Victor Davis Hanson

The horrific Newtown, Conn., mass shooting has unleashed a frenzy to pass new gun-control legislation. But the war over restricting firearms is not just between liberals and conservatives; it also pits the first two amendments to the U.S. Constitution against each other.

Apparently, in the sequential thinking of James Madison and the Founding Fathers, the right to free expression and the guarantee to own arms were the two most important personal liberties. But now these two cherished rights seem to be at odds with each other and have caused bitter exchanges between interpreters of the Constitution.

Many liberals believe there is no need to own semi-automatic assault rifles, magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, or even semi-automatic handguns. They argue that hunters and sportsmen don't need such rapid-firing guns to kill their game -- and that slower-firing revolvers and pump- or bolt-action rifles are sufficient for home protection.

Implicit to the liberal argument for tighter gun control is the belief that the ability to rapidly fire off lots of bullets either empowers -- or indeed encourages -- mass murderers to butcher the innocent.

Most conservatives offer rebuttals to all those points. Criminals will always break almost any law they choose. Connecticut, for example, has among the tightest gun-control laws in the nation. A murderer can pop in three 10-bullet clips in succession and still spray his targets almost as effectively as a shooter with a single 30-bullet magazine. Like a knife or bomb, a gun is a tool, and the human who misuses it is the only guilty party. An armed school guard might do more to stop a mass shooting on campus than a law outlawing the shooter's preferred weapon or magazine.

Homeowners should have the right to own weapons comparable to those of criminals, who often pack illicit semi-automatic handguns. If mass murders are the real concern, should ammonium nitrate be outlawed, given that Timothy McVeigh slaughtered 168 innocents in Oklahoma City with fertilizer? Banning semi-automatic weapons marks a slippery slope -- each new restriction will soon lead to yet another rationalization to go after yet another type of gun.

Liberals counter that just as free speech is curtailed (you cannot yell "Fire!" in a crowded auditorium), the constitutional right to bear arms is no more infringed upon by the banning of semi-automatic, large magazine firearms than it is by current prohibitions against heavy machine guns.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.