Immediately after the horrific attacks on America on September 11, 2001, President Bush and Congress went to work enacting laws they said would make us safer from such attacks in the future. That was not a shocking reaction — and their intentions were understandable. After all, even those of us who advocate the smallest government possible agree that the federal government has a fundamental and constitutional duty to defend us from harm.
But when politicians decide to make us safer, they too often get it really wrong. It is the very nature of government to solve a problem by making itself bigger and more intrusive, and to increase its power at the expense of our freedom and, yes, the very same rights that our elected officials are sworn to protect.
After 9/11, the president and Congress “protected” us with the Patriot Act, expansions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, an overreaching NDAA, and a host of other measures — both legislative and executive — that gave the federal government powers over our daily lives that would have been unimaginable to the Founders. Our library cards, our cell phones, our computers, our travel, and even our bank accounts became the business of bureaucrats and federal law enforcement.
It became OK to let the government put us on “no-fly” lists, to grope us at airports, and to be notified if we happen to move too much money around. Privacy? Well, that’s pretty much gone. And as laid out in a memo that surfaced in recent days, it even became OK for the government to assassinate American citizens who that same government had labeled as terrorists.
Today, in the wake of more horrific attacks — this time in the form of senseless shootings at schools and a movie theater — the politicians are once again rushing to protect us with more laws and more executive mandates. And once again, their “protections,” if adopted, will come at the expense of our rights and freedoms. That, sadly, is what government does.
We’ve seen this movie before. Violence and tragedy at the hands of gun-toting criminals begets a rush to make it harder for non-criminals to buy, sell, or even own a firearm. That pesky Second Amendment — the one about keeping and bearing arms — gets dismissed with claims that it doesn’t really mean what it says, and that the Founders never envisioned high-capacity magazines.
To be sure, it is difficult to find a politician who will say outright that we shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun. They all claim to have no problem with law-abiding citizens having a shotgun in the closet, and many even have photos of themselves engaging in shooting “sports.” Those are the same folks who say they respect our privacy while authorizing drones to fly over our homes and assure us we are free to fly on planes, as long as we don’t mind dealing with the TSA and showing a government-approved ID.
It is government’s very nature to react to problems. But just as the War on Terror has resulted in the shredding of our civil liberties, today’s rendition of the War on Guns threatens to demand that we shelve a few more of our rights in the name of our own safety. But someone has to ask the tough questions: How can “universal” background checks be feasible without first having a “universal” database — something that should make all Americans cringe? How can a “mental health” standard be imposed for gun ownership without the government somehow deciding who among us is healthy — or not?
And how can the government get around the fact that even the Supreme Court has affirmed that the Second Amendment really does mean what it says: That the right to keep and bear arms is not some outdated reference to state militias, but rather an individual right not to be taken away by the government?
Whether it is the First Amendment right to speech or the religious freedoms granted in the Constitution, we may all find the exercise of rights to be uncomfortable, painful, and occasionally even harmful. But our nation is founded — uniquely so — on the idea that individual rights are to be protected and shielded from government control. And just like the rest of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment doesn’t give anyone permission to commit murder. That is covered by a lot of other, perfectly constitutional, laws.
Let us hope, and let us work, to make sure that the politicians don’t decide to make us “safer” from gun violence by taking away even more of our freedoms. There are plenty of countries around the globe where people are denied individual liberties in the name of the state and their own government-provided well-being, and those same countries are full of people who would come to America in a heartbeat if they had the chance.
That is a reality we must not forget.
Gary Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico and the Libertarian Party’s 2012 presidential candidate, is the chairman of Our America Initiative.