Lawyers, Guns and Money

Posted Nov. 20, 2009, at 5:37 p.m.

The BDN’s recent series of stories on guns in Maine revealed, among other things, the chasm that lies between those who want to regulate gun ownership and use and those who believe gun ownership is as sacrosanct as the secret ballot and free speech. It’s unlikely the gap will be bridged in the near future, but both camps would do well to work at understanding that their extreme positions may undermine their goals.

For the first 100 years of the nation’s history, the Constitution’s Second Amendment was generally understood as supporting the rights of states to keep militias. In 2008, a United States Supreme Court ruling said — for the first time — that the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to individual gun ownership. Although that precedent-setting ruling changed the gun control landscape, the right to own a gun is not absolute, just as the right to vote requires proof of residency and free speech does not allow libel or slander.

There are probably more guns in Maine than people. Those working to keep gun regulations at bay cite Maine’s rural traditions, where guns have been part of recreational hunting for generations. But when hunting fatalities were in the double-digits in the 1950s, lawmakers responded with regulations. Blaze orange was mandated and hunters were required to complete gun safety courses to secure a hunting license. That hunting tradition should be acknowledged and respected, but it must also be recognized that such rules have made it safer. Regulations will and must continue to evolve.

Those who enjoy collecting guns or who enjoy shooting high-powered, multi-round, automatic weapons at targets also are part of a tradition, albeit one with a briefer history. Regulations will necessarily infringe on ownership of these guns as well when certain kinds of weapons are abused or used in crimes. Closing the gun-show loophole, which allows the sale of weapons without a background check, is a reasonable response to the rate at which these weapons are used in crimes, often in other states.

On the other side, the impulse to treat guns like enriched plutonium is equally extreme. Many guns can be understood as tools. Just because hammers, chain saws and box cutters are sometimes used violently does not mean they are inherently evil. The important difference between a neighbor walking to his pickup truck with a deer rifle cradled in his arm at dusk and the blurry surveillance camera image of a man aiming a handgun at a convenience store clerk should be understood by gun control advocates.

Those who remain entrenched in the extremes of the gun debate — those who hope for a gun-free world, and those who subscribe to the “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands” philosophy — run a risk. They risk definitive court rulings that favor one side or the other.

Such rulings are often ill-suited to the real world where hunting and restrictions coexist. For that reason negotiating a middle ground is a better route.

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