Before his closed-door meeting with gun-control advocates on Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden chatted briefly with reporters. What he told them incensed right-wing news sources. The Drudge Report splashed headshots of Hitler and Stalin. The Examiner ran a story claiming that President Obama would “act like a dictator” by taking legally owned firearms from “nonviolent Americans” and that he would “ban guns.”
What Mr. Biden actually told reporters was: “The president is going to act. There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet, but we’re compiling it all.”
He made no mention of bans, or confiscation, which the White House—besides—could not accomplish through executive order, even if it wanted to. Operating without Congressional approval, President Obama could appoint a new ATF director or require federal agencies to report mental health records, but he could not enact an assault weapons ban, let alone an outright ban.
The distance between what Mr. Biden said and what The Examiner reported gets at why it’s so difficult to conduct a national conversation on the regulation of firearms. If the gun-control camp mentions restrictions the anti-gun-control camp hears bans. If the former mentions a ban on certain kinds of guns, the latter hears all guns, plus confiscation.
Many gun-rights activists, moreover, seem to suspect that the other side argues in bad faith. In public, gun-control advocates may sound reasonable, proposing only limited regulations, but what they really want is to repeal the Second Amendment, or to overturn [District of Columbia v] Heller, and force the complete disarmament of the civilian population. First they’ll come for our Bushmasters, then they’ll come for our hunting rifles.
The fear that restrictions are a Trojan horse, the prelude to outright prohibition, similarly animates the staunch defenders of another controversial right: Abortion.
Writing in Slate in 2006, during Samuel Alito’s confirmation hearings, the legal academic Dawn Johnsen argued that Senators asking whether he would overturn Roe [v Wade] were missing the point. He would more likely “hollow it out.” Ms. Johnsen suggested that Roe opponents have taken an “incremental” approach to eviscerating abortion rights. They’ve pushed for restrictions such as waiting periods and “informed consent” laws; restrictions “designed to sound reasonable while also limiting the number of abortions performed, ultimately as completely as would a criminal ban.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that the freedom to own a gun and the freedom to have an abortion are both “rights”—yet the most vehement gun- and abortion-supporters worry that Heller and Roe do not provide adequate protection. That’s in part because these decisions are vulnerable to similar legal attacks.
Both gun-rights and abortion-rights supporters, then, have to contend with an opposition that doesn’t even believe that these precious rights are rights—no matter what a majority of Justices had to say.
Judging from polls, a majority of Americans support gun and abortion rights, but also support greater restrictions on those rights. Gallup has found that 52 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, 69 percent favor 24-hour waiting periods, and 64 percent favor a law that would make it illegal to perform a “partial birth abortion,” except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother. On guns, CNN found that 96 percent favor background checks, while roughly 60 percent support bans on the sale or possession of semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
Fear and mistrust, in both the gun and abortion debates, inhibit sane, level conversation, and impede what moderates might consider reasonable regulations.
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