The Declaration of Independence places “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” at the pinnacle of the American endeavor. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the world wars, Americans fought and died for that noble premise. The Constitution further exhorts government to “establish Justice . . . provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
But today, across our country, Americans are locked in fear over a clear and present danger to these fundamental rights. As they drop their children off at school, gather at places of worship, go shopping, step out to a concert, movie or restaurant, lurking in the background is that nagging fear that some deranged sociopath will spray the gathering with a hail of bullets. When gunshots ring out all too often at our public gatherings, the common defense and general welfare are imperiled. Fear displaces the blessings of liberty and corrodes established justice.
I’ve always been a strong supporter of the fundamental American rights enshrined in our Bill of Rights, including freedom of religion, speech, press, peaceable assembly and the right to bear arms. But all these rights have their reasonable boundaries. No one is free to use religion to terrorize others; no one is free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded place or to turn an assembly into a riot; and no one should be free to take up arms against the innocent and defenseless.
Balancing these fundamental rights is one of the most important jobs of our government. Traditionally, Congress has been respectful of our rights, giving broad sway for Americans to pray, say, print, assemble, and arm themselves in any way they see fit, so long as they do no harm to others. And when it comes to the Second Amendment’s right “to keep and bear arms,” Congress has been careful not to stifle it, but rather to keep it “well-regulated,” as the amendment itself explicitly states.
As a senator representing a state with a strong rural tradition of lawful gun ownership, I often came down on the side of the National Rifle Association on gun-rights measures. Many of my colleagues — notably including rural Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders — were also reluctant to restrict gun rights. But as time has passed and the scourge of gun violence has taken on horrific proportions, many of us who support and respect the right to bear arms have come to see the need for “well-regulated” measures to contain those arms’ impacts on public safety.
Let’s understand: New gun-control measures won’t completely protect us from gun violence. There are already almost 300 million guns in America. Stopping the sale of all new ones won’t guarantee our safety from their misuse. But it’s not unreasonable to conclude that a few common-sense firearm safety measures could save lives.
Today’s mass killings are driven by a social media environment in which glorified gun violence metastasizes through the internet to drive mostly unstable young men to commit essentially copycat attacks. These mentally unhinged individuals should be prevented from getting their hands on weapons designed to inflict maximum carnage. We should begin with expanded and improved background checks on all gun purchases, especially so-called assault weapons. And we should expand “red flag” laws that allow mentally unstable people to be lawfully separated from their firearms.
While it will be no panacea, we should also find a way to limit the sale and use of semi-automatic guns that are easily converted into fully automatic “machine guns.” Federal law severely limited these weapons in 1934, after the fearsome tommy gun made its first terrible appearance. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a bipartisan bill supported by the NRA that banned these machine guns.
Now, before my Second Amendment defender friends go ballistic, so to speak, I suggest they go back and look at the history of the NRA itself. It was created in the wake of the Civil War, largely by former Union officers who wanted to improve firearms training and marksmanship. It was first incorporated in New York, and its first training ground was in what is now Queens Village. One of the NRA’s earlier presidents was former President Ulysses S. Grant.
Maybe it’s time we follow the lead of presidents who won the Civil War and the Cold War. Channeling their wisdom, both our liberties and our lives will be more secure.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.