Thomas Jefferson once remarked, “I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.” It is a statement that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of those who value personal freedom above all else. A free society cannot exist without tumult; tensions, disputes, and even violence are all part of the human condition and only by imposing the most draconian laws upon society can conflict be eradicated. In short: Liberty entails risk and potential danger, and that is a price worth paying. When Hawaii resident George K. Young, Jr. challenged the state for denying him the right to openly carry a firearm in public, he took up a fight that pivots directly upon Jefferson’s immortal words.
Young was denied a license to openly carry a firearm because his state does not allow open carry in public. Perhaps he should have opted for a license to carry a concealed weapon, one might suggest, but this Vietnam veteran would likely also have been disqualified from doing that. Young challenged the decision and a 9th Circuit Court panel ruled 2-1 in his favor. That decision may be a serious blow to those states which forbid the open carry of handguns.
The panel’s ruling is likely to be appealed, however, and the Supreme Court may once again face the possibility of having to settle a dispute over Second Amendment rights. Coming from the normally left-leaning, anti-gun 9th Circuit, the decision was something of a surprise. It was based upon the premise that “The right to bear arms must guarantee some right to self-defense in public.”
In 2016, a previous ruling handed down by the full 9th Circuit Court determined that the Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms” applied only to weapons kept in the home. Such an opinion, however, amounts to nothing less than a deliberate misinterpretation of the Second Amendment. “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms…” could not be more elementary; “keep” means own and “bear” means carry. Had the Founding Fathers wished to create a nation in which the carrying of firearms in public was forbidden, they would have protected only the right to “keep” firearms.
Right to Self-Defense v. Public Safety – A False Choice
In Hawaii, only licensed individuals – usually law enforcement or security personnel – are allowed to openly carry firearms in public. A private citizen must prove that he or she has a legitimate personal security concern in order to qualify for even a concealed carry permit and only in exceptional circumstances does a private citizen obtain an open carry license.
While about 30 states allow open carry without a permit, almost all states impose various restrictions; some allow the open carrying of handguns but not long guns or vice versa, and most states forbid open carry in certain buildings or other public areas.
As is the case in Hawaii, states with strict firearms laws contend that they are exercising the discretion allowed state governments to make decisions about public safety. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “The open presence of guns in public life can quickly escalate everyday conflicts into deadly altercations, causing tragic, irreversible damage to innocent lives.” This is a statement based upon no credible evidence. Despite a steady rise in both gun ownership and the number of concealed carry permits issued nationally, incidents in which a legal gun owner deliberately shoots someone in a public space – for reasons other than in defense or to prevent a crime – remain exceedingly rare.
It is worth noting that in recent infamous active shooter incidents, where the shooter legally owned the firearms used, numerous red flags had been missed and the shooters could have been prevented from legally possessing those guns.
It appears, then, that many state governments have difficulty comprehending the phrase “shall not be infringed.” In the absence of conclusive evidence that restricting the carrying of firearms does, indeed, enhance public safety, almost all restrictions on firearms infringe, unjustifiably, on the right to keep and bear arms. The well-known flaw in the argument for stricter gun control is that those individuals who have ill intent also have little regard for gun laws.
As Mr. Young himself put it, “The Constitution says the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed and yet the state law intervenes.”
A Case Far Bigger Than Just Gun Rights
Assuming an appeal of the 9th Circuit ruling goes to the full Court, it will very likely be reversed and Young’s fight may find its way to the nation’s highest court. How the arguments are presented there – assuming the Supreme Court hears the case – will determine the outcome and may bring changes – or many more challenges – to gun laws in numerous states.
Allowing states to restrict constitutional rights in the supposed interests of public safety is a purely statist idea that, if left unchecked, eventually leads to authoritarianism. Jefferson and many of his peers understood this. George Young’s dispute with Hawaii may eventually strike a fatal blow either for – or against – this kind of thinking.