Tony Norman: Why can't gun lovers handle rational limits?

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An action alert was sent to tens of thousands of gun control supporters across the commonwealth over the weekend: Five firearms-related bills designed to weaken the state's already porous gun laws will come before the state House Judiciary Committee today.

Because this is Pennsylvania -- a state where the gun lobby can pretty much dictate to our do-nothing lawmakers when they can and can't go to the bathroom -- groups like CeaseFirePA don't have the luxury of mincing words when it comes to motivating supporters to pressure their representatives in the Legislature to do the right thing.

The memo from Rob Conroy, CeaseFirePA's regional director for Western Pennsylvania, describes two of the most disturbing bills under consideration on March 18 this way:

"HB 921, which would eliminate Pennsylvania's background check system (PICS) -- a system that our state police swear by and that contains thousands of records, particularly mental health records and records of PFAs (protection from abuse) / domestic abuse, that are not included in the National Instant Check System (NICS).

"HB 2011, which would for the first time in Pennsylvania history, allow a special interest group (in this case, the gun lobby and groups like the NRA) and the interest group's entire membership base -- special, automatic standing to sue towns and cities because the group does not like the ordinances that these towns have passed to increase the safety of their citizens, even when the ordinance has not been enforced against any member of that group."

Ordinary Pennsylvanians won't have an opportunity to offer input into the bills at public hearings, according to Mr. Conroy. That in itself is an affront to democracy, but such legislative sleight-of-hand really is par for the course in a state where Republicans rule despite the Democrats' registration advantage.

There was a time when the gun industry was rational about who should and shouldn't have access to its lethal products. Though it has always loathed particular kinds of background checks it considers onerous because of timetables and bureaucracy, the principle of preventing criminals, wife-beaters and potentially deranged people from owning guns was not seen as an infringement of the Second Amendment -- until now.

These days, a blind man who has already killed someone in what authorities in his state considered a legitimate shooting accident can demand that the arsenal of guns confiscated from his home during the investigation be returned to him so that he can once again feel "safe." The gun lobby does not consider arming blind people an absurdity and views any restriction on gun ownership as inherently unconstitutional.

Since sight and sanity have become optional, all a potential gun owner needs is an opposable thumb and something that passes for a working trigger finger, though someone paralyzed from the neck down could conceivably be rolled into a gun show in Pennsylvania and buy several Glocks without raising too many eyebrows.

A quick visit to websites that promote the Second Amendment as our highest constitutional value reveal a funhouse-mirror view of the same pieces of legislation. If any "anti-gun" amendments are successfully added to what is already considered a pro-gun industry bill, gun owners are urged to flood their representatives with calls urging that it be killed.

As a journalist, I'm a big fan of the First Amendment and the principle of free speech. Even so, I don't believe free speech is absolute in every case imaginable or even in most cases -- you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater. Free speech that undermines or harms society should be limited and subject to sanctions. Our libel laws testify to the limits of free speech.

So, if journalists are willing to deal with reasonable limits on free speech, why aren't gun-rights advocates willing to tolerate rational limits on who can and can't buy guns in Pennsylvania?

Though I'm not as hostile as I once was to the idea of ordinary citizens exerting their right to bear arms regardless of whether they bring a personal sense of responsibility or even good intentions to the gun shop, I remain mystified by the gun lobby's embrace of virtual anarchy. After all, the amount of gun violence we already have in this state is far deadlier than any abuse of the First Amendment.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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