July 23, 2009

Where is the Logic? State's Rights and Gun Control

After the American Century

The Republican Party has long championed "State's Rights," once a code word for racial segregation, but more recently an all encompassing term to indicate opposition to federal meddling in state affairs. But for all but two Republicans in the United States Senate, States' Rights is clearly less important than giving individuals the freedom to carry concealed weapons. The Senate has just narrowly defeated an attachment to a military spending bill that would have permitted anyone with a valid license from one state to carry a concealed weapon (usually a handgun) in all other states as well.

Republicans claimed that this was only fair, resembling the fact that a driver's license from one state is recognized and valid in all others. However, no one is driving a car concealed under his armpit. States do not issue hunting or fishing licenses that are recognized in all other states. Indeed, even lawyers must pass the bar exam in any state they want to practice in. The right to practice law in Massachusetts does not confer the right to do so in Connecticut or California or anywhere else.

If passed, this law would be profoundly undemocratic. Two thirds of the States, 35 of them, have passed laws that prohibit gun ownership (concealed or not) to certain individuals - notably those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors. Furthermore, many states insist that gun owners must have training courses. The narrowly defeated provision would have permitted someone who had been in prison for armed robbery or murder to go to a state with lax gun laws, acquire weapons, and carry them legally anywhere in the United States. Even more frightening, it would have allowed Dick Cheney to carry a concealed weapon in Massachusetts, where all such weapons are outlawed.

This bizarre legislation was supported by almost all Senate Republicans and by most rural Republicans. However, it was vigorously opposed by the Mayor of New York, who is Republican, but for some reason does not like the idea of allowing concealed weapons in his city. And fortunately Richard Lugar, Republican Senator from Indiana, did not support this bill either.

Lugar's opposition was needed. For Republican support would not have mattered if the Democrats were opposed. But their leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, was all for more concealed weapons, and several of the sponsors were Democrats as well. Indeed, all together there were 58 Senators eager to have more concealed weapons on America's streets. Only 42 voted against, but that was enough to defeat a rider to the bill. For this was not an amendment or a refinement of the bill being voted on, and it had not been vetted by a committee that heard from expert witnesses. In such cases, Senate rules require 60 votes in favor. It was a close call.

In case anyone believes the rhetoric about Democrats being the liberal party of big government, keep this near fiasco in mind. And anyone who thinks the Republicans do not want the Federal Government to meddle in the states, think again. It depends on the issues. Republicans would be happy to have Washington legislate definitively against abortion, gay marriage, or gun control. There is seldom a logical political philosophy guiding the Republicans, or, for that matter, many Democrats.

Even more troubling, majority bi-partisan support that would effectively eliminate gun control suggests that the Senate is not thickly populated with intelligent individuals with high ideals. Can we count on such people to create a new and better health care system?