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Menachem Rosensaft Headshot

Memo to Gun Rights Advocates: Take Note of What Reagan and Scalia Had to Say

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On December 14, 2012, immediately after 20 children and six of their teachers were gunned down in Newtown, Conn., President Obama said that, "we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics." To their discredit, however, a vast array of his political adversaries have joined the gun manufacturers' lobbyists in trying desperately to block his altogether reasonable and mainstream proposals to at least begin to counteract gun violence in this country.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans that they all "read the same Bible and pray to the same God. . . . Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

One hundred and forty eight years later, our nation is confronted with the scourge of gun violence -- from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson to Aurora to Newtown -- but the regressive opponents of any type of gun control refuse to concede even the possibility that their absolutist ideological rigidity has contributed to any degree to the ever-mounting death toll. Simply put, they refuse to acknowledge that we not only all pray to the same God, but that we all in good faith read and interpret the same Constitution.

Never mind that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a host of other big city mayors are calling for far reaching legislation to get as many guns as possible off their streets. Never mind that 87 percent of Americans favor background checks at gun shows; that 75 percent support checks on sales by non-licensed dealers; that a solid 69 percent want gun owners to register their firearms with local governments; and that 56 percent support bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. For National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, his fellow NRA leaders and their uncompromising acolytes, the Second Amendment seems to have replaced the Bible and the Constitution as immutable gospel, a disturbing form of idol worship as it were. Any weakening of or deviation from what they consider the sanctity of the Second Amendment is anathema and heresy.

"When absolutes are abandoned for principles," LaPierre declared inanely, "the U.S. Constitution becomes a blank slate for anyone's graffiti."

Justice Antonin Scalia, hardly a liberal jurist by the stretch of anyone's imagination, made clear in his majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller that "the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited." While the Supreme Court in Heller held that the District of Columbia's "ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense," Justice Scalia emphasized that,

nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

Many in the extreme gun rights crowd, however, apparently consider their unfettered ability to purchase high clip semi-automatic weapons at gun shows without having to register them with anyone anywhere more important than the sanctity of life. They will go to the barricades to defend the ability of John Q. Public to purchase an AR-15 -- the type of semi-automatic used to murder the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School -- anywhere, at any time, without any limitations or restrictions whatsoever.

There is no question that President Obama's proposals to curb the national gun violence epidemic have broad support. "No lobbying group like the NRA ought to have that kind of lobbying power that makes them more important than national public safety," said Pastor John Borders of Boston's Morningstar Baptist Church. "I don't know how many witnesses I would need to provide to the NRA to plead with them to put peace before politics," he told the Boston Globe. "But I have at least 50 -- the 50 that I've buried from gun violence."

For Pastor Borders, the life of a child, the life of any human being, is more sacred than the right to buy and own an AR-15. For Wayne LaPierre and his supporters, the opposite is true. Therein lies a fundamental and irreconcilable difference of tragic dimensions.

I confess that I have a very personal bias against guns. In August of 1941, SS men rounded up the Jewish leaders and intellectuals of the Belarus town of Ivye and machine gunned them to death before burying them anonymously in a mass grave. Among them was my wife Jeanie's grandfather. The following month, on September 29-30, 1941, more than 30,000 Jews were similarly murdered in a ravine called Babi Yar in the Ukrainian city of Kiev. Machine guns preceded Zyklon B gas as the Germans' preferred means of committing mass genocide.

I do not want to give the paranoid or fanatic among us license to run rampant with semi-automatic weapons. I do not want to make it easy for mentally unstable individuals who spend their days and nights playing the most violent, often misogynistic video games to translate their neurotic impulses into deadly action. And I want our government to do everything in its power to keep instruments of carnage out of the hands of those who wish to harm our children.

In the immediate aftermath of the Newtown massacre, numerous religious and civic groups reacted by galvanizing grass root support for meaningful gun control legislation. "The point now is to create the atmosphere in which there is a demand for action, using our voices, organizing the parents in our pews," explained Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "When the parents across America start crying out for effective action, if there's religious leadership, it will galvanize the community to create the moral demand that moves toward sensible legislation."

The Vatican appears to be in agreement. "The initiatives announced by the American administration for limiting and controlling the spread and use of weapons are certainly a step in the right direction," declared Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See press office.

Unfortunately, the knee jerk opponents of anything and everything that President Obama supports or proposes have predictably rejected his utterly reasonable gun control proposals out of hand. While a majority of Americans back his initiatives to limit gun violence, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani dismissed the president's proposals as "false, misleading, and to some extent, unconstitutional." And Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising star in the Republican Party's right flank, said that, "Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook. President Obama is targeting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence."

Contrary to the mantra expressed by Giuliani, Rubio and far too many Republicans, the sensible regulation of gun ownership does not undermine the Second Amendment. In the existing political climate, it may well not be possible to enact the type of assault weapons ban put forward by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, but that does not mean that doing nothing at all -- the NRA/Wayne LaPierre option as it were -- should be tolerated as the default position. For example, as Vice President Biden explained in Richmond, Va., on Friday, having universal background checks "in no way impacts upon someone's ability, under the Constitution, to own a gun."

President Obama himself recognizes the need for a rational middle ground and urges "advocates of gun control . . . to do a little more listening than they do sometimes." Fair enough. But those on the gun rights side of the debate would be well advised "to do a little more listening" as well, and they might start by listening to none other than Ronald Reagan.

In a 1991 New York Times op-ed article, President Reagan endorsed the Brady Bill which:

would establish a national seven-day waiting period before a handgun purchaser could take delivery. It would allow local law enforcement officials to do background checks for criminal records or known histories of mental disturbances. Those with such records would be prohibited from buying the handguns. . . . The Brady bill would require the handgun dealer to provide a copy of the prospective purchaser's sworn statement to local law enforcement authorities so that background checks could be made. . . . And, since many handguns are acquired in the heat of passion (to settle a quarrel, for example) or at times of depression brought on by potential suicide, the Brady bill would provide a cooling-off period that would certainly have the effect of reducing the number of handgun deaths. . . . Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns, according to Department of Justice statistics. This does not include suicides or the tens of thousands of robberies, rapes and assaults committed with handguns. This level of violence must be stopped. . . . If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.

Another of our presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, spoke about the four fundamental freedoms to which all of humankind is entitled -- freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The last of these freedoms, the freedom from fear, must performance include the fear of gun violence that has become an unhealthy scourge for us all.

Unlikely and utopian as this may be, it would be a watershed step toward even a modicum of bipartisanship for the sake of the public good if those politicians and pundits who claim to revere the "Reagan legacy" would stop their automatic-pilot domestic jingoism long enough to understand that if adoption of President Obama's gun reform proposals "were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent" of Americans now being killed by semi-automatic and assault weapons "(and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making [them] the law of the land."

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.