Richard K. Scher: What the president can do about gun violence

Published: Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.

The recent shootings at a shopping mall near Portland, Ore., and especially the massacre of innocents at an elementary school in Connecticut, have forced the long dormant issue of gun control to the front of the nation's political agenda.

President Obama himself, speaking for the nation at a memorial service for the victims at the school, said, “There was no excuse for inaction,” and regardless of politics vowed to take steps to eliminate gun violence.

Since these horrific incidents there have been repeated calls for the president, among others, to “do something” to stop further tragedies.

But do what?

How to stop the deadly spiral of gun violence, by which 100,000 people are shot annually, with 32,000 fatalities (as reported by the Brady Center Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence)?

First, before addressing what is to be done, a word about the Second Amendment, the shield behind which the gun lobby, the NRA and gun lovers hide. Their position is and always has been bogus.

The intent of the Second Amendment was to allow Americans to keep and bear arms for defensive, not offensive, purposes. It was never the authors' intent to allow the use of weapons to create mayhem and carnage when irate or deranged gun owners went on a shooting rampage.

Furthermore, rifles and pistols at the time were, by and large, muzzle loading weapons. The Founders could never have anticipated that the amendment would be used to allow private citizens ready access to and possession of today's high-powered, automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles and handguns.

And while the worshippers of the Second Amendment argue that their right to weapons is absolute, there are no absolute rights. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made that point unequivocally with his famous comment that freedom of speech does not include the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Not so frequently recognized is Holmes' additional comment that abridgement of rights can be imposed if their exercise constitutes a “clear and present danger” to the public.

Can anyone seriously argue anymore that the plague of gun violence in this country is not a “clear and present danger” to the public?

Try telling otherwise to the parents of the children slain in Connecticut.

The president has among his many duties the responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. It is therefore well within his powers to act to ban the sale of deadly offensive weapons, and regulate the use of those already possessing them:

1. As commander in chief the president can order that the availability of dangerous offensive weapons be limited to the military and, by extension, law enforcement agencies. Possession and use of them by private citizens can be specifically forbidden, with substantial penalties imposed on those violating his order.

2. The president is responsible for Homeland Security. Indeed, the eponymous department, of which he is the head, clearly says in its mission statement, “We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation.” Can anyone doubt that random shooting of innocent men, women and children constitutes a threat and hazard to the nation? Indeed, is not the slaughter of innocents in a theater, shopping mall or schoolroom a terrorist act?

3. The President and Congress can and should impose high taxes on the sale and use of firearms. These taxes should be so draconian and confiscatory that they will discourage, and if high enough actually prevent, the purchase of offensive weapons.

We regulate and tax the use of another deadly offensive weapon: the automobile, which kills on average 100 people a day, more than 40,000 a year. Why not do the same for offensive assault rifles and handguns?

None of these courses of action pushes the envelope of constitutionality. None of them undermines the Second Amendment. But taken together, they can help stop the carnage which unlimited access to offensive firearms has created.

The president must act.

Richard K. Scher is a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

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