The Supreme Court celebrated Independence Day a few days early by unshackling the Second Amendment, declaring the freedom of Americans to defend our lives, liberty, and property by keeping guns at home. Anyone who, like me, was viscerally dismayed by the 5-4 Roberts bloc (therefore doubly suspect) ruling, written by Justice Scalia (therefore triply suspect), could take comfort in critiques that emotionally dismissed it as “wrongheaded and dangerous” or coolly dissected it as ahistorically reasoned.
But what worked for me was a stiff dose of libertarianism. It’s not necessary to agree with libertarians to appreciate the therapeutic value of their often contrarian perspective. So first I read the Tribune‘s Steve Chapman, one of my favorite pundits, who said the thing is, gun control hasn’t worked, and who explained why Thomas Jefferson is smiling tonight. Then I moved on to reason.com, where the more doctrinaire Radley Balko mourned a “hollow” victory. Balko complained that Scalia’s opinion was laced with “caveats, exceptions, and asides” and was so narrowly focused that “for practical purposes, the only people directly affected by the ruling are the 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C., and the handful of others living in protectorates of the federal government.”
Balko was a tonic. In his grumpy, disapproving way, he reminded me that a constitutional freedom is a freedom our courts and our legislatures are under no obligation to regard as absolute. If it’s wrong to shout fire in a crowded theater, it can remain wrong to sport a firearm there. No, despite the headline over the dismayed editorial in the New York Times, Scalia had not just told America to “lock and load.”
Like Chapman, but giddily, Balko bolstered his argument by invoking Jefferson. Wishing Scalia had taken the opportunity to plug the 2nd Amendment “as a bulwark against government tyranny,” Balko said the threat is real: “One needn’t be a modern-day mountain militiaman to observe that authoritarian regimes often become tyrannical after first disarming the citizenry. As Thomas Jefferson put it, ‘When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.'”
It should be half that simple. Sometimes when the government fears the people there is Zimbabwe.