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Charles G.
Republican IA

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  • Gun Control

    by Senator Chuck Grassley

    Posted on 2013-01-29

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    GRASSLEY. Madam President, the Judiciary Committee will be holding hearings soon--and many times--on responding to mass killings such as the recent school shooting in Newtown, CT. Admittedly, that was a terrible tragedy. We are all sympathetic to the families of the victims of that horrendous crime.

    President Obama has asked Congress to pass legislation in response to that event. I look forward to the hearings the Judiciary Committee will hold on this very important subject because we need to know more about the problem and potential legislative action.

    There will be plenty of occasions to discuss specific gun, mental health, and other legislative responses to Newtown. Today, I would like to address the President's rhetoric when he announced his proposals.

    I was surprised at a number of the President's statements. For instance, he is directing the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research into the causes of gun violence. But gun violence is not a disease, and lawful gun ownership is not a disease. It is a constitutionally protected individual right--the famous second amendment right, not only part of the Constitution for 225 years but reinforced by two recent Supreme Court decisions.

    The President said we suffer from an ``epidemic of violence.'' Although there is too much violence in America, violent crime rates are at their lowest level in 50 years--not at epidemic levels, at least epidemic when compared to the last 50 years. There is a reason for that.

    Police practices and investigative techniques have improved, and we in the Congress have helped with grants to assist local law enforcement, higher incarceration rates for violent criminals, and an end to parole in the Federal system. Notably, crime rates are at their lowest level in 50 years at the very same time more guns are in circulation than ever before. But what has not declined is mass killings, such as we had in Newtown, CT. Of course, this should be our focus.

    But what the President said that most surprised me concerned the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

    Let us consider principles first. The Declaration of Independence listed grievances against British Government action that violated individual natural rights of the colonists at that time.

    Even the declaration did not raise grievances against individuals or grant powers to government. The Constitution exists to create a limited federal government. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51: In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

    In other words, the Government of the United States under the Constitution is a limited government, and the Constitution is to protect the people from the government, not for the government to give people rights and powers that the government then in turn could take away. On the other hand, the Constitution does give broad powers to the Federal Government, but it separates them among branches and between the State and National Governments.

    The Framers believed these structures would adequately control the government so as to protect individual liberty, but the American people disagreed. They believed the Constitution gave the Federal Government so much power that it could be tyrannical and violate individual rights. So as a condition of ratification, they demanded, and received, assurances that a bill of rights would be added to the Constitution. Each of those rights, including the second amendment dealing with guns, was adopted to yet further limit government power and to protect individual rights.

    In other words, the people who wrote the Constitution in 1787, in the spirit that they believed at the time, the Constitution, just the way it was originally written, was adequate to protect individual rights. But we were not going to get the Constitution adopted without the promise of a bill of rights. So the Bill of Rights went yet further, but the Bill of Rights is not a limiting factor as evidenced by the ninth amendment, which said none of the previous eight amendments in any way disparages the rights of citizens, all of those natural rights that are too big that we cannot even enumerate.

    Then, of course, the tenth amendment went on to say all powers not specifically given to the Federal Government are reserved to the States and the people thereof. Nothing in the Bill of Rights applied to the actions of private individuals or granted power to the Federal Government. So how far were the President's remarks from the intent of the Constitution's Framers? President Obama's remarks turned the Constitution on its head because he said: The right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

    The right to assemble peacefully, that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.

    That most fundamental set of rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness--[are] fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine, and elementary school students in Newtown.

    This is incorrect because except for its prohibition on slavery, the Constitution limits only the actions of government, not individuals. When a criminal commits murder, no constitutional right is violated. So, for instance, the right to peacefully assemble is all about protecting individual rights to organize, to protest, or seek to change government action. It is violated, for instance, when government officials hose down civil rights protesters on the sidewalk. That right is trivialized and mischaracterized as protecting shopping and watching movies. Those constitutional rights are not a source of government power to enact legislation, as I think the President has suggested. Quite the opposite. They are designed solely to preserve individual autonomy as against the government.

    Protecting individual rights rather than expanding governmental power may be particularly appropriate in addressing mass killings. One of the reasons so many people died in some of the tragedies the President cited was the failure of the Federal Government, the State government, or the local government, but government generally to protect its citizens.

    Police not on the scene cannot arrive at a mass shooting such as Newtown in time to stop it. At Columbine the police employed techniques that are no longer used because they did not stop killings that occurred after their arrival. At Virginia Tech, government officials made decisions after the shooting started that some even have argued may well have led to unnecessary deaths.

    The President cited constitutional protection of individual rights as a basis for expanding Federal power against private individuals. No wonder millions of Americans fear that Congress may enact legislation that could lead to a tyrannical Federal Government.

    I cannot accept the President's claim that ``there will be politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty[,] not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear.'' The President reads the Constitution differently than it has ever been understood: as a source of power against individual rights rather than a check on government power that guarantees those individual rights. This necessarily and understandably leads many citizens to fear that their individual rights will be violated, and that extends well beyond the second amendment.

    It should be a matter of deep concern to all of us when the President wants to use the power of government to corral individual rights. For 225 years the [[Page S342]] Constitution has established a government that is a servant of the people, not its master. As the Judiciary Committee and all of us consider and debate legislation arising from the tragedy at Newtown, I hope we will proceed with the proper understanding of the relationship that the Constitution establishes between governmental power and individual liberty.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Florida.


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