Dig deeper, think through flawed argument against ‘red flag’ guns laws

Hundreds gather for ‘Enough is Enough’ vigil in Lexington, call for action on gun violence

Hundreds gathered in Lexington’s Robert F. Stephens Courthouse plaza Thursday night to hold a vigil for the victims of gun violence from two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this week.
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Hundreds gathered in Lexington’s Robert F. Stephens Courthouse plaza Thursday night to hold a vigil for the victims of gun violence from two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this week.

The title of Dr. Cameron Schaeffer’s Opinion piece “‘Red Flag’ laws, a response to gun violence, are ripe for abuse,” may well have some merit. However, his argument rests on loaded and arguable assumptions

Repeating a very broad generalization, he asserts: “It is said that democracies are government by emotion and that republics are government by reason.” He uses this starting point to argue that he hopes the Senate will restrain the supposedly irrational and dangerous impulses running rampant in the country, and in the House of Representatives, by refusing to adopt “Red Flag “ legislation aimed at reducing the number of people being shot by angry or disturbed people with guns.

Like most of us, I am not well enough informed on all the issues involved in this kind of gun-control legislation to offer a considered opinion. It is clear to me that the country is awash in military-grade guns that should not be available to the general public. But, my main issue with Dr. Schaeffer’s piece is that the theory of politics underlying it is internally inconsistent and dangerous.

He claims that “It is the inherent nature of laws and centralized power to encroach on freedom.” Undoubtedly laws have unintended consequences and people in power often seek to increase that power.

The failure to enact laws, however, can also have dire consequences. To take obvious examples, think where we would be without safety regulations for food that is sold commercially, sanitary conditions in commercial kitchens, traffic, air travel, etc. The modern world is very dependent on government regulation. We are and will be dealing with the negative effects of the present administration’s efforts to water down and eliminate the regulations that protect us by protecting our air and water quality and try to forestall the intensification of Global Warming. Certainly, people are less “free” to make money from practices that harm their neighbors and, often, themselves, if they must abide by some restraints placed on them by government regulation. I can live with that.

Dr. Schaeffer cites John Adams, our second President, to the effect that “…the Constitution would only work for a virtuous people…. It does not work for a people without impulse control.” Schaeffer turns to the Senate, preferably as it was originally constituted, to make up for what he sees as the lack of virtue, reason and self-restraint in the House and society at large: “The purpose of the Senate,” he says “was impulse control, but that was before the 17th Amendment when Senators were appointed.”

The background assumption here may be in line with the opinion of many “founding fathers” that the common person could not be fully trusted. But we have been working to make this country more “fair,” more “democratic,” and more reasonable, by contemporary standards, for two centuries. We have used the Constitution as was intended, as a frame to work within, improving and adapting it to fit changing times.

Moreover, focusing only on the “virtue” and impulse control of the electorate ignores the role of other forces influencing events, particularly large corporations, increasing income gaps, etc.

Given the influence of money in politics these days, it seems naïve, at best, to analyze the need for gun control laws or any social problem solely in terms of the need for a virtuous public and a mechanism in government to assert impulse control, especially if government is, itself, seen as a major threat.

I share Dr. Schaeffer’s concern with the increasingly inflamed rhetoric in recent years on all sides. Even here, we can not look back at the age of the Founding Fathers and the early 19th century as some sort of perfect age, because the political battles back then were sometimes quite vicious, and some misguided legislation certainly was passed then too, even by the Senate.

Rick Clewett is a Professor Emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University