The following column appeared in the Johnson City Record Courier on April 12, 2018
Let’s consider the First Amendment to the Constitution, which encompasses many of the most important tenets of our democratic republic: freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Despite their importance, there are limits on these freedoms.
Limits on freedom of speech include prohibitions against libel and speech that incites violence. Pornography is protected speech but child pornography is not. Why? Because the courts ruled that children are a special class of citizen needing protection from sexual exploitation.
Similarly, there are existing limits on the Second Amendment. Prohibitions include registration of fully automatic weapons. Convicted felons cannot own guns. Federal law requires a background check for gun sales from licensed dealers.
In 2008, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “The Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit challenging a state ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, saying they are not protected by the Second Amendment.
You might be surprised to learn that I voted for Ronald Reagan, who appointed Scalia. I recall the assassination attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981. Reagan, his press secretary, a secret service agent, and a police officer were shot.
In the 1980s, particularly after this assassination attempt, there were calls for regulation of handguns. President Reagan opposed such regulation and even called for the abolition of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which enforces federal gun laws.
But after leaving the presidency, Reagan changed his mind. Perhaps he was inspired by the work of his former press secretary, James Brady, who was shot in the head leaving him partially paralyzed. Brady advocated for stronger regulation of handguns, leading to the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. This federal law mandates background checks on gun buyers and imposes a five-day waiting period on purchases.
Reagan endorsed passage of this law. And in 1994, Reagan led an effort to regulate sales of assault weapons. He did so because he became concerned about the move by gun manufacturers to sell what he called “weapons of war” to the general public. He wrote, “We can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.” Since the 10-year ban on sales of assault weapons expired in 2004, mass shootings involving assault weapons have increased every year.
Vigorous debate on this issue is long overdue. It’s time for us to find common ground. I am inspired by the young people who have participated in marches and school walkouts because they are advocating for themselves and their safety from gun violence. Let’s support them. Join me in calling Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Rep. Lamar Smith to demand that they support closing the gun show loophole and banning the sale of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. Now is the time to act.