By Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall
I recently read with interest an op-ed written by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens calling on the American people to “repeal the Second Amendment” in the name of making us safer. I could not disagree more.
I have been a prosecutor for 20 years. I support efforts proven to reduce crime, protect children, and keep criminals from buying or possessing firearms. But the Second Amendment recognizes and protects, not grants, an individual right that is central to citizenship in an enlightened republic – the right to protect one’s home, family, and community. What Justice Stevens apparently views as frivolous could not be any more serious. Like the right to free speech or free association, the right to bear arms is a natural right – recognized in English law and early state constitutions – that pre-exists the Constitution itself.
The New York Times is not the first forum in which Justice Stevens has advocated for repealing the Second Amendment – frighteningly, he did so from the bench. In 2008 in Heller v. District of Columbia, Justice Stevens adopted a view of the Second Amendment that would render it a nullity. His position then was the same as it is now: that the Second Amendment was a historical mistake that has more to do with military readiness than the individual right to self-defense.
Five members of the Supreme Court rejected Justice Stevens’ attempt to read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution in Heller, and for good reason. It was well-established in the country’s early years that American citizens had the God-given individual right to bear arms in defense of themselves and their families. That is one reason why the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1856 infamously refused to recognize African Americans as citizens. The Court knew (and feared) that such recognition would give them the right “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” This historical understanding of the right to bear arms is also why one of the nation’s first civil rights law, the Freedman’s Bureau Act of 1866, announced that freed slaves would have the right to “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty, personal security, and the acquisition, enjoyment, and disposition of estate, real and personal, including the constitutional right to bear arms.”
Though I vehemently disagree with Justice Stevens, I will give him credit for his honesty – that he’s not just for stricter gun control, but is for doing away with the right to bear arms altogether. Many who share his view would have the public believe that just one more law or regulation will be enough, both to ensure safety and to satisfy the “common sense gun control” movement. They scoff at the anger and alarm from those who sense that a much broader “fix” is the true aim, while pursuing precisely that agenda.
We can recognize the right of an individual to protect himself and, at the same time, do far more to secure our schools and keep guns out of the hands of criminals. My office is working on ways to do both. The freedoms we enjoy in America come with great responsibility and we must continue to hold to account those who despicably abuse their freedoms to harm others; yet, in doing so, we need not be complicit in the erosion of a fundamental right that has stood the test of time for over 200 years.
The Second Amendment – the explicit protection of our right to bear arms and defend ourselves – must be preserved.
Steve Marshall is Alabama’s 48th Attorney General.