Should residents of local communities have the right to keep handguns in their homes? This Second Amendment issue is a question that the Supreme Court will consider in 2010, perhaps as early as February. The specific case before the court is McDonald v. Chicago, in which a few of that city’s residents, strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, are challenging Chicago’s strict gun control laws.
Setting the stage for this case was last year’s Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. To the dismay of gun control advocates, the court ruled then that the district’s prohibition against the possession of handguns in the home for self-defense violated the Second Amendment. But because the district is a federally governed zone, that decision applied only there and to similar federal enclaves, like military bases. To widen the impact of the ruling to local and state regions, gun rights proponents want to obtain a similar ruling in the Chicago case and thus eviscerate the stricter gun laws there and elsewhere in the country. Such a ruling would be a troubling development indeed, particularly for Chicago, a city that has an especially high rate of gun violence. Between September 2007 and April 2008, two dozen teenage public school students were murdered there, most of them shot to death.
This year Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, an ardent gun control advocate, who has enlisted the support of mayors nationwide to fight gun violence through the bipartisan group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, initiated a four-month investigation of gun shows in three states with weak gun control laws. The report, Gun Show: Under Cover, describes how undercover investigators traveled to gun shows in Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee last spring and summer. They used concealed video equipment to document gun show dealers selling weapons, contrary to federal law, to people who could not pass criminal background checks. They also proved that dealers frequently sold to straw purchasers, who had only to prove their residency in the state and a crime-free background in order to buy arms, which they then turned over to the real buyer, who would in turn transport them back to New York and other cities along the so-called “iron pipeline.” Many of these weapons have been traced to shooting deaths.
The investigators found that of 30 private sellers in the three states, 19 sold weapons even when the under-cover purchaser said that he himself would probably not pass a background check. One seller replied with a laugh, “I wouldn’t pass either, bud.“ Moreover, had the buyer later committed a crime, there would be no way to trace the weapon’s provenance, because private sellers are not required to keep records of gun show sales. The investigators also tested federally licensed gun show dealers, who, unlike private sellers, must conduct background checks. Of 17 dealers videotaped, 16 sold guns to straw purchasers.
Kristen Rand, legislative director at the nonprofit Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., pointed out to America that such weapons all come from jurisdictions without strong laws like Chicago’s. “You can’t buy a handgun in Chicago or the District of Columbia legally, so traffickers go to states with weaker laws and then bring them to the cities that don’t allow their purchase.” For Ms. Rand and other gun control advocates, one of the worst aspects of a victory by those who mounted McDonald v. Chicago would be that it would remove what she called “the most effective measures to prevent handgun violence.” She observed that the Supreme Court in both Heller and now in McDonald is examining the issue solely as a question of constitutional law “and not in terms of the deadly effect on citizens of gun violence.” The court should know better than most that, as former U.S. Justice Robert H. Jackson said, “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.”
Although most observers fear that the outcome of the Chicago case will be similar to that of the Heller case, one ground for hope is a bill introduced by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey. It would mandate background checks for all private sales at gun shows. In the meantime, states with bad records of gun violence continue to allow gun show loopholes to remain open. The implications of the killing of 33 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 by a mentally deranged man who had no difficulty obtaining his weapons has faded too quickly from public memory. Virginia legislators who are once more resisting plugging the gun show loophole for private sales seem also to have forgotten. Closing this loophole could slow the deadly flow along the iron pipeline.
Rights have correlative duties. When individuals and localities do not meet those responsibilities, it falls to government to do so. Thus, if there is a fundamental Second Amendment right to bear arms, there is also, as there must be, a fundamental responsibility to regulate their sale and use.