Editor’s Note: A guest post from Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana), a husband, father of four, and constitutional law attorney who serves on the Judiciary and Natural Resources Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the wake of the latest school shooting tragedy in Parkland, Florida, marches and media attention have made gun rights a hot topic on virtually every high school campus in America. Teenagers are being recruited to join liberal activists, Democrat legislators and even a former Supreme Court justice in openly advocating for a repeal of the Second Amendment. All of us should applaud young Americans becoming more politically involved and show them the respect of engaging in public conversation. At the same time, we need to clearly articulate what the consequences would be if the radical left took away our right to bear arms.
Since attempts are being made to silence opposing viewpoints, and many young people who have been raised to appreciate our fundamental freedoms are suddenly having difficulty defending their position, now may be a good time for every conscientious parent to review with their teenagers the specific reasons why the Second Amendment is so important. While many activists are intentionally creating confusion, parents can assure our kids that history, law and reason are on our side.
When teaching our four children about gun safety and gun rights, we have always found it useful to start at America’s beginning—with the carefully crafted language of our nation’s birth certificate. We remind them that the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence proclaims that we were entitled by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” to break from the tyranny of the British Crown. We then highlight the second paragraph, often referred to as our nation’s “creed,” which boldly affirms the self-evident truths that “all men are created equal” and our unalienable rights are granted by God, and not any government, state or king. To the contrary, the Declaration says governments are instituted for the purpose of securing those God-given rights.
These ideas about individual rights and limited government are critical for young people to understand because they are the basis of our political system. Though modern civics lessons typically ignore or even refute it, the natural law philosophy of the founders emphasized the inherent, natural rights of man—including, but not limited to, the unalienable rights to life and liberty, and the freedom to pursue happiness, own property and build wealth.
Students today need to understand the right to bear arms is not a right granted by our Constitution, but rather an inherent, natural right that is acknowledged and protected by our Constitution. As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explained in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), “[I]t has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment, like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the preexistence of the right and declares only that it ‘shall not be infringed.’”
In other words, the reason the government cannot take away a law-abiding citizen’s right to own and use a firearm is the same reason the government cannot, for example, take away the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech, or our protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. A legal right, like the right to a minimum wage, is a privilege granted by government that could also be modified or taken away. A natural right, on the other hand, is yours even in the absence of government. As the Supreme Court stated simply in an earlier Second Amendment case, U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876): “This is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.”
The right to have and use a firearm is a fundamental freedom which finds its basis in the natural right to personal defense—a principle component of any civilized society. Quoting the great English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, John Adams referred to self-defense as “the primary canon of the law of nature.” His contemporaries agreed. As the Heller Court noted, “[B]y the time of [America’s] founding [it was] understood to be an individual right protecting against both public and private violence.” While millions of Americans also cherish the traditions and activities of hunting and the shooting sports, the right to own a gun is, and always has been, first and foremost a bulwark against tyranny.
In his provocative opinion piece this week in The New York Times, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens contended that Heller was wrong, the Second Amendment is “a relic of the 18th century,” and a constitutional amendment to repeal it “would be simple” and the fastest route to “constructive gun control legislation.”
When your teenager is armed with the facts, he or she can easily point out the absurdity of those arguments: Heller is consistent with logic, our jurisprudence and the Western law tradition. The right secured by the Second Amendment transcends any century. And, thankfully, its repeal would be practically impossible for the radical activists to achieve. (Classmates can be reminded that any amendment to the Constitution must first be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of the state legislatures agreeing to a constitutional convention, and then ultimately ratified by three-fourths of the states.)
When a fellow student regurgitates the talking point that conservative judges and lawmakers respect “no restrictions at all on guns,” your student can simply quote the majority in Heller: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” The Court noted, for example, the longstanding legal restrictions on the commercial sale of arms, and the prohibitions on the possession of guns by felons, persons suffering with mental illness and those carrying in sensitive places.
Like virtually every other American, every single member of Congress earnestly desires an end to school shootings and other senseless tragedies, and most are debating in good faith the current ideas for additional gun regulations. That said, we must also understand the necessity of preserving our constitutional liberties and the right to self-defense. There is a balance, and it is incumbent upon us to find it. Thorough enforcement of existing gun laws is a part of the solution, as is education. (When I was in the Louisiana Legislature three years ago, we passed a law to allow public schools to teach age appropriate curricula concerning firearms safety and accident prevention.)
A constitutional republic presupposes an informed and engaged electorate, and its survival requires each succeeding generation to understand, appreciate and defend their freedom. In the current fog of liberal bias perpetuated by the mainstream media, big name entertainers and the purveyors of social media, it may never have been more important for parents and grandparents to guide their children to the truth. Spark the conversation, go back to the basics and take nothing for granted. Yours may be the only voice of reason they hear.