McCain and the GOP are trying to paint Obama as a flip-flopper on gun control after his statements on the Heller decision last week. In fact, he’s been quite consistent on his position, which is that communities have different needs with regard to gun control and therefore they should have the right to regulate as they need to locally, a position not strictly at odds with the decision.

Obama’s statement on Heller, which struck down the DC handgun ban as unconstitutional, was pragmatic and mostly OK as far as it goes:

“I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view, and while it ruled that the D.C. gun ban went too far, Justice Scalia himself acknowledged that this right is not absolute and subject to reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe.  Today’s ruling, the first clear statement on this issue in 127 years, will provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country.

“As President, I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun-owners, hunters, and sportsmen. I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.  We can work together to enact common-sense laws, like closing the gun show loophole and improving our background check system, so that guns do not fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals.  Today’s decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe.”

But where he failed was to offer a progressive response to the decision.

To this in particular from Scalia (PDF):

As the quotations earlier in this opinion demonstrate, the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. The handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of “arms” that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose. The prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute…

It is no answer to say, as petitioners do, that it is permissible to ban the possession of handguns so long as the possession of other firearms (i.e., long guns) is allowed. It is enough to note, as we have observed, that the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon. There are many reasons that a
citizen may prefer a handgun for home defense: It is easier to store in a location that is readily accessible in an emergency; it cannot easily be redirected or wrestled away by an attacker; it is easier to use for those without the upper body strength to lift and aim a long gun; it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police. Whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.

To accept this reasoning without question and simply focus on the fact that it leaves the possibility of local regulation intact is missing a major opportunity to push back on conservative framing and advance a more progressive view. What is being validated here is the idea that each individual is basically on his or her own to defend life and property – it’s validating a privatized and atomized vision of maintaining law and order as opposed to a more social vision.

The more progressive view is that combating crime is a social good, and it’s worthwhile to put significant efforts and resources toward that goal, not leaving each individual homeowner as a private armed force having to on his or her own blow away burglars with a handgun.

People shouldn’t have to keep a gun in the house in order to feel protected from criminals. They may have a right to keep a gun in the house, but they shouldn’t feel they have to in order to be safe. Validating that idea at the highest levels of justice simply further erodes the social fabric and normalizes conservative framing of law and order issues in terms of force, violence, and the lone-gunslinger mentality instead of more holistically, i.e., crime as a social problem that needs to be treated at its roots of poverty, income inequality, drug abuse, and a failure of the education system.

Conservative mythology has built up the idea that the Second Amendment has to do with the individual citizen’s right to bear arms in order to protect him or herself against the government and for self-defense against criminals. Both of these ideas are antithetical to the idea of a public sphere, where citizens can use collective action through the mechanisms of government to achieve ends beyond their power to achieve as individuals. To conservatives such an idea is absurd – to them government is no more than at best a parasite on good productive capitalists and at worst an outright totalitarian oppressor.

Scalia has been criticized for his mythical version of history in this decision, but accuracy is not his concern. The reason for his historical distortions is political. His concern is to advance the aims of movement conservatism, which involve further dividing individuals and breaking down the reliance people have on one another for their common protection as is expected in a healthy society, and his explicitly stated reasoning in this decision helps to do that.

In societies with strict gun control and a more progressive sense of the public sphere, like Canada for instance, increases in crime lead to vigorous calls for increased public resources to be put toward policing, not to calls to overturn the gun ban so that each individual can be free to privately shoot burglars in their home.

So what I hoped to hear from Obama (and didn’t) are things like this:

  • The Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but no individual should feel he or she has to keep a gun in the house to protect family and property. If they do, their community has clearly failed and needs to step up to better deal with the problem.
  • The least effective (and the least cost-effective) ways to deal with crime are the traditional reactive strategies, which have led to our nation having the highest rate of incarceration in the world. It’s expensive, it’s ineffective, and it’s a terrible waste of our precious human potential as a nation. Studies have shown that the most effective (and cost-effective) means of reducing crime is to provide incentives for youth to complete school.

A missed opportunity by Obama. One of too many lately.

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