane, law-abiding citizens. The purpose of that provision was to keep the states from erecting ruinous trade barriers, as occurred under the Articles of Confederation. “It’s hard to find anything in the record that indicates anyone ever contemplated that the Commerce Clause would encompass national laws that regulate manufacturing or ownership of guns—or anything else,” Watkins writes. “Unfortunately, many lawmakers are now bent on enacting national gun-control laws, and too many of their opponents are debating the merits of these laws when they should be questioning their constitutionality.”

Debate on Gun Control Should Ask Whether Congress Has Power to Regulate, by William J. Watkins Jr. (The Christian Science Monitor, 2/13/14)

Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy, by William J. Watkins, Jr.

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2) Obama’s Green Theology

President Obama, in his State of the Union address, renewed his pledge to fight global warming. Although he failed to employ the religious rhetoric he used in last month’s second inaugural address—in which he said that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would “preserve our planet, commanded to care by God”—he will likely do so again to help get climate-change legislation passed. Appeals to heavenly authority may be uncommon in contemporary environmental discourse, but they have a long history. In his latest op-ed, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson reminds us that religious themes have played a significant, albeit often unacknowledged, role in discussions about the environment.

“In some ways, environmentalism should be seen as a secularized version of Calvinism, minus God,” Nelson writes in USA Today. “Obama has brought God back into the environmental conversation, even if his theological knowledge is incomplete.”

John Calvin, one the greatest influences on Protestant theology, wrote that God “daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.” To damage nature was therefore was to harm our ability to see and appreciate divine glory. This message, according to Nelson, author of the award-winning book The New Holy Wars, is alive and well in the secular environmentalist movement today, even though many of its members are completely unaware of the theological roots of their green ideology and would take issue with calling it a secular religion.

God and Climate Change, by Robert H. Nelson (USA Today, 2/18/13)

The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, by Robert H. Nelson

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3) More Sin Taxes Are Not the Answer

With expenses like unfunded public pension liabilities on the rise, state and local governments are eager for new sources of tax revenue. Enter the “sin tax”—excise taxes on goods or services that some constituents find objectionable. Alcohol and tobacco are the classic examples, but sweets such as sugary soft drinks and candy bars have also become popular targets for politicians hungry for tax dollars and eager to be seen as “helping” to reduce obesity (Mayor Bloomberg is the most famous example). Here are a few sin taxes you might not have known about: Alabama’s tax on playing cards, Arkansas’s tax on tattoos, California’s tax on fruit sold via vending machines, and Minnesota’s tax on fur coats.

“While sin taxes might ultimately cause some reduction in ‘bad behavior,’ there are a number of reasons the costs of the tax often outweigh their benefits,” write Independent Institute Senior Fellow William F. Shughart II, and his co-authors Adam J. Hoffer and Michael D. Thomas. Their recent op-ed in US News summarizes their larger study for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

What are some of those drawbacks? The huge amount of resources used in lobbying, for one thing. In 2009 alone, the soft-drink industry spent more than $57 million on lobbying to prevent the imposition of new taxes. Moreover, many sin taxes are regressive—they hurt poorer consumers the most. In addition, consider revenue not used for its intended purpose. Money generated by the tobacco settlement, for example, was diverted to programs having nothing to do with treating smoking-related illnesses or helping people quit tobacco. Increasingly, proponents of “sin taxes” are employing the argument that the revenue is necessary to help make up for costs born by taxpayers at large, Shughart and his colleagues explain.

‘Sin Tax’ Costs Outweigh Benefits, by William F. Shughart II, Adam J. Hoffer, Michael D. Thomas (US News, 2/5/13)

Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination, edited by William F. Shughart II

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4) Drone War Targets American Principles

Perhaps lured by the low risk of American casualties, the Pentagon has escalated the use of armed drones. Moreover, the administration has not merely intensified the drone war—it has greatly widened it, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Ivan Eland explains in his latest op-ed.

“Originally centered on killing high-level operatives of the main trunk of al Qaeda in Pakistan who were trying to strike the United States, now American drone attacks are mainly striking mid-to-low-level Islamist fighters in Pakistan and Yemen who focus their attacks on the Pakistani and Yemini governments,” Eland, director of the Center on Peace & Liberty, writes in his latest op-ed.

Worst of all, if the circumstances fit President Obama’s secret criteria, drones can now target American citizens. “Obama’s lawyers,” Eland continues, “have argued that it would be lawful to kill a U.S. citizen if ‘an informed high-level official’ of the government decided that the target was a ranking person in al Qaeda who was ‘an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States’ and if his capture was not possible.” Obama’s “imminent threat” rationale is quite a stretch, however, because the targets had no role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and therefore wouldn’t apply under the legislation Congress passed authorizing the president to go after those who abetted them. Concludes Eland: “If a state of war for the United States doesn’t exist in these far-flung places, the president shouldn’t be killing anybody, and Americans accused of terrorism outside congressionally approved battlefields require due legal process in open court.”

Obama’s Drone War Could Legally Kill Americans, but Not Anywhere, by Ivan Eland (2/18/13)

No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, by Ivan Eland

The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, by Ivan Eland

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5) New Blog Posts

From The Beacon:

From MyGovCost News & Blog:

Sequester Spending Cuts a Big Yawn
Craig Eyermann (2/16/13)

Defending Leviathan: The CFPB Always Knows Best
K. Lloyd Billingsley (2/13/13)

How Washington D.C. Works (Or Not) – Part 2
Craig Eyermann (2/11/13)

You can find the Independent Institute’s Spanish-language website here and blog here.

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6) Selected News Alerts

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