Taking back our civil rights

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

Shortly after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 ended, James Madison, whom John Adams labeled the “father of the Constitution,” began the arduous task of defending the intricate document signed by his fellow conventioneers and advocating for the state Legislatures to ratify it. The birth of a new nation was not to be had without some painful moments.

One of the immediate and most forceful attacks on the new Constitution came from his fellow Virginian, Richard Henry Lee. Lee was a powerful politician, forceful orator and fierce advocate for liberty. It was Lee who had called for the original resolution to break from Britain at the Second Continental Congress in 1776. But Lee turned his political prowess against the fledgling Constitution because he was fearful of the strong central government it created.

In order to retard the power of the new federal government, Lee proposed a declaration of rights that was to include the freedom of religion and the press. Madison was flabbergasted by the proposal because it was, in his mind, utterly unnecessary. The Constitution was firmly secured to the foundation that all power and rights rested in the People except for those few specific powers ceded to the government as enumerated in the Constitution. It was a bedrock enlightenment philosophical concept as articulated by the likes of Thomas Paine and John Locke.

Madison initially saw danger in what became the Bill of Rights because to enumerate specific individual rights to be protected by the Constitution would lead some to think that those rights not specifically enumerated for protection are within the power of government to restrict or rescind. This is why the 10th Amendment became a catch-all for rights not listed.

Madison eventually came around to support and author the Bill of Rights as a practical necessity to assure skittish state legislators and secure their support for ratifying the Constitution, but Madison’s fears were prescient. The natural momentum of government is to expand its power and our federal government has often run roughshod over natural rights not enumerated in the Constitution, as amended. But our government has also not been shy about trampling those rights that are singled out for protection.

That is not to say that all rights are absolute. It is the appropriate function of government to intervene and set boundaries when one right rubs up against another. For example, it is undeniably my right to speak out and protest against my government. But the government can, and should, deny that right to me if I try to do it on another citizen’s private property. The government can, and should, also restrict certain rights in a more systematic way when there is a substantial or pressing government interest to do so. But the standard for what constitutes a “substantial government interest” is, and should be, extraordinarily high.

Since the ratification of our Constitution, the right to keep and bear arms, as enumerated in the Second Amendment, has been steadily eroded thanks to fear, ignorance, and opportunistic politicians. For the first several decades, this right was rarely restricted. People regularly carried firearms either openly or concealed.

During Reconstruction after the Civil War, a wave of restrictions to the Second Amendment swept over the South as a means for the federal government to maintain order and, as white southerners regained

control of their state legislatures, to suppress black Americans. Subsequent waves of government restrictions of the Second Amendment came as politicians took advantage of various opportunities to disarm the public. New York City required its citizens to obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm in 1911 after a brazen murder-suicide in broad daylight. Mayor Daley ordered that all firearms in Chicago be registered in 1968.

All of these restrictions of the Second Amendment grew out of fear, hate, ignorance, and complacency without anything that could rationally be called a “substantial government interest.” A couple of decades ago, Americans began to take back their Second Amendment rights with the steady loosening of gun laws in states and the universal legalization of concealed carry. Despite the lamentations of opponents, the evidence is clear that the public did not suffer any negative consequences of this movement. In fact, the data points to several possible benefits like lower crime. The nation’s most crime-ridden bastions remain those with the strictest remaining gun control laws.

The next progression in reclaiming our Second Amendment rights is the passage of what has been termed “Constitutional Carry,” and it has been introduced in Wisconsin. Constitutional Carry is simply the return to how our Second Amendment was originally conceived and how it was enforced for most of the first century of our nation’s history. Free Americans who have not committed a serious crime and who are mentally competent would be free to own and carry a firearm in any manner they so choose. All of the other restrictions, like respecting private property rights, would remain in place.

Opponents of Constitutional Carry rest their arguments in the same irrational fear and hate as those who opposed concealed carry. “It will be like the Wild West with blood in the streets,” etc. But history and facts disprove their arguments. As of right now, 12 other states already have Constitutional Carry. One of them, Vermont, has had Constitutional Carry since the Constitution was ratified in 1791. Alaska has had it for 23 years. Liberal New Hampshire and Conservative North Dakota both passed Constitutional Carry earlier this year.

None of the states that have Constitutional Carry have experienced any ill effects. The reason is simple and is the same reason why there has been nothing but positive effects since concealed carry was passed six years ago in Wisconsin: concealed carry or Constitutional Carry only really applies to good, law-abiding people. Much to our collective lament, the bad people already practice Constitutional Carry.

We should never allow our government to restrict any of our civil rights without a rigorous debate and an imminently justifiable cause for doing so. And when we have foolishly allowed our government to restrict our civil rights without just cause, we should take every opportunity to take back our rights. Wisconsin should return to Constitutional Carry.