Gun-control advocates need their own constitutional narrative, one that incorporates a broader conception of self-defense into its vision. Since Heller, the Court has drawn a straight line connecting the broader, constitutionally grounded right to self-defense to the more specific right to individual gun ownership. But defense of oneself and one’s family can be pursued in a variety of ways. An individual right to gun ownership offers one path, deputizing all people to defend themselves with a firearm at their side. Gun regulation offers another such path to self-defense, one vastly more efficacious and preferred by the American public. It represents a mode of preemptive self-defense, whereby the state is tasked by its citizens with limiting access to deadly force.
On this view, when we urge the government to enact universal background checks, raise the legal age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21, and ban the sale of assault weapons, we are seeking to use the government’s regulatory authority—rather than, say, the arming of every schoolteacher—to defend ourselves and our children. That the gun-rights movement has somehow managed to monopolize the constitutional mantle of “self-defense” is as impressive a PR feat as it is absurd.
Read: Can Democrats make 2020 about guns?
In addition to self-defense, other obvious rights and interests of constitutional magnitude are imperiled by gun violence and vindicated by regulation. The right to assembly is put at risk when a single shooter can rain bullets on a peaceful political protest. Freedom of the press is undermined when published words can give way to mass murder, as occurred at The Capital’s Annapolis, Maryland, office in 2018. Other cherished constitutional interests, such as the freedom to vote or access to public education, cannot be secured when mass shootings are a constant specter outside polling places or at the schoolhouse gate. And this is to say nothing of the value of protecting life, a fundamental basis of the Constitution itself that is incompatible with an ever-expanding conception of the Second Amendment.
Even when upholding gun regulations, American courts rarely, if ever, reference these counterbalancing constitutional values. Instead, regulation is presented in sterile, technocratic terms—at best permissible, but never a constitutionally inspired imperative. How can courts do otherwise when they lack a narrative that locates these values at the heart of the constitutional debate over guns?
Constitutional narratives drawn from the contemporary world are, admittedly, a bit novel in today’s legal arena. This is, in part, the result of a decades-long effort by right-leaning gun advocates, lawyers, and scholars to frame arguments that rely on anything but the Constitution’s text and the original values recognized at the time of the founding as not constitutionally valid. Their interpretive methodologies—aptly named “textualism” and “originalism”—deny constitutional imprimatur to rights and interests that cannot be identified in the Constitution’s plain text or found in narratives premised on the writings of long-dead men.