Monthly Archives: July 1995

Essential Reading for the Gun Control Debate

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I recently ran across a book that should interest anyone who is serious about debating either side of the gun control issue. That Every Man be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right, by Stephen P. Halbrook, argues for the idea that the Second Amendment guarantees a personal right to keep and bear arms. The alternative, of course, is that the Amendment merely guarantees to the states a right to maintain organized militias (like the National Guard). The author effectively demolishes this argument.

The title comes from a statement of Patrick Henry: “The great object is, that every man be armed….Everyone who is able may have a gun…”

Since Halbrook is a lawyer, his book is not light reading. It details the philosophical and legal background of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, and follows the development of court decisions after the adoption of these amendments. With 65 pages of notes to back up 200 pages of text, there is plenty of documentation for every claim made in the book. But don’t let this scare you off: the author has a readable style that makes his writing understandable to non-lawyers.

For philosophical background (Chapter 1), the author goes as far back as Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. Plato is presented as the bad guy, who advocates the dictatorship of a “philosopher king” and restriction of arms bearing to a military caste. Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks of arms bearing as an essential qualification for citizenship. A similar analysis is made of the thinking of philosophers in ancient Rome and medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. In a second chapter, Halbrook covers in detail the development of the English common law tradition of armed freemen (yeomen).

The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Chapter 3 of Halbrook’s book covers in depth the thinking of the Founding Fathers at the time of the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, including this amendment.

Regarding the reference to a militia, the following from the Virginia Declaration of Rights (by George Mason) is typical of their thinking: “that a well regulated Militia, composed of the body of the People, trained to Arms, is the proper, natural, and safe Defense of a free State…” That the right was thought of as personal rather than collective is made even more clear by the position of the New Hampshire convention for ratifying the Constitution: “Congress shall never disarm any citizen, unless such as are or have been in actual rebellion.”

In Chapter 4, Halbrook discusses the interpretation of the Second Amendment in the period between its adoption and the Civil War. He shows that standard legal texts and most court decisions regarded the right to keep and bear arms as an individual right. The exceptions among the court decisions were to be found in the southern states, where slaves and even free “persons of color” were deprived of this right.

Following the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed to extend the prohibitions in the Bill of Rights to the states as well as the federal government. The thesis of Chapter 5 is that this was done partly in response to some of the first gun control laws in our nation. For example, an 1866 Alabama law required “that it shall not be lawful for any freedman, mulatto, or free person of color in this State, to own firearms, or carry about his person a pistol or other deadly weapon.”

Finally, in Chapters 6 and 7, Halbrook examines the various federal and state court decisions bearing on the Second Amendment. Decisions of the state and lower federal courts vary widely, and no conclusions could be drawn from them except in certain individual states. The US Supreme Court apparently has never ruled clearly on whether the Fourteenth Amendment extends the prohibitions of the Second Amendment to the state governments. On the other hand, all relevant Supreme Court decisions seem to recognize that the individual right to keep and bear arms is fundamental, and existed prior to the adoption of the Constitution. If and when the Supreme Court finally does rule definitively, we can only hope that they will ignore neither the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution and Fourteenth Amendment, nor the precedents of their own court.

It’s the Debt, Stupid!

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What political topic generates the most heat and the least light? My vote goes to the subject of federal deficit spending. There must be more speaker-hours spent on this topic than any two others. Yet, any benefit in terms of public understanding of the issue would be hard to detect. In fact, the more the politicians talk about it, the more confused the rest of us become.

When we get into a discussion of federal deficit spending, we pass into a realm where spending can be on or off of the budget; where a spending increase can be spoken of as a spending decrease; where up is down and in is out. It would take a hundred columns to sort out the double-talk that is used to keep us confused about the state of our nation’s finances. If we are to have any hope of staying focused on the key issues in this arena, there are a few basics that we need to remember.

For all the talk about the federal deficit, there is very little on the federal debt. What is the difference, and why is it important? The debt is the total amount of money that the federal government owes to lenders. The deficit is the amount added to the debt during a given year. A balanced budget is one in which there is no deficit. It is possible to have a balanced budget and still face a crushing debt.

How would my wife react if I ran up a huge charge-card debt, then bragged to her that I had a plan to stop charging more by the year 2002? Being a loving and reasonable wife, she would assume that I wasn’t really trying to bankrupt the family; that my brain was just a little addled. She would sit down with me and explain a few facts of life. How our debt was costing us a big chunk of interest every month. How we needed to start paying back the debt to get those interest charges under control, not just slow the rate of adding to the debt. Then she would ask me nicely to turn over my charge cards.

