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Stephen Gottlieb: We Will Not Comply

Did you hear the demonstrators against New York's new gun law chanting in unison "We will not comply!"

That's the problem. Guns allow some of their owners to think that they can define right and wrong and everybody else has to comply. In the hands of some of their owners, guns puff up their sense of self-importance, their sense that laws are written for everybody else but that they are above the law.

The NRA keeps trying to tell us that "guns don't kill, people do." But that's an obvious and silly simplification for shootings that involve, must involve, both people and guns. Guns empower people to kill with an ease that they otherwise could not. Guns increase the likelihood that the victims will die of their wounds. Guns that can shoot a number of rounds quickly make it easier for people to commit mass murder. And guns make it possible for people to kill on impulse, in fits of foolish rage that quickly turn into tragedy, suicide, domestic violence and other killings.

But most important is the way that guns affect the mind. Guns can turn people into autocrats who chafe at any little limitation on what they think are their rights, to the exclusion of everyone else. I can’t help thinking about the remarks that George Mason, one of our Founding Fathers, made in the Constitutional Convention about the arrogance of power and the ways that having power corrupts the mind, when he told the Convention that “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.” That is far from true of most gun owners, who do not travel the road to the arrogance of power. But it is equally clear that guns empower some people to take that route. It is precisely the wrong people who pose as the representatives of gun owners, only some of whom support the arrogance of the NRA.

That, above all, is the reason to keep guns out of the hands of people likely to misuse them, people willing to take the law into their own hands and flaunt their disobedience, chanting "We will not comply!"

Unrestricted freedom at the American founding is a sentimental myth that people call up to justify their own notions. The founders had no notion of unrestricted freedom, regarding guns, property or just about anything else. Guns and ammunition could not be kept at home in many American cities; they had to be stored in armories where they would not become a threat to the public in the event of fire. In that way and in just about every area of American life, the Founders agreed that public needs took priority over individual needs. The great liberty they fought for was the right to vote, and democratic government, not the freedom to declare oneself free of public burdens and restrictions.

Reasonable regulation democratically decided on, was what they expected of themselves and their countrymen. Responding to reasonable regulation with shouts that “we will not comply” was no part of the liberty they believed in and none that we should accept.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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