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Never-Ending News & the Essential Elements of Democracy

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News reports continuously remind us of the varied nature of risks and harms from gun violence, as well as debates about beneficial courses of actions. Recent weeks have been no different in providing these reminders.

  • Twelve-year-old in Oak Park, Michigan, accidently killed when teens mishandle unsecured firearm found in the home.
  • An op-ed published in the Washington Post entitled: “I’m a Veteran Who Was Suicidal. It’s a Good Thing I Didn’t Have Access to a Gun.”
  • Two Missouri men with prior criminal records traveling to protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, “charged with federal crimes in the Eastern District of Wisconsin after authorities say they found an AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, two handguns, a silencer, ammo, body armor and a drone in the Hartville men’s vehicle and hotel room” (Springfield [MO] News Leader, Sept. 4, 2020)
  • Three Oregon residents charged with “disorderly conduct” after reports surfaced of armed civilians setting up roadblocks to stop drivers at gunpoint in fire-ravaged areas of that state.
  • The Richmond, Virginia, city council enacted an ordinance to prohibit civilians from carrying firearms at public events, including political protests. The ban was, in part, a reaction to the 17-year-old who killed two people when he brought a rifle to a protest demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was also in response to the thousands of people who brought weapons to Virginia’s capitol to protest the enactment of new gun regulations in January 2020.

This is merely a brief sample of recent reports. Obviously, there are other reports, including increases in drive-by shootings in various cities, as well as news of shootings related to domestic violence. On the verge of a very contentious election, it is easy for us to ignore a steady drumbeat of reports on gun-related problems. After all, many of these reports are so repetitive and familiar that they may be filtered away from our attention by the latest dramatic developments in electoral politics.  Alternatively, we may simply be numb to the existence of continuing problems for which little effort is made to discuss solutions, let alone take action.  At the risk of stating the obvious, we face challenges in our efforts to remain attentive to the complete array of problems facing American society at a moment when each day seems to focus the spotlight of public attention on a specific emerging controversy.

If we focus our attention for a moment on the foregoing list of examples, very important questions emerge that are worthy of consideration: 

  1. Aren’t child safety and suicide prevention two of the issues of concern to all Americans across the political spectrum?  If so, why can’t we start with these issues in a joint exploration that spans the current political divide?  These issues affect families across the political spectrum.  Thus, they ought to be susceptible to discussion without triggering polarized viewpoints about the Second Amendment that derail consideration of other gun-related issues.
  2. What impact does the presence of firearms in civilian hands have on the essential components of American democracy?  Roadblocks imposed by armed civilians embody a rejection of “the rule of law,” a key component of democratic governing systems.  Bringing firearms to confront one’s political opponents at a public demonstration increases safety risks.  It also appears to employ threatening devices to stifle democracy’s essential elements of free expression and public debate.  And in Michigan, of course, this reminds us of the unanswered question about the purported benefits of permitting civilian-held weapons of war in the visitors’ galleries of the state legislature during legislative sessions.

The action by Richmond’s city council appears aimed at enhancing democracy. Depending on the composition of the judiciary, the ordinance may be struck down in the future if judges issue new decisions that expand the meaning of the Second Amendment. For now, however, the ordinance is well within the boundaries of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legal definitions of gun owners’ rights. Reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions have long been accepted as applicable to the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, despite the absolutist language of that Amendment (“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….). Thus, cities can require permits for public demonstrations and impose curfews at times of public disorder. Richmond’s ordinance reminds us that in order to discuss issues of concern to us all, such as child safety and suicide prevention, we may need limited restrictions on the usages of firearms that impede essential elements of democracy, such as rule of law and open public debate.

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Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President