Most politicians focus exclusively on the deficit. They want us to assume that a balanced budget is the ultimate, pie-in-the-sky goal that will be our national salvation if we can approach it someday. We need to remember that balancing the budget is only the first necessary step in reducing the debt. If we achieved a balanced budget in 1995, we would still have an admitted debt of about five trillion dollars (much larger when money “borrowed” from Social Security is taken into account). The interest on that debt would continue to be one of the largest items in the federal budget.

In our family accounting, we know we’re in trouble when the interest on unsecured debt (like charge cards) becomes a significant expense. We get busy and do something to pay those debts down. Just so, we know that our nation is in trouble when the interest on the national debt becomes a major budget item. Do we get busy and cut spending enough to generate the surpluses needed to pay down the debt?

No, we argue about how far into the next millennium it will be before we stop adding to the debt! We continue to clamor for federal money for our local projects, and ask the federal government to take over functions (like law enforcement and education) that are reserved for the states. We continue to borrow money so we can turn around and give it to Russia, which uses it to attack Chechnya and rebuild the renamed KGB’s foreign (i.e. U.S.) intelligence gathering capability.

We citizens need to get serious about reducing the national debt. Yes, we must attack the deficit; but if we wait until 2005 or even 2002, we will have added close to another trillion dollars to the debt before we even balance the budget. We need to hold our legislators responsible for their oath to support the Constitution; to enact only those laws which are authorized by the powers enumerated in the Constitution. If we do this, we have a chance to achieve the several hundred billion dollar annual surpluses that we’ll need for many years to come, in order to pay off the debt. If we do not, the point where the interest on the debt will consume all of the government’s income is not that many years away.

Let’s tattoo it on the forehead of every federal official: “It’s the debt, stupid!” Take away their charge cards, and put them to work finding the budget surpluses that we desperately need. If we don’t, we will look back at the 1990’s as a golden age of ease and low taxes. If we do, we may be able to look back and shake our heads at the close call we had with national bankruptcy.

Why are we Still in NATO?

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In the years following World War II, Americans were rightly concerned about the rapidly expanding Communist empire. Thus it was that, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created by a treaty among the US, England, France, and other North Atlantic states, there was little opposition to the Senate ratification of the treaty in 1949. For better or worse, the US was committed to defending any NATO nation that was attacked.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, attack from that quarter is now considered unlikely. In fact, we are rapidly moving toward pulling Russia and its former satellites into NATO. If the threat that was used to justify our membership is gone, common sense tells us that it is time to reconsider that membership. Let’s look at the pros and cons of continuing our connection with NATO.

Two arguments are typically given in favor of remaining in NATO. It gives us an opportunity to help keep the peace in Europe, and it serves as a foundation for further economic and political “interdependence”. Isn’t it convenient that these two arguments are also the main reasons to oppose our NATO membership?

We have military forces to protect the lives, liberty, and property of American citizens. Using them to keep the peace in Europe or elsewhere is not one of the powers the people granted to the federal government in the Constitution. Getting involved in the endless squabbles of other nations is not a good use of our tax dollars or the blood of our sons. An opportunity to help police Europe? No, thanks.

The current mess in Bosnia ought to serve as a wake-up call for those of us who are complacent about membership in NATO. The regional hatreds on display there are hundreds of years old. NATO and the UN are already using our jet fighters to meddle in this perpetual conflict. At this writing, we have already sacrificed one plane, and perhaps its pilot as well. Only President Clinton’s fear of voter reaction stands in the way of full commitment of our troops and the potential loss of thousands of American lives. A US withdrawal from NATO would bring our involvement to a screeching halt.

Do we need NATO as a foundation for further economic and political interdependence between the US and Europe? We can continue to carry on trade and diplomacy with any nation on earth without NATO or the interdependence pursued so fervently by globalists. Beyond trade and diplomacy, further interdependence is unhealthy for our liberty and our nation’s sovereignty.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a great deal of talk about a “peace dividend.” With the demise of that major threat to our liberty, we all hoped to see a significant drop in military spending. Liberals looked forward to an era of vastly expanded socialism, with a federal health care program and the like. Conservatives anticipated tax cuts and a balanced budget. Whatever happened to all of that money? Why has the peace dividend not materialized?

We haven’t seen a significant peace dividend because we are still positioned to be the world’s policeman. US troops are still in Europe, Korea, and many other places all over the world. Until we bring those troops home, we can’t expect the kind of military spending cuts that we need. Instead, we may continue to have the kind of debilitating cuts in domestic military spending that have caused the well known loss of readiness in various military units.

Let’s concentrate our defense budget on what we need to carry out the military’s legitimate mission: protecting the lives, liberty, and property of Americans. Bring our troops home from around the world, mind our own business, and remove ourselves from NATO and all other entangling alliances.