As most of you are aware, last Friday a young man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara–killing six innocent victims and then killing himself. This was the act of a deranged, hateful person, motivated by misogyny, racism and general misanthropy, and it resulted in a terrible loss of life.
People have different ways of grieving and dealing with terrible events like the UCSB shooting. Some have chosen to examine the killer’s motivations and discuss them in order to gain a better understanding. Some, like the father of one of the victims, Richard Martinez, chose to call for legislation and action to prevent more senseless acts of gun violence in the future.
And some, like former Presidential campaign prop turned political commentator Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, chose to write an open letter in response to Martinez’s heartbreaking plea to say “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” Or no, actually, it was just him.
I deliberately chose not to link to Wurzelbacher’s letter itself, mostly because I don’t want to give it more clicks than it already received. Having read it myself, it’s honestly hard to tell if Wurzelbacher believes what he says, or if this is just him trolling in an attempt to exploit the deaths of several innocent young people to prolong his long-since-lapsed 15 minutes of fame.
He barely touches on his pro-Second Amendment argument before going off on a tangent about whether the shooter voted for Obama and complaining about media bias against “conservative Tea Party Republican Christians,” and implying that Martinez cares more about his political agenda than he does his dead son. Suffice to say, it’s one of the more ignorant, illogical and hateful things I’ve read on the Internet.
But for the purposes of this post, I’ll both assume Wurzelbacher is serious and focus on his briefly addressed and completely unsupported thesis, that the well-being of other humans is not paramount to his right, as guaranteed under the Constitution (or at least his interpretation of the Constitution), to own a firearm.
I wouldn’t even give “Joe the Plumber” the time of day if it weren’t for the fact that this argument keeps coming up over and over. Every time one of these shooting sprees happens (and they are frequent these days), a certain segment of the pro-Second Amendment crowd decries any discussion of gun control or restrictions of gun ownership on the grounds that the Second Amendment grants them the absolute right to own guns, in any quantity, quality or type they desire.
The problem with this argument is that there is no such thing as an absolute right. Every right recognized by the government of the United States of America, and by the United Nations, is qualified and modified by law.
Even though the First Amendment grants me the right to freedom of speech without “abridgment” by Congressional law, that doesn’t protect me from being criminally liable for damages, injuries and loss of life resulting from me yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t permit me to threaten people with violence, or print falsehoods about other people, or to practice a religion that involves human sacrifice. My rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of religion do not take precedence over the well-being of others who have done me no wrong.
What Wurzelbacher is arguing, and what everybody who repeats this claim is arguing, is that, though the very Amendment that guarantees their ability to say these ignorant, hateful things and rub salt in the wounds of grieving parents is subject to restrictions and limitations, the Amendment that protects their right to own a firearm is not.
That is horseshit.
A person’s rights, under law, end when they infringe on the rights of others. Even the right to life, recognized by both the United States government and the United Nations as a basic human right, is not guaranteed in the event that a person chooses to use their life to bring harm to another. This is the very cornerstone of law. It is the mortar that holds society together. If we were to adopt this attitude of doing what we want without any thought of the harm to others under every circumstance, the end result would be anarchy.
So what, exactly, makes the Second Amendment so special that the very precepts of law and human society, observed by every culture since the dawn of man, don’t apply to it?
The simple answer is, it’s not. Like every other right, the right to bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment is and should be subject to restriction and regulation. But Wurzelbacher and people like him don’t view the right to bear arms as a right. They view it as an entitlement, something they are guaranteed regardless of its impact on others, not unlike how Elliot Rodger shot innocent people to “get revenge” on the world for denying him what he believed to be his entitlement to an attractive woman to be his sexual partner.
Please understand, I realize that “Joe” and others like him aren’t speaking for every gun-owning American citizen. I understand that the vast majority of gun owners, and even the vast majority of NRA members, support gun control legislation. I imagine gun owners and non-gun owners have different ideas about what the details of that legislation should be, but that’s precisely why we need to have this conversation, and it’s a conversation that loudmouths like “Joe the Plumber” and lobbyist groups like the NRA aren’t allowing to happen.
The deaths of six innocent young people on Friday, May 23rd, 2014 were a terrible loss of life, and a horrible crime committed by a hateful, disturbed individual. The fact that we’re allowing people like Wurzelbacher and self-interested industry lobbying groups like the NRA to drown out the voices of the victims is a tragedy.