A gunman opened fire at practice for a charity congressional baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday morning. The incident, in which House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and at least four others were shot, is an all-too-common instance of gun violence in America.
But this particular case is unusual because the victims included members of Congress and staffers from the Republican Party — which, as a rule, ardently opposes gun control. Previous mass shootings have sparked calls from Democrats to strengthen gun regulations like improving background checks and closing purchasing loopholes. These calls generally fall on the deaf ears of their colleagues.
Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican who witnessed the shooting and attended to Scalise by using his own belt as a tourniquet while waiting for medics to arrive, answered a question on gun control later that morning.
Reporter Sam Sweeney of ABC7 asked Brooks, “Congressman, does this change your views on the gun situation in America?” His answer (as first transcribed and posted by Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast) was more than a simple “no”:
Not with respect to the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment right to bear arms is to ensure that we always have a republic. And as with any constitutional provision in the Bill of Rights, there are adverse aspects to each of those rights that we enjoy as people. And what we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly. But we’re not going to get rid of freedom of speech just because some people say some really ugly things that hurt other people’s feelings. We’re not going to get rid of Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights because it allows some criminals to go free who should be behind bars. These rights are there to protect Americans, and while each of them has a negative aspect to them, they are fundamental to our being the greatest nation in world history. So no, I’m not changing my position on any of the rights we enjoy as Americans.
This is an important truth about the Constitution, and about any principle that either side sees as inviolable in a political debate: Absolute principles create risks. To say that an abstract right (like the right to bear arms) is too important to chip away at is to say that the principle is more important than the cost-benefit calculus of whether a policy will help or hurt the populace.
This doesn’t mean that Republicans will suddenly start supporting new gun control bills. But it gives them an interesting perspective on the question.
People disagree pretty strenuously on just how far these rights extend, and where the appropriate balance lies between principles and saving lives. That goes for the Second Amendment, to be sure — supporters of gun control often believe that the text of the amendment doesn’t give blanket rights to possess any gun in every location.
But as Brooks points out, similar debates happen with plenty of other rights as well; the Supreme Court, for example, has spent the past few decades carving out exceptions to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure for cases where law enforcement officers see an immediate need to act.
It’s rare to hear a politician accept that the downside of his preferred policies is that there is some risk of violence or death. It’s even rarer to hear a victim of an attack respond by accepting that the attack couldn’t — or shouldn’t — have been prevented if only politicians had done the right thing.
CORRECTION: This article originally misidentified the reporter who asked Brooks about guns.