On July 9, the Huffington Post ran a column by Geoffrey R. Stone, the goal of which was to demonstrate that the rights protected by the 2nd Amendment are not absolute, and that we can know this because Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes told us so.
To be clear, Stone didn’t say Holmes said that about the 2nd Amendment per se. Rather, Stone said Holmes made a comment about not shouting “fire” in a crowded theater which means, in Stone’s mind, the First Amendment is not absolute, ergo the 2nd Amendment is not absolute either.
Stone approaches this by first informing us the 2nd Amendment does mean what we think it means. Then, for the sake of argument, he says he’s willing to pretend it means what we think we it means so he can make a point.
Writes Stone: “Let’s assume…that the Second Amendment reads: ‘The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.'”
After rambling on for a bit, Stone then argues that the right is not absolute, and all the hayseeds and toothless southerners who think it is are wrong. And proof is that is that you can’t shout “fire” in a theater.
What Stone conveniently overlooks is the fact that all natural rights have limitations. But they aren’t limitations set by man, they are limitation set by nature.
In other words, the exercise of my right to free speech ends where it begins to infringe upon your rights. Because of this, those who went before us in this country sought to harmonize civil law with the laws revealed in nature. They recognized that it ought to be illegal to yell things in a crowded area because someone might get trampled in a rush, and that infringes on the right to life of those trampled.
Does this mean the First Amendment isn’t absolute? That’s a silly question. The First Amendment remains absolute because the right it protects is always there, and always will be, because it’s a God-given right.
What it means is that I can’t use my right to speech to dissolve your equally valid God-given rights.
To argue that the First Amendment is not absolute because you can’t use it to endanger the life of another is like arguing that the right to private property is not absolute because I’m forbidden from picking up my property and hitting my neighbor in the head with it.
The bottom line: the 2nd Amendment does mean what we think it means (it means what it says): “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
And this amendment “shall not be infringed” because the right it protects is absolute.