(Denver Post, Feb. 3) Firearms are dangerous. When learning to use a rifle in boyhood, and later when training with a handgun, I was drilled hard on this. Instructors barked at my least show of carelessness. But the force of government and political power is more dangerous than any gun. Our public officials are trustees over the organized monopoly of legitimate violence in this country. Under due process of law, they hold the dispensation of life and death over us all. How chilling if this fearsome power were to be used carelessly. Unfortunately, instances of its careless use are all around us, often on a massive scale and with disastrous consequences. That’s why in these United States we live not only under laws – in which the government tells the people what they may and may not do – but also under constitutions, in which the people tell the government what it may and may not do.
This recently came to mind as I listened to state legislators taking their oath “to support the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Colorado,” and last week to President Obama swearing for his second term “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
In Barack Obama’s heart, however, it seems his constitutional agenda is more transformative than protective. He’s on the record in a 2001 radio interview, thinking aloud about the need to “break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution [which make it] a charter of negative liberties.”
Such goals as “redistribution of wealth and… political and economic justice in society” are harder to accomplish, the future president explained, because the Constitution says what the states and federal government “can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what [they] must do on your behalf.”
One of the “tragedies of the civil rights movement,” Mr. Obama concluded, was its failure to “put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change.”
Tragic? Only if we misunderstand rights as claims on other people. The modern bureaucratic state establishes such claims all the time, obligating one group as givers and privileging another as takers. Society can sustain a certain amount of this without going broke or coming to blows, and opinions differ on how close we are. But if words mean anything, such a process is not the creation of rights. God alone can do that.
Rights, in the American political tradition, mean those equal, natural, inherent endowments of an individual’s very being which no one else – especially government – may arbitrarily take from him. “Negative liberties,” Obama’s term, is correct is that rights are a stern “Thou shalt not” to a grasping, meddling, paternalistic, power-hungry Caesar.
That’s true even when Caesar is cloaked in good intentions and a democratic majority. So the federal Bill of Rights, ten amendments to our U.S. Constitution, and the Colorado Bill of Rights, 31 sections of our state constitution, ban piled upon ban specifying what government “can’t do to you,” are a free people’s best friend.
The latter in particular, established for us since statehood in 1876, deserves your attention as gun control is debated this year. The right to keep and bear arms – federally guaranteed by the Second Amendment, but with a problematic militia clause – shines unclouded in Colorado’s Section 13, where it is justified explicitly by an individual’s “defense of his home, person and property.”
Now come Gov. Hickenlooper and his legislative allies, with their well-meaning proposals to, in some degree, disarm law-abiding Coloradans – supposedly in exchange for new assurances of what government “must do on your behalf” (to quote the President one last time). Don’t they recognize how much Section 13 ties their hands? They need to.