In all the endless debate over what we as a nation can do about our senseless gun problem, people forget the role that the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court played in helping promulgate the mess in which we find ourselves.
Two decisions — one written in 2008 by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the other in 2010 by the equally conservative Samuel Alito — and both relying on a single 5-4 vote, settled the debate on the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Up until then, it was unclear legally whether the ambiguously worded amendment limited the right to bear arms to citizens as part of a well-regulated militia or whether it was a blanket license for all Americans to possess weapons for their self-defense. Scalia's decision involved a case brought against the District of Columbia, a federal jurisdiction, which had required residents to obtain licenses for their handguns and unless kept in a safe, keep them unloaded to prevent accidental shootings.
The court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment did indeed allow citizens to arm themselves and declared the D.C. ordinance unconstitutional. Two years later, Alito's decision extended that ruling to state and local governments, effectively negating Chicago's handgun restrictions.
Although neither ruling forbid all restrictions on a person's right to bear arms — the mentally ill and convicted felons could be exempted, the court wrote — together they effectively opened the floodgates for organizations like the National Rifle Association to challenge any gun control efforts, no matter how sensible. As many had predicted, the rulings created a hodge-podge of new laws, from concealed carry to open carry, from "stand your ground" to forbidding doctors from warning patients about the danger of guns in their homes.
The rulings' interpretation of the Second Amendment also created confusion over what weapons constituted arms of "self-defense." A handgun? An AR-15? Scopes and silencers? Jumbo magazines? Numerous attempts to pass local laws have been met with threats of costly lawsuits, scaring off cash-strapped municipalities.
Meanwhile, like here in Wisconsin, the NRA has effectively wrested control of legislators and the governor's office to pass yet less-restrictive measures, including attempts to force schools, college campuses and, yes, even bars to allow guns on their property.
Still, there have been success stories in some states that have found ways around all the obstacles. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the state didn't stand still while Congress, as always, fiddled. The state expanded a ban on the sale of assault weapons, prohibited the sale of magazines of more than 10 rounds, instituted better background checks and created a registry of weapons offenders.
California, New Jersey and New York have also passed firearms reforms. Today, those four states have the lowest rate of gun deaths, while states with the most lax laws like Alabama, Alaska and Louisiana have the highest.
But Wisconsin politicians like Robin Vos and his legislative Republican colleagues, and congressional leaders like our own Paul Ryan, "caution" us against "knee-jerk" reactions to the Parkland, Florida, high school tragedy.
A conservative U.S. Supreme Court gave them cover and now it's up to the voters to decide if politicians can continue refusing to do what's right for all Americans.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. Zweifel is the co-author, along with John Nichols, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society Press website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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