The NRA's Courtroom Craziness

In two landmark Second Amendment cases -- District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and this year's McDonald v. Chicago -- the Supreme Court struck down local handgun bans as violations of a newly-discovered constitutional right to possess guns "for the defense of hearth and home," as Justice Scalia put it in Heller. But there was never any question that more was at stake in those cases than the constitutionality of handgun bans, or the right to defend "hearth and home."

Both Heller and McDonald were test cases brought to establish a constitutional beachhead, from which the "gun-rights" movement would launch a far-ranging constitutional offensive to dismantle reasonable federal and state gun laws across the board. That offensive is now well underway, and we are getting a clearer picture of how far the gun zealots are willing to go.

Consider two lawsuits recently filed by the National Rifle Association in federal court in Lubbock, Texas. One seeks to strike down a federal law barring licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to persons under 21 years of age. The other suit challenges a Texas state law generally barring persons under 21 from carrying concealed weapons. In these cases, the NRA seeks to establish a constitutional right of persons between the ages of 18 and 20 to buy handguns and to carry them concealed in public places.

For the NRA, the consequences of such a right for public safety apparently don't matter. The gun lobby is seeking to legalize the concealed carry of handguns by young people within the age range most likely to commit violent, criminal acts. Of various age groups, the rate of murder offenders per 100,000 population peaks between the ages 18-24. Criminal gun possession is highest for youth in this age group and peaks between ages 19-21. Binge drinking and illegal drug use also peak during the volatile years between 18 and 24.

As one expert has summarized it, young people between 18 and 20 still are not fully mature in "impulsivity, judgment, planning for the future, foresight of consequences" and other characteristics bearing on moral culpability. I doubt this conclusion would get an argument from parents who have raised children to adulthood (as I have). It also is revealing that college students who own guns are far more likely than other students to be arrested for DUI, using cocaine or crack, vandalizing property, or getting in trouble with the police.

It is hard to imagine a more "gun friendly" state than Texas, but the Lone Star State clearly understands the dangers of allowing teenagers to carry concealed weapons on the streets and in restaurants, movie theaters and stadiums. In fact, most states, including others traditionally enthusiastic about Second Amendment rights, like Alaska, Arizona, and Mississippi, permit concealed carry only by persons 21 years and older. According to the NRA, though, even the reddest of states have long been violating the sacred constitutional right of teenagers to carry concealed weapons.

As to federal law, there is an anomaly in the treatment of guns for juveniles, as licensed dealers may not sell handguns to 18-20 year olds, but persons in that age group may nevertheless legally possess handguns and buy them from unlicensed sellers. This anomaly should be fixed, by making 21 the minimum age for handgun purchase and possession, not by allowing those 18-20 to buy from licensed dealers, as sought by the NRA.

Fortunately, nothing in the Supreme Court's recent Second Amendment rulings suggests that the High Court shares the NRA's shortage of common sense. According to the Heller majority, the Second Amendment does not confer "a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose." On the concealed carry issue, Justice Scalia noted that a majority of 19th-century courts had held that complete prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons "were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues." The idea that we are all safer with more concealed weapons in more hands (and in younger hands!) is a modern gun-lobby invention having nothing to do with the Founding Fathers.

For the NRA, the clincher argument for the right of teenagers to buy and carry handguns is this: Since 18 year olds are eligible to serve in the military, they should be trusted with handguns in civilian life. Perhaps the NRA and its lawyers are unaware that every aspect of firearms possession and use by military personnel on active duty is heavily regulated. That we are willing to entrust government-owned handguns at military installations to 18 year olds under a regime of comprehensive training, supervision and control says nothing about the wisdom of doing so in civilian life, where such a regime is nonexistent, due in large part to the NRA's persistent efforts to oppose even the most modest gun restrictions.

In the delusional world of the NRA's leaders, people can be neatly divided into two easily identifiable groups -- good guys and bad guys -- and the good guys will never commit violent acts (that's what makes them good). In that world it follows that we should simply arm the good guys so they can shoot back at the bad guys. For the NRA, this "logic" applies just as well to teenagers as to adults.

Back on planet Earth, we understand that far too many 18 year olds who appear to be "good" (because they have not yet been convicted of a serious offense) actually will do some very bad things. In the real world, creating a constitutional right for teenagers to carry concealed weapons is nothing but lunacy.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).