Second Amendment: History's lesson and warning

April 3, 2013

As Congress begins to consider new gun legislation this spring, it's important for citizens and lawmakers to keep two basic facts in mind.

Gun control isn't about guns — it's about control. And the right to bear arms isn't about the arms — it's about the right.

These facts may be ignored in Washington, D.C., where there is no hunting to speak of, and every government building is protected by armed guards. They are not lost on the American people, however.

They understand that the Second Amendment is of a piece with the rest of the Constitution — written to protect the rights Americans require to live in the kind of nation we have chosen to be.

The protection of individual liberty is absolutely the job of government, but it is not exclusively the job of government. It is first and foremost the job of "we the people" — individually as local communities and collectively as a nation. Well-enforced laws can deter crime, but even the best police and prosecutors in the world can not eliminate crime.

Therefore, the first defense against criminal threats to our persons and property is ourselves. That's why we have a right — a right granted by God and protected by the Constitution — to arm and protect ourselves.

We have the Second Amendment, ultimately, for two reasons.

The first is history's lesson that government can't be everywhere, all the time. So free citizens must fill in the inevitable gaps to look out for ourselves and for each other.

The second reason is history's warning that we would not like to live under any government that tried to be everywhere, all the time.

Reason number one is why we should oppose attempts by the state to restrict law-abiding citizens' right to bear arms.

Reason number two is why we should oppose the less-obviously offensive measure being promoted in Washington: the so-called "universal background check."

A law requiring background checks for all gun sales seems more politically palatable than traditional gun control. After all, it doesn't take away anyone's guns or restrict the sale or possession of firearms. It doesn't directly violate the Second Amendment at all. What's wrong with a universal background check?

In a word: everything.

First, it won't work. The federal government has trouble delivering the mail. It literally can't keep its trains (Amtrak) running on time. It wastes hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

There is no reason to believe a government $17 trillion in debt has the competence to cast a net of paperwork that will catch every single gun sale in a country of 300 million people and 300 million firearms. And even that ignores the fact — always inconvenient when designing gun laws — that armed criminals don't obey laws in the first place.

The only way to make a universal background-check system come close to working is to create a national database capturing ownership information of every single gun in the country.

To track all the gun sales, you first have to track all the guns. Otherwise it won't work.

And this is the crux of the problem.

The federal government has no right to surveil innocent citizens exercising their constitutional rights.

The federal government has no business — none — monitoring where and how often you go to church, what books and newspapers you read, who you vote for, your health conditions and the details of your private life.

These limitations may make it harder for government to do its job at times. But the Constitution was not written to maximize the convenience of the government. It was written to protect the liberty of the people.

That's why we have due process. That's why we have a Bill of Rights. And that's why we don't have federal databases tracking how law-abiding citizens choose to exercise (or not exercise) their God-given rights.

What exactly would politicians and bureaucrats do with a database listing the home addresses and personal habits of everyone in the country who, say, had a particular disease or was an atheist or whose home wasn't protected by a gun?

Even if they could guarantee the system would work, even if they could guarantee the information would never get hacked (which they can't), it would still be wrong.

I will oppose any attempt by Congress to restrict Americans' constitutional rights. And I will equally oppose any attempt to allow government surveillance of law-abiding citizens exercising those rights.

I will remind people in Washington that the Constitution protects everyone equally, not just the people we happen to agree with, and the rights we happen to like.

Senator Mike Lee's op-ed, "Second Amendment: History's Lesson and Warning" orginally published in the Deseret News