How Reality TV Saved the Second Amendment
I used to dream that someday I would make a fortune, retire from whatever business occasioned the fortune, and endow what I would call the Second Amendment Litigation Trust. The sole purpose of this trust would be to finance Second Amendment attorneys to prosecute litigation designed to result in judicial decisions affirming the Constitutional right of individuals to keep and bear arms.
I envisioned raising public, legislative, and judicial knowledge and awareness of the origin of, and the meaning of, the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. I was looking forward to hiring Second Amendment scholars to identify what we believed to be Second Amendment violations, and to persuading people to whom injustice had been done to become the plaintiffs in our crusade to advance liberty in America by dusting off and exalting the Second Amendment.
It is striking how Democrats have deleted from their vocabulary the phrase "gun control." For decades policy arguments about restrictions on firearms have sharply divided Conservatives and Liberals. But the subject of "gun control" was nowhere to be found in the Congressional mid-term elections of 2010 or the presidential election of 2012. Not one word about restrictions on firearms was uttered by President Obama until he was asked directly in a presidential debate whether he would support a renewal of the Federal ban on "assault rifles." Obama said "yes," genuinely from his personal policy preference, but visibly hesitatingly from his campaign strategy point of view.
What caused this reversal of liberal dogma? Why is "gun control" now a dirty word and a guaranteed political loser?
It turned out that I never made the requisite fortune to fund my Second Amendment Litigation Trust. Gratefully, I did not have to. Litigation, prosecuted by the very attorneys I had hoped to hire someday, achieved in the United States Supreme Court the judicial victories supporting the individual right view of the Second Amendment I had dreamed of helping to secure.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) held that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for private use within the home in federal enclaves. In 2010, in McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. __ (2010), the Supreme Court held that the right of an individual to keep and bear arms protected by the Second Amendment is incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applies to the states.
The country in which I live might, in my estimation, have changed radically and tragically the day the decision in Heller was announced. Just five justices to four decided Heller. If merely one justice had voted the other way we would have awakened in a country which was not the country in which we went to sleep the night before. If Heller had not upheld the individual right view of the Second Amendment I would have believed that the principles of liberty and constrained government, and the right (indeed the duty) of the citizens to overthrow an irredeemably tyrannical government which had violated the Constitution, on which America was founded and which were codified in the Bill of Rights, literally had been repealed and destroyed.
The scary reality is that the United States is just one Obama Supreme Court appointment away from waking up in the country described in my nightmare. A switch of only one vote would unhinge the ability of law-abiding Americans to own firearms, and cancel a right upon which our individual liberty and representative Democracy ultimately, and always will, depend. How four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court could have concluded that the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right of individuals to own firearms is baffling and horrifying to me, but that is what they believe.
To my surprise the most powerful guardians of the Second Amendment have come not from law schools but from cable television network programming meetings. I believe that reality television shows based on firearms have exposed millions of Americans to the safe use of firearms for sports, for target shooting and simply for fun. By making the widespread ownership and use of firearms acceptable and normal to millions of people who have never touched a gun, these shows have unwittingly saved the Second Amendment.
In Top Shot, a reality TV show on the History Channel, male and female shooting enthusiasts from military, police and civilian backgrounds compete in marksmanship tests using a variety of weapons to see who will be named the "Top Shot." This show allows decorated military veterans, public servants like policemen and firemen and educated and intelligent civilian hobbyists to demonstrate their skill in the shooting sports and their respect for, and love of, firearms.
Sons of Guns is a reality TV show on the Discovery Channel about a custom gunsmith business in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The show allows the obvious fascination with, and love of, firearms of the gunsmiths on the show to shine through. The show also delves into the individual identities and personalities of the members of the cast and their personal relationships, and shows them as real, normal, emotionally happy human beings who simply enjoy building, working with and shooting firearms of all kinds. Finally, Sons of Guns frequently features war heroes, professional athletes and celebrities who passionately like, own and shoot guns. In our star-obsessed world anything a celebrity does which is not illegal makes the activity more attractive and acceptable.
American Guns is a reality TV show on the Discovery Channel about a family gunsmith business in Denver, Colorado. The cast, including the father who owns the shop, and his wife and daughter who work there, allows viewers to associate firearms with a successful business and a happy family life, and shows how target shooting can be a safe, fun and wholesome family activity enjoyed equally by different generations.
Family Guns is a reality TV show on National Geographic about a father and son who buy, sell and restore rare firearms. The show reflects the ordinary human drama inherent in any parent/child relationship and in any family business relationship.
Each of these shows allows people from all walks of life, and especially people in urban areas who have never even seen or touched a real firearm, and who know about firearms only what they see in action movies and in news stories of homicidal maniacs with "assault rifles," to see smart, educated, classy men, women and youngsters using firearms completely safely and purely for sports, fun, and entertainment. These television shows unintentionally have the effect of introducing people to the safe and fun use of firearms. Instead of associating guns solely with horrible crimes committed by kooks, these shows prove to people that it is acceptable to own firearms, and that many normal, intelligent, educated people enjoy the shooting sports. These television shows have introduced the acceptability of firearms ownership and use into peoples' minds, and into the fabric of our culture, in ways that even successful results from my litigation trust never would have achieved.
The right to own a firearm was considered by the Framers of the Constitution in 1787 to be equal in importance to the right to speak freely, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to practice religion. These liberties are guaranteed to each of us by the first two amendments to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights.
Even if a new justice who believes personally that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of states and not of individuals to own firearms is appointed to the Supreme Court, I am no longer certain that McDonald and Heller would be reversed. If an ever larger majority of Americans view the private ownership of firearms as normal and acceptable, as taught by the increasingly popular and numerous reality TV shows about guns, I doubt the Supreme Court would overrule that widespread view.
I had always believed that the Second Amendment is the most important amendment because it guarantees the only right that is capable of defending the other rights in the Bill of Rights. To my surprise it has actually been the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech and thereby allowing the creation of reality TV shows, that has fostered a renewed appreciation of, and has ensured the enduring sanctity of, the Second Amendment.
Ron Resnick is an expert on the Constitutional Law of the Second Amendment. See Ronald S. Resnick, "Private Arms as the Palladium of Liberty: The Meaning of the Second Amendment," U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 77 (1999). The opinions expressed are his own. To contact the writer of this column: Ron Resnick at firstname.lastname@example.org