In the midst of our enormous efforts to hold our Republic together around its founding principles and values, a movement, fostered by the gun industry and its lobbies, has arisen to get local governmental bodies to resist and not enforce any laws or policies infringing on “Second Amendment rights.” Scholars agree that this Amendment to the US Constitution was approved to defend the rights of states over against the federal government, guaranteeing that they could maintain “well-regulated militias.” Long after these militias were professionalized and integrated into a federal military system, these words have now taken on a life of their own as a defense of every individual’s right to “carry and bear arms” as they see fit. In defense of this interpretation, these groups are asking for “sanctuary” from laws that might encroach on their interpretation of that supposed right.
Here in western North Carolina some 200 of my fellow citizens came to a county Commissioners meeting to petition them to “uphold the Second Amendment rights of the citizens of Haywood County” and not to use our public resources to restrict these rights or ”to aid or assist in the enforcement of any unconstitutional restriction of the rights” of the citizens of Haywood County to “keep and bear arms.” I wrote an Op-Ed for our local newspaper opposing this petition. Here’s what I said.
First, the Second Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court in a much narrower fashion than this petition recognizes. As I wrote earlier in the Smoky Mountain News, until 2008 the Second Amendment was almost universally understood to apply to the maintenance of state militias, not free-roving bands of gun owners. In District of Columbia v. Dick Anthony Heller the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 decision, interpreted the Second Amendment to mean than individuals have the right to possess a handgun in the home for purposes of self-defense. Beyond that, the ownership and use of guns falls within the regulatory powers of the states and the Federal government. (You can read the Majority and Dissenting opinions at http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/554/570.html.) Any demand to resist laws beyond this narrow periphery are contrary to prevailing Constitutional law.
Second, I am concerned with the way in which this petition seems to be driven by irrational fears. The unreasonable fear by gun owners that their firearms will be taken away from them is dwarfed by the legitimate fear that millions of Americans now have that their lives, their schools, churches, and public spaces will be the scenes of death and gun carnage. The fear that stalks our precious land undermines the mutual trust, care, respect, and collaboration for the common good that are so prominent and treasured in our community and in similar communities across the country. Public display of firearms and even the awareness that people are carrying deadly weapons creates a climate of fear that undermines the very public life we would protect and nourish. A declaration such as that proposed by the petition creates fear rather than trust and hospitality.
Finally, as someone deeply involved in the church and theological work, I need to point out that the term “sanctuary” means a place where sacred objects and rituals take place. The petition implies that our guns have become sacred objects whose ritual use protects our lives from all harm. I have to ask, then, how this sacred object squares with devotion to the God in whom we are to trust to overcome our fears. Rather than declaring our county a sanctuary for guns would it not be better to declare it a sanctuary for hospitality to the stranger, to the self-giving exemplified in so many lives around us, and especially in the life of our friend and neighbor, Riley Howell? I hope that the Commission can continue to foster these values in positive ways so that people do not rush to a defense of unregulated gun ownership and use that seems to have generated this petition and which only fans the fires of fear that threaten our public life.
The Commission subsequently passed a resolution to uphold all our Constitutional rights, among them those claimed in the Second Amendment. It was a delicate compromise that I hope gives people time to cool off, even if it does not challenge this radical interpretation of the amendment. Our nation is the only one I know of that is saddled with such a Constitutional provision whose radical and anachronistic interpretation corrodes the very essence of civil society. However, this implicit radical anarchism is only part of the wider undermining of the rational argument, separation of powers, and reverence for law we are struggling against in these days. May God’s own flourishing republic emerge in the midst of our honest speech and deep listening. Let me know what you’re thinking—and doing— as well.