What’s The Difference Between Roe V. Wade and Heller vs. District of Columbia? Maybe Nothing.

The right to bear arms, as stated in the 2nd Amendment and defined by the SCOTUS in the Heller and McDonald cases, got a boost this week from the most unlikely source; i.e., an abortion-rights case in Alabama where Federal District Court Judge Myron Thompson struck down a 2013 law that would have made it extremely difficult for women to receive abortion services unless they were able to travel long distances from home, thereby creating an undue burden and nullifying the right to an abortion guaranteed by Roe Vs. Wade.

The new law, similar to a measure that was voided in Mississippi, required physicians who performed abortions to be granted credentials in neighboring hospitals, but such credentials are only granted to physicians who live and practice within a limited distance of the particular hospital.  Three of the five abortion clinics in Alabama are currently staffed by physicians who reside in other states and travel to Alabama for the purpose of administering scheduled abortions.  Hence, they could not receive hospital credentials and therefore could not operate their abortion clinics.

  Judge Myron Thompson

Judge Myron Thompson

Judge Thompson heard testimony from numerous witnesses representing both the State of Alabama and the abortion providers, and nearly all of the 172-page decision is a very careful summary of what was said by parties on both sides.  Ultimately the weight of the testimony convinced the jurist that by reducing the number of abortion clinics from five to just two, the State was effectively blocking access to an abortion and therefore could not be reconciled with the rights of women to terminate their pregnancies as stipulated in Roe vs. Wade.

You have to wade through almost the entire decision, however, before you come to the point where women in Alabama seeking an abortion find themselves making common cause with Alabama residents who want to own a gun.  To quote Judge Thompson: “At its core, each protected right is held by the individual: the right to decide to have an abortion and the right to have and use firearms for self-defense.  With this parallelism in mind, the court poses the hypothetical that suppose the government the government were to implement a new restriction on who may sell firearms and ammunition, and further, only two vendors in the State of Alabama were capable of complying with the restriction.  The defenders of this law would be called upon to do a heck of a lot of explaining — and rightly so in the face of an effect so severe.”

Last year Alabama also passed a new gun law that made it easier for residents to receive a concealed-carry license and also allowed for concealed-carry of handguns into certain public events. Alabama has always been a gun-rich state, with per capita gun ownership well above the national norm.  Now I can’t imagine there would ever be as many women in Alabama seeking an abortion as there might be folks looking to buy guns.  But even though Judge Thompson was educated at Yale, he’s Crimson Tide through and through. Abortion might not be a popular issue in an Evangelical state, but when explained as a parallel to the 2nd Amendment, all those God-fearing, Bible-thumpin’ gun owners may just agree that what’s right is a right.

But Thompson’s decision is also a case in point for the folks who want more controls over guns.  Because ultimately in order to make their case for more gun control, people who don’t own guns are going to have to figure out how to talk to people who do.  The last few pages of Judge Taylor’s decision should be required reading for Brady, Everytown and all the rest.  Supporters of the 2nd Amendment and supporters of abortion rights may have more in common than we think.

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America Goes To War And Takes Its Guns

Most of the design and engineering advances that created modern small arms came through the development of military weapons, both rifles like the Springfield 03 or handguns like John Browning’s Colt 1911. And whether it was the M-1 Garand that General Patton called the “greatest battle implement ever devised,” or the Winchester repeating carbine that the U.S. Cavalry carried against the Indians, it’s safe to say that guns played an important role in just about every war that America fought.

It should therefore come as no surprise that guns are once again playing an essential, if not a pivotal role in what is perhaps America’s longest-lasting war.  I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan, although both of those conflicts have dragged on far too long.  I’m talking instead about America’s “culture” war for which guns and gun ownership have come to define both the ebb and flow of the conflict as well as the basic attitudes of both sides.

Guns were first tied to the culture war when Charlton Heston became NRA President in  1998.  Heston and other members of his Hollywood generation began turning conservative when Ronald Reagan, won the Presidency in 1980. But while Reagan boosted conservative fortunes he was always ambivalent about the culture war; kept evangelicals at arm’s length, was never seen inside a church, and rarely, if ever, invoked the virtues and values of gun ownership or membership in the NRA.  In fact, along with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Reagan sent a letter to the House of Representatives in 1994 advocating an assault-rifle ban that was enacted later in the year.

Until the 2008 election of Obama, the culture war embraced issues like abortion and gay rights, both of which took precedence over guns.  And even though Bill Clinton blamed the 1994 Republican Congressional sweep and the 2000 defeat of Al Gore on the power of the NRA, the outcome of both elections couldn’t be tied specifically to anything having to do with guns.

The ascendency of guns in the cultural war didn’t reflect so much the growing power of the gun-owning lobby as it was the result of conservative shifts away from other issues for which they simply could not muster enough votes to win.  On abortion, for example, the nation appears evenly split but Rowe v. Wade is now forty years old and as women continue to move forward in the workplace and the professions, a woman’s right to choose seems fairly secure.  As for the gay issue, 19 states have now legalized same-sex marriage and last year the SCOTUS invalidated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act which opens the door for many more states to lift their own gay marriage bans.

sarah                So as the older, hot-button cultural issues gradually wither away (remember something called English as the official language?), gun ownership and gun “rights” move to center stage.  And guns are a perfect means to build support for conservative cultural warriors because their ownership, after all, is enshrined in the most holy of all cultural holies, the Bill of Rights.  Even the leader of the liberals, whether he means it or not, is forced to sing hosannas to the 2nd Amendment as his shock-troops prepare to do battle against the other side.

The problem with cultural conflicts is they cannot be resolved with reference to facts.  Because as Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky pointed out long before the culture war rose to the level of conflict that we see today, people make decisions about things like gun ownership not because they understand or even care about whether a gun can or cannot protect them from harm, but whether ownership of a gun either supports or conflicts with their world view.  If both sides in the gun debate don’t find a way to resolve their arguments by reconciling larger cultural issues, it will drag on the way the Chaco War dragged on between Paraguay and Bolivia over a border that neither country could even find.