GOP candidate Bill Haslam's happy glide to the Tennessee governor's mansion hit a bump last week. While addressing a meeting of the Tennessee Firearms Association, Haslam was asked: "Are you going to support legislation that's going to change the way the permit system is in this state, so that citizens have the right to bear arms and they don't have to beg the state for a permit?"
Haslam tap-danced for a moment and was then asked: "Is [bearing arms] a privilege or a right?"
"I think it's a right," Haslam replied. "But here's the reality: I'm a mayor, governor. We have to live in the real world."
"In your opinion," he was asked, "does pragmatism always trump the Constitution?"
"No," Haslam said, "it doesn't at all."
Actually, yes, it does. And always has. Amendment II says: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Gun-rights literalists take this to mean that no restrictions should ever be placed on anyone's right to carry a gun anywhere. That's not how it's ever worked in the "real world." We have a right to free speech, but slander is against the law. We have a right to a free press, but there are libel restrictions, equal-time provisions, etc. They're called regulations, and they're put in place to protect people who might be harmed by those who would abuse their uninfringed "rights."
Federal restrictions that ban gun permits for felons or the mentally disabled are technically unconstitutional. Should we ban those? State gun permits assure that those who legally carry guns have at least minimal training and undergo a background check. I think most people think that's a good idea. Gun advocates say that criminals ignore permit regulations, so permits only "punish" the law-abiding. They are correct that most criminals probably don't go through the permit process, but using the same logic, we wouldn't need any laws. People run stop signs, murder, and steal. Should we abolish regulations against those crimes, as well, simply because they're sometimes ignored?
The U.S. has the fourth-highest gun-death rate in the world, behind Brazil, Mexico, and Estonia. The genie is out of the bottle. We are a country with a massive gun culture. Our gun laws are already loose. Making them even looser makes no sense. And Bill Haslam ought to have the guts to say so.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."