As we Americans debate the issue of gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, we would do well to avoid any notion that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affords us unlimited rights to keep and bear any arms we might choose.
You’re never going to have the right to wield a bazooka against things that go bump in the night. You’re never going to have the right to plant land mines in your yard to guard against burglars or boogeymen. Your personal arsenal will never legally include small nuclear weapons.
Over the years, even the most conservative Supreme Court justices have held that Second Amendment rights have their limits.
Consider, for example, Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in a ruling of four years ago that overturned a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia:
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…
The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms…
[A previous ruling] holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.
So, our debate in the wake of Sandy Hook should begin with the universal acknowledgement that we’re arguing only about where the lines should be drawn — not whether there should be any lines at all.