With just one sentence in a note to the Supreme Court this week, the Bush Justice Department reversed decades of executive-branch interpretation of the Constitution's Second Amendment regarding gun ownership.
The note was meant to persuade the high court not to review an unusual lower-court ruling that gave strong endorsement to an individual's right to have a gun. Perhaps the Bush administration is worried that the high court might take the case and reaffirm its 1939 ruling that the Second Amendment protects only the right of state-organized militias to keep and bear arms. It would like the lower-court ruling to stand.
Nonetheless, this reversal of long-held policy will likely open a long legal struggle over enforcement of present gun laws. It's important, then, to focus on loopholes left wide open by the Justice Department's note related to "reasonable" restrictions on gun ownership by "unfit persons."
The Second Amendment, it seems, is not absolute, no matter which side of the militia vs. individual-rights debate you're on.
Just who's "unfit" to own a gun? The 1993 "Brady Law," which imposes a waiting period and background check on gun sales by licensed firearm dealers, spells out nine "prohibited" categories, including felons, fugitives, the mentally ill, illegal aliens, and drug users.
But that list could be longer, if Congress or the courts so decide.
What about someone who irresponsibly leaves a gun lock open?
A 1996 Police Foundation survey found that 57 percent of handguns are usually kept unlocked. And a 1992 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that "individuals who have received training are more likely to keep a gun loaded and unlocked than those who have received no training." Such training alone does not ensure someone is fit to bear arms, and in fact may make them overconfident, unsafe owners.
A 1998 survey by the National Institute of Justice found more than half of high school students carrying a gun had been given it by a family member or had taken it without their parents' permission. Most of the time the gun was a semiautomatic handgun or a revolver. Who's "unfit" in those cases?
Out of the 7,875 handgun homicides in 1998, only 1.2 percent were justifiable handgun killings of an assailant unknown to the person defending themselves. Most killings with handguns are by people who know each other, and often such guns are used against their owner. Is someone owning a gun for self-defense really "fit" then to use it for that purpose?
The gun lobby wants the Second Amendment to protect "responsible" owners. But the statistics argue that too many owners are irresponsible, either in keeping or in using guns.
Gun ownership should be a tightly regulated privilege, not a loosely given right. Let's hope the Supreme Court sees it that way.