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Rights aren’t absolute, but they should be held equally by all full members of society.
Emotions in the gun debate are high. The tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, is mobilizing citizens, activists, and politicians alike in an effort to “do something” in the wake of an unacceptable and growing trend of mass killings in America. The demand for “common-sense gun reform” has reached a crescendo. Things have reached the point where even a former Supreme Court Justice has gone so far as to suggest a full repeal of the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
On the other hand, millions of law-abiding citizens who choose to own and carry firearms for both recreational purposes and self-defense are growing in their anxiety and frustration. They worry that those calling for gun reform wish to infringe upon their inalienable rights and punish them for the crimes of others. Law-abiding Americans of all ages wonder if they’re being made into scapegoats regardless of their strict adherence to current law.
Setting aside some of the more unrealistic demands of either side, it is important that we take a hard look at any realistic ideas presented to determine their efficacy and weigh the possible effects on average citizens. One particular measure at lawmaker’s fingertips and one which has considerable popular support is the idea of limiting the ability to purchase firearms for adults between the ages of 18 and 21.
Federal law already limits the purchase of handguns for this age group. And many people feel it is reasonable to expand this limitation to include semi-automatic long guns, colloquially called assault rifles or assault weapons. This idea is especially gaining traction because both the recent Uvalde and Buffalo killers were 18 and legally purchased the weapons they used in their attacks.
But, personally, I have concerns with this approach, not only because of my support for the right to bear arms but because of the precedent such actions make as it relates to how the government treats its youngest voting citizens.
Since 1971, the age when American citizens become fully privileged and voting members of our society has been 18. While there still might be a few status laws, such as school truancy or alcohol purchase and consumption, there is little precedent for treating citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 any different in the eyes of the law as it pertains to rights set forth in the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
That is to say that the freedom of the press no less protects an 18-year-old reporter than a 22-year-old reporter. The freedom to peaceably assemble no less protects an 18-year-old protestor than a 22-year-old protestor. College students have no less of a right to freedom of speech, freedom of privacy, or freedom of religion than anyone else in American society.
Considering all of this, I do not see the logic in believing that this thinking does not extend to all the rights enumerated in the Constitution. I have found no portion of the legal framework of our government where it is established that a segment of our citizens can be carved out as a separate class of people whose rights can be limited at the same time others maintain those rights.
And further, if we indeed establish that a single right can be limited, I see no realistic constraint that can be maintained that keeps other rights from being similarly limited. It is possible that such an action could create a scenario where American citizens between the ages of 18 and 21, a demographic chiefly consisting of college-age students, loses any reasonable expectation that the Bill of Rights applies to them just as it applies to their fellow citizens.
There is, of course, the precedent of determining when we consider someone a full citizen with all pursuant rights and privileges. If people feel they want to change the age of full citizenship to 21, by all means, they are welcome to try, and such an effort would not necessarily run adrift constitutional provisions. But if we stick with our current determination to grant full citizenship at the age of 18, then that determination should accompany a commitment to afford all citizens their enumerated rights under the U.S. Constitution. Anything less would inarguably be second-class citizenship.
But there’s an alternate path other than hamstringing the rights of millions of law-abiding citizens in hopes of stopping the terrible tragedies we keep witnessing. We should seek to identify and stop those rare and depraved individuals who take advantage of the liberties granted in a free society to prey on the innocent. We should identify the criminal and the criminally disposed, and establish better consequences for criminal activity and better safeguards against those preparing to attack the innocent.
I’ve already previously written about the possibilities of enacting well-written and effective red flag laws. But another thing we could do is establish state laws that identify those who have juvenile wrap sheets involving violent offenses and bar them from purchasing firearms until they’ve reached the age of 21 and demonstrated law-abiding adult behavior.
One of the foundational planks of liberal societies is that we trust individuals with their freedom and allow them to exercise their liberties until they, individually, give society reason not to. Instead of casting a wide gaze upon millions of law-abiding young people and stripping them of the means of self-defense afforded all other citizens, we should seek to identify those individuals who have given us reason not to trust them and limit the exercise of rights they’ve already abused.
Too often in the history of the world, real solutions are set aside because creating scapegoats and lashing out in fear and anger is the more cathartic exercise. The whole reason for the Bill of Rights is to overcome this defect in human nature. These enumerated rights are either the birthright of all citizens, or they’re not operationally enumerated rights.
Such rights, of course, are not absolute. Each individual’s rights and freedoms end where the rights and freedoms of others are threatened. The whole purpose of law is to navigate the intersection of rights. Laws, rules, and regulations of personal conduct are, at their most basic function, limitations of rights (this “limitation” actually maximizes individual liberty under liberal theory, but that’s a discussion for another day). It is fundamental to the republican spirit to debate, discuss, and determine where society should place the proper limits of behavior to maintain the balance of both order and liberty.
However, whatever our determination of the proper limits of rights should be, such limitations should be generally applicable to all citizens in society. And within the realm where society determines the free exercise of rights should be uninfringed, such exercise belongs to all citizens equally.
Free citizenship should mean free citizenship, regardless of age, gender, race, or creed.