Dangerous imports: guns and ideas

According to the Associated Press, the National Rifle Association is urging US President Bush to withdraw his support of a bill that will make it…

According to the Associated Press, the National Rifle Association is urging US President Bush to withdraw his support of a bill that will make it harder for suspected terrorists to purchase firearms.

NRA executive director Chris Cox wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that the proposed law “would allow arbitrary denial of Second Amendment rights based on mere ‘suspicions’ of a terrorist threat.”

Cox went on to say that, “As many of our friends in law enforcement have rightly pointed out, the word ‘suspect’ has no legal meaning, particularly when it comes to denying constitutional liberties.”

“Constitutional liberties” is not an expression you hear every day.

People more often speak of civil liberties, civil rights or human rights.

But these broad terms don’t address the NRA’s one and only issue: the inalienable right to carry firearms, which they claim is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

This is important, because those few words about “the right to bear arms” are the only legitimizing authority for the association’s mandate: to obstruct any and all attempts to control the use of guns in America,

The NRA ought to get a fairly good hearing from the White House.

In the past they’ve been strong Republicans and strong Bush supporters, and the president has in turn supported them.

During the last presidential election, the NRA spent millions on anti-Kerry ads, and was a huge supporter of the Bush campaign.

George H.W. Bush, the current Bush’s father, withdrew his membership when an NRA mail-out described civil servants as “jack-booted government thugs” wearing “Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms,” but Bush Junior remains faithful.

In 2004, he allowed the law banning assault weapons to “sunset.”

The assault weapons ban had been a bee in the NRA bonnet since former president Bill Clinton introduced it in 1994, at the request of law-enforcement agencies.

The gun lobby was able to bring enough political pressure in Congress to water the original bill down so that it expired after 10 years, and “grandfathered” existing guns, but it still meant that the ordinary citizen couldn’t walk into a gun shop and buy a weapon designed for the efficient mass killing of humans, which according to gun extremists is every American’s constitutional right.

So George was a hero to the NRA, for at least a little while.

But the fight over constitutional liberties was destined to run up against a newer, even bigger bugaboo in post 9-11 America: the War on Terror.

Caught off guard once, Uncle Sam now keeps a list of suspected terrorists.

The NRA raises no objection to this list, indeed, it has never questioned the legality of the term “suspect”, except as it relates to the sacred right to bear arms.

As Republican supporters, and good conservative Americans, the gun lobby have stood quietly by while the Patriot Act permitted the police to search homes without a warrant and without informing the occupants, to tap phones and e-mail and open mail without a court order, to search government records, and to hold non-citizens indefinitely without charge.

But just lay one hand on the sacred right to bear arms, and know the wrath of one of the strongest lobby groups in the world.

The purpose of the bill before Congress, currently with presidential support, would require gun shops to check a customer’s I.D. against a computerized list of terror suspects.

For the NRA, there are two problems with this.

First, a significant minority of its members are also members of right-wing “militias” that stray very close to the definition of terrorist organizations, and second, the terrorist watch-list is the thin end of a wedge.

Next, gunshops might be required to violate the constitutional liberties of customers suspected of violent crime, gang involvement or wife battering.

Gun control is a hot issue in the US, but a clear majority of Americans favour the ban on assault weapons.

The ability of an extremist gun lobby to subvert the will of the country highlights one of the great flaws in modern democracy: the power of corporate-funded lobby groups.

With the spending power of big business and the commitment of a large membership, a group like the NRA can manipulate debate to the point of madness, till the alleged constitutional right to own an UZI is taken seriously by apparently rational people.

All of this matters to Canadians because of two things that pass with relative ease over the world’s longest unguarded border: guns and ideas.

Guns are small and easy to hide.

In the thousands of trucks that bring goods back and forth, the means to turn Canada’s cities into gang war zones are easy to hide.

But if we can’t actually stop the guns, we can at least imagine the possibility: with sufficient sniffer dogs, more guards, more training, and better intelligence, we might staunch that deadly flow.

Ideas, on the other hand, know no borders.

The only protection we have against those is better ideas.