Guns, Democracy and the Supreme Court

If recent mass shootings have reinvigorated the conversation about gun regulation and access to mental-health treatment, they must also generate a discussion of the Constitution, the role of government and our responsibility to one another, writes Nation columnist Patricia J. Williams.

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If recent mass shootings have reinvigorated the conversation about gun regulation and access to mental-health treatment, they must also generate a discussion of the Constitution, the role of government and our responsibility to one another, Patricia J. Williams writes at the Nation.

As President Obama begins his second term, our hopes and expectations are shadowed by shooting tragedies whose nadir was reached with the deaths of so many children in Newtown, Connecticut. If these events have reinvigorated a conversation about gun regulation and access to mental health treatment, they must also ignite a discussion of political and constitutional values. Without the latter, the former will never come to pass.

Part of the problem is that our governance bodies are divided along such extreme ideological lines that any good theories on guns or healthcare are unlikely to come from them. When Mitt Romney said that 47 percent of Americans "believe the government has a responsibility to care for them ... believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it," he summed up the congressional divide, as well as the sentiments of conservative Supreme Court justices who would like to do away with most of the entitlement programs of the twentieth century, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and Social Security. In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (the ruling upholding parts of the Affordable Care Act), Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito dismissed such departments as "devoted to subjects not mentioned among Congress' enumerated powers, and only marginally related to commerce."

We forget at our peril how recent a phenomenon this brand of anti-government rhetoric is: only in the last few decades have freedom and liberty been re-imagined as enshrining such a hyper-individualized notion of economic self-interest. Senator George Hoar put it this way in 1871: "The question is not whether a majority of the people in a majority of the States are likely to be attached to and able to secure their own liberties ... It is whether a majority of the people in every State are sure to be so attached to the principles of civil freedom and civil justice as to be as much desirous of preserving the liberties of others as their own."

Read Patricia J. Williams' entire piece at the Nation.

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