Terrorism and the second amendment

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 18, 2011


After the attacks of September 1, the United States government correctly announced to Americans that the world had changed. The Bush administration argued that the war against terrorism required people to accept some limited restrictions of their freedom and a few inconveniences in order to make the entire country safer and protect us all against a terrorist attack. Surprisingly, those restrictions and changes did not include any update to the rules and regulations on the right to bear arms. The recent shooting rampage in Arizona that killed 6 people has again called into question the lax regulations on the right to bear arms that exist in the United States.


Most Americans abroad have experienced the difficult task of explaining to inquiring minds why such a developed and sophisticated country as the United States can have such permissive rules and regulations on guns and firearms in general. Normally, Americans simply resort to explaining that the second amendment guarantees the “right to bear arms.”


However, that explanation states the what, not the why.  Constitutional amendments can, and have, been repealed. The Eighteen Amendment, that established the prohibition of intoxicating liquors came into effect in 1920 but was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. In addition, some constitutional principles have been abandoned over time. The infamous three-fifths provision—which stated that slaves would count as three-fifths of a free person to assign seats in the House of Representatives to different states based on their population—was eventually abolished with the adoption of the Thirteen Amendment, which abolished slavery.


The reason why Americans have such lenient regulations on firearms is not constitutional. There is not sufficient support among the American electorate today to repeal the Second Amendment.  The importance of the Second Amendment simply reflects the preference of Americans to make guns easily available.


The Supreme Court has the power to redefine constitutional rights and obligations and regularly does so. Yet, the Court, currently dominated by conservatives, has been historically reluctant to restrict the right to bear arms. Since September 11, the Supreme Court has agreed to limit other rights and to grant the government with powers that restrict individual liberties to provide better national security. No such provisions have been granted by the Court when it comes to restricting the second amendment in pursue of national security. Partly, this is also because the government—both the Bush administration and the Obama White House—have not adopted policies that would be seen as contradicting the second amendment.   It would thus seem that the September 11 attacks changed the world, but not the second amendment. 


That is nonsense. A terrorist who wants to damage our liberty and spread fear needs weapons to carry out his or her (mostly his) attacks. Such an easy access to guns—some of which can be easily transformed into weapons of mass destruction—would make it easy for suicide terrorists to carry out their attacks against civilians in the United States. Fortunately, that has not happened. But the U.S. is playing with fire in keeping the Second Amendment with so few restrictions at a time when domestic terrorism is such a big threat against national security.


Americans have attributed some divine qualities to the Founding Fathers. Seen as visionaries who were able to anticipate the challenges the country would face in the future, the Founding Fathers ware thought of being incontrovertible. Suggesting that the Second Amendment is a mistake—or at least subject to debate—is an unacceptable for common sense American values as questioning the existence of God is for a believer. It is not a matter of logic or convenience. It is a dogma. This is not the case, however, with other constitutional principles. Many of the same people that defend the Second Amendment are in favor of repealing the Fourteen Amendment—which grants citizenship to all those born in the United States. Apparently for some, the same irrefutability of the Constitution is not equally applicable to all amendments. 


Though some liberals have tried to use it to make political gains, it does not seem that the Arizona attack was a terrorist attack.  The gunman was not intending to make a political statement or to spread fear. But the unintended consequences of the Arizona attack might end up having political effects. Attendance to political rallies will probably decrease. There might be more fear to actively participate in politics among liberals, the group more inclined to support restrictions on the right to bear arms.


In the end, the Arizona attack will most likely have little effects on Americans’ strong preference for keeping the Second Amendment intact. News coverage on the loss of lives will soon be replaced by loss of lives elsewhere in the country. The debates on the convenience of restricting access to guns to people who are not mentally fit will also subdue soon. Many things in the world did change after September 11, but the sanctity of the Second Amendment for Americans was not among them.