I grew up in a family of gun hobbyists. One of my older brother’s most treasured Christmas presents from childhood is a rifle that was used in WWII; my dad had a collection of several dozen handguns, shotguns, and rifles, including a semi-automatic AR-15 “assault rifle” and a pearl-plated revolver and holster that he bought with a “Sheriff” badge just for fun; my younger brother is an ex-Marine. Throughout childhood, I spent every weekend of hunting season (and many summer weekends besides) on a West Texas ranch, shooting dove, quail, ducks, and exploding targets attached to grapefruits and ice blocks. And when I went to babysit my niece and nephew for a week in Austin, my brother’s first task was to show me where all of the house’s handguns were kept and how to open the safes he kept them in.
I don’t own a gun myself, and I don’t have any plans to get one. But I understand the utility of guns for both recreation and defense. Of course, as a scholar of health law and constitutional law, I also understand how complex the questions are that guns present for public health and individual liberty. But, as usual, my sense is that there is an obviously correct approach to those complex questions: an approach that seeks balance and optimization. A ban isn’t the right answer, from a policy or constitutional perspective, but in light of the very real dangers that guns present, neither is a strong Second Amendment bar to regulation. Of course, this view represents the current state of the law in both legislation and Supreme Court precedent; the balanced view is inconsistent only with the debate’s heated rhetoric. Here are a few thoughts:
By Abby Moncrieff
First, an uncontroversial statement: Despite academics’ resistance, libertarian arguments played a huge role in the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision. That seems obvious. Chief Justice Roberts and the four dissenters based their Commerce Clause analyses largely on notions of individual freedom, asserting that the federal government should not be allowed to force individuals to purchase private products.
But to heath scholars, that line of analysis is incredibly irksome and even a bit dissonant. Health insurance isn’t like ordinary private products, we cry; it is intimately connected to health care regulation, and forcing people to have health insurance, unlike forcing them to buy (or even eat) broccoli, will make them healthier! Congress made this point explicitly, finding that “[t]he economy loses up to $207[ billion] a year because of the poorer health and shorter lifespan of the uninsured”! Failing to eat broccoli doesn’t make you unhealthy the same way that failing to carry insurance does, especially if you’re substituting broccoli with green beans instead of donuts. And eating broccoli doesn’t make you healthy the same way that carrying insurance does, especially if you’re also eating steaks (or eating more than 2000 calories a day of pure broccoli). So, Supreme Court, you just got it wrong. The individual mandate isn’t a crass attempt to get people to buy something. It is, like countless other uncontroversial provisions of the U.S. Code, an attempt to improve the health and longevity of the American people. If you don’t think Medicare (or a Certificate of Need law) infringes liberty, you shouldn’t think the individual mandate does.
Here’s the problem: The Solicitor General didn’t make that argument.