Who's Attacking the Constitution Now?

Many ardent supporters of the Second Amendment are not quite so ardent about the First.


Many ardent supporters of the Second Amendment are not quite so ardent about the First. And vice versa.

A few days ago CNN host Piers Morgan got into it with the head of a gun-rights group. Now more than 87,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that Morgan, who is British, be deported for his "hostile attack against the U.S. Constitution." But the First Amendment does not exempt British nationals, which means those signing the petition are also committing a hostile attack against the Constitution. The irony is probably lost on them.

As Conor Friedersdorf noted in The Atlantic, gun-rights enthusiasts have given the Constitution short shrift in another regard as well. The NRA's Wayne LaPierre wants Washington to force localities to put an armed guard in every public school (so much for federalism) and wants to create a national registry of the mentally ill (so much for privacy). In his catastrophe of a press conference, LaPierre also blasted violent video games, movies, and music (so much for free speech)—remarks that prompted this trenchant riposte on Twitter: "Scientists are baffled by Canadians' ability to watch movies and play video games and not shoot each other."

We can go further. In 2009 a Pew survey found that white evangelical Protestants, who are least likely to support gun control, were the most likely to support torturing suspected terrorists. But the Constitution doesn't allow torturing the guilty, let alone mere suspects. A few years ago another Pew study found that the most conservative Republicans—i.e., those most opposed to gun control—were the staunchest supporters of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act, in case you've forgotten, vastly expanded government power by allowing sneak-and-peek searches, letting law-enforcement authorities review your library and medical records without telling you, permitting the government to monitor emails without probable cause, and so on.

Courts have ruled that sections of the Act violate the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments. But the Patriot Act was passed in the name of national security rather than domestic security—so many conservatives have shrugged off its infringements on civil liberties. They were less sanguine when, in 2009, a controversial DHS report warned about weapons and ammo hoarding by right-wing extremists. This, conservatives fumed, was the worst sort of profiling.

Most of them have shown less outrage over other forms of profiling, such as the NYPD's infiltration of mosques and its stop-and-frisk policy—in which the police single out overwhelmingly black and Latino residents for pat-down searches without probable cause. In 2011 the cops stopped people more than 685,000 times; only 2 percent of such stops turned up contraband, and only 1 percent turned up weapons. This should infuriate gun-rights supporters, since the logic of gun control and the logic of stop-and-frisk are similar: law-breaking by a minute fraction of population X justifies cracking down on all of population X.

Yet many gun enthusiasts tend to treat gun rights broadly while treating other rights narrowly.

Gun opponents, of course, do precisely the opposite. Reciting a common talking point among advocates of gun control, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof recently wrote: "There's a reasonable argument that the Second Amendment confers an individual right—to bear a musket. Beyond that, it's more complicated." A great many members of the press agree with him. But none of them would say: While the First Amendment arguably protects the right to a goose-feather quill, the Founding Fathers never imagined letting people have email, video games, or cable TV shows.

Liberals say many things about Second Amendment rights that they would not say about other rights. For instance: Nobody "needs" a semi-automatic rifle. True enough. But what other people need and do not need does not define what the government should and should not ban. Nobody needs Twitter, but it doesn't follow that Congress may therefore outlaw tweeting. Liberals also point out, correctly, that no other nation has anything like the sort of gun rights – or gun mayhem—that America does. True also. But no other nation has an exclusionary rule, either. Anywhere else in the world, improperly obtained evidence will land you in the slammer. In the U.S., it will get you out. Uniqueness is not an indictment.

Many gun-rights supporters, being law-and-order types, detest the exclusionary rule. They see it as a judicially contrived technicality that lets criminals walk free to murder, rob, and maim at will. But it is a reasonable corollary to the Fourth Amendment—and a necessary one if we read the Fourth Amendment as expansively as gun-rights supporters want to read the Second.

And they should want to read it expansively. A common talking point among gun enthusiasts is that the Second Amendment provides the people with the means to protect their other rights. But what's the use of having arms to protect rights you don't believe in? You can hardly claim to be defending the First Amendment in one breath, after all, when you're demanding Piers Morgan's deportation in the next.