What’s liberty when safety tops all?

The Oregon Capitol, where liberty takes a back seat.

The Oregon Capitol, where liberty has taken a back seat.

Gov. Kate Brown has signed SB 941, which infringes on a part of the Bill of Rights in the name of public safety. It doesn't infringe much more than existing law on criminal background checks for firearms transfers already does. But