Column: Gun debate revives enduring American fight

AP News
Posted: Dec 31, 2012 6:00 PM
Column: Gun debate revives enduring American fight

WASHINGTON (AP) — On the eve of a new year, a libertarian strain pulses through America — a get-government-out-of-my-personal-life sensibility that cuts across ideologies and is driven by a younger generation's cultural attitudes.

We've seen it in gay-marriage legalization and marijuana decriminalization. And in the fact that, four decades after Roe v. Wade allowed abortion, there's little appetite among most for overturning it. Perhaps we've also seen this play out with guns, with a more limited role for government in regulating firearms.

But today, a mourning nation must square that shift toward fewer gun restrictions with a series of fatal mass shootings in the past few years, the latest claiming 20 elementary school students among the dead. And the pendulum may swing just as quickly back toward curbs on gun rights: A country that's become more tolerant on other cultural issues may end up bucking the trend on this subject.

Here's why: It can't be boiled down to "my body, my decisions."

The gun issue doesn't fit neatly into the libertarian lane in which the United States has been driving when it comes to gay marriage, abortion and marijuana — the belief that people have the right to make their own decisions about how they live their lives, as long as they respect the rights of others to do the same. And that's because while it may be your right to own a gun, you can use it to harm others, thereby taking away their right to live their lives as they want.

This is not a new tension in America, a republic founded by men with libertarian leanings that has always struggled to strike the right balance between rights for one and safety for all.

The first settlers fled the big hand of Mother England, seeking a smaller government to protect basic freedoms — and founding a nation built on the "inalienable" rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence acknowledged the stress in America's foundation, saying the new country's government would secure those rights, but people would have the authority to alter or abolish it if it were to become "destructive of these ends."

In modern times, libertarianism, which draws from both liberal and conservative influences, has reared its head often in American history — most recently in today's tea party, which is uncompromising in pursuing a smaller government role in fiscal matters.

These days, 16 to 18 percent of adults in various surveys identify themselves as libertarians. But many more have libertarian views on individual issues even as they call themselves Republicans, Democrats or independents. It also can be a generational thing, with a Pew Research Center poll in December 2011 finding that 50 percent of Americans under age 30 had positive reaction to the label compared with only 25 percent of senior citizens.

The debate now under way underscores how different guns are from other social issues — how this topic is not just about you, but about us.

There is a thicket of considerations. The fact that many people view gun ownership as a foundational right. Mental health. Urban vs. rural matters. Sports. Crime. Violence in video games and movies. Parental responsibility. "We know," President Barack Obama said, "this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides."

The multiple factors at play — and the loss of young innocents — could explain why, despite the nation's recent libertarianism on cultural matters, the Newtown, Conn., killings quickly spurred calls from across the political spectrum for at least a discussion of whether new limits should be placed on guns. This suggested a possible expansion of government in this realm.

"This awful massacre of our youngest children has changed us, and everything should be on the table," said Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. And Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the committee that would take up any legislation, said: "You've got to take all these things into consideration."

The NRA, the nation's largest gun-rights lobby, has promised opposition to more regulations, just as it helped ensure the federal assault weapons ban wasn't renewed in 2004 and state gun laws were loosened by legislatures.

Advocates for gay marriage, marijuana legalization and abortion rights also all have made significant recent strides. Each has pushed legislation in states with friendly political environments while also taking advantage of the country's changing mindset.

Consider that in the last election:

—Washington, Maryland and Maine became the first states ever to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. Now nine states and the District of Columbia recognize gay unions.

—Washington state and Colorado voted to legalize recreational marijuana use, and Obama's administration signaled it wouldn't pursue those users, even though the drug is illegal under federal law.

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—Several Republicans who took rigid stands against abortion rights lost. Among them: GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Then, only six weeks after the election, came Sandy Hook. And gun control jumped to the front of the national conversation.

In the days and weeks before, lawmakers in the GOP-led states of Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Pennsylvania considered proposals to loosen restrictions on employees keeping guns in their vehicles on work property, and Ohio's legislature passed a law allowing guns to be left in parked vehicles underneath the Statehouse.

A federal appeals court in Illinois struck down a ban on carrying concealed weapons, while Florida's GOP-led administration announced that 1 million people would soon have valid permits to carry them. Michigan's legislature also approved laws easing restrictions, though its Republican governor, Rick Snyder, later vetoed a measure allowing certain gun owners to carry concealed weapons in public places.

Public opinion polling has illustrated the trend since 2000, with more Americans now generally favoring the right to own guns over increased limitations on ownership. But there is also widespread support in surveys for reinstating the federal assault weapons ban and for limiting high-capacity magazines.

It is, for sure, a contradictory series of messages — unsurprising for an issue that asks such an intricate question: In a world of weaponry unimaginable to the people who came up with the Second Amendment, how do you strike the right balance between the individual's right to bear arms and the government's role in protecting the public?

With the latest eruption of the gun debate, we've returned to the enduring fight over libertarian principles that we've kept going for more than 200 years — the core tension between what's right for one of us and what's right for all of us.

Whatever happens with gun control in the aftermath of Newtown, the debate reveals what this generation faces as it tries to shape the nation it inherits: the enduring struggle to understand that delicate constitutional space that exists between my right to swing my arm around freely and your right not to be hit in the face.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press.