I’m having a debate with my sixteen year old grandson about gun rights. He’s pro, I’m con. He’s smart and articulate, and he has spent a lot of time reading about the issue. He has his facts about the correlation between gun ownership rates and the incidence of gun violence, and I have mine. We are at something of a stalemate.
On this, as with so many policy issues, though, the debate isn’t really so much about facts, which can be tortured into many shapes—“Lies, damn lies and statistics”—as it is about what we value as a society. Guns kill people. No dispute there. The question is whether having them around is worth that undeniable cost. Gun owners have an interest in being able to own guns, and we all have an interest in not being shot.
Balancing competing interests is the primary tool on the workbench of a constitutional law scholar. The more fundamental the individual interest (or "right," as we commonly refer to it), the more compelling must be the state's interest to justify abridging the individual interest. The state has to have a damned good reason to censor the press, for instance, because we value freedom of speech so highly.
The abortion debate comes down to the same thing. Science cannot deny that a life, or at least a highly likely potential life, is being aborted any time after conception and implantation. The question is, do the interests of the parents and society in not having an unwanted child outweigh the interest of the embryo. One can reasonably take either side of that argument. It's a question of what you value.
With guns, too, this is the proper analytical approach. How important is the individual interest in owning a gun compared to the rest of society's interest in avoiding gun violence? Like abortion, like free speech, this is a value judgement. For me, guns are unnecessary and ineffective to protect us either from crime or from government tyranny. This is why I support the considered judgment of a community that seeks to limit their incidence, as both Chicago and D.C. did before their local laws were struck down by the Supreme Court.
Frankly, I can't think of an important individual interest that is advanced by forbidding communities to try to keep themselves safe from handguns and assault weapons. That's my value judgment. As a people, collectively, we have to reach our own.
We have the “rights” we permit ourselves. No others. They are not ordained. They continue by common consent. I have to assume at this point that we have so many guns, and so much gun violence, because that’s the balance of interests we want. If not, we ought to do something about it. What to do is no mystery. Vote for change. It’s not going to happen any other way.