The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is limited. Government may impose time, place and manner restrictions on our rights of free speech; it may limit our free exercise of religion provided it has a compelling interest and the limit is narrowly tailored; the press may be denied access to information in certain circumstances.
Meanwhile, the Utah Legislature continues to push for unlimited gun rights, claiming that these are "Second Amendment rights." Last session, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, promoted a bill that would have the effect of telling individuals not to be alarmed when they see someone walking around their neighborhoods, churches, grocery stores or just about anywhere else with a visible firearm — including an assault weapon.
Among the cursory reasons provided in support of the bill was the vague assertion that it would protect Second Amendment rights. But asserting a right is constitutional does not make it so. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment "protects the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self defense." At no time has the Court expanded the Second Amendment to include a right to openly carry a firearm as a fashion accessory.
Ray returns this year to the Legislature's interim committee meetings with yet another bill encouraging anyone over age 17 to strap a handgun on his hip and stroll around the local park to show it off. The bill tacitly concedes carrying a visible firearm is fundamentally threatening by providing that, unless there is additional threatening behavior, the person cannot, for example, be considered a trespasser, asked to leave a college campus or asked to leave a public meeting.
About the only reason legislators have given in support of the bill is a concern that police officers have asked one or two people to explain their decisions to wander public streets with visible weapons. In the versions of the stories provided by legislators in committee hearings, none of the individuals claimed they needed to flaunt their firearms for self-defense (just to be clear, courts have not been keen on the idea that self-defense includes pre-emptive efforts to repel a theoretical attack). Legislators are concerned that overzealous police officers have "persecuted" the gun-toters. Their response to this perceived overzealousness by a very few is to propose legislation forcing the general populace to live in fear. The more rational response would be to give the officers some training addressing the concerns about their behavior.
After at least two committee hearings on the issue, legislators have yet to explain why any person, other than law enforcement, needs to walk around the far-less-than-mean streets of Utah with a visible firearm. They have not explained why they view Second Amendment rights as more worthy of protection than First Amendment rights. They have not explained why they seek to expand Second Amendment rights to include a right to engage in admittedly threatening behavior. They offer no reason why a state that promotes pro-life views should support a culture of death where people carry assault rifles into malls, restaurants, TRAX trains or other venues not typically used for displays of firepower.
First Amendment jurisprudence has established that reasonable constraints on our constitutional rights are appropriate. The reality that guns are deadly weapons and not simply the latest fashion trend surely justifies reasonable restrictions in the name of public safety and freedom from the fear and anxiety caused by a gun-toting layperson.
Jean Hill is the government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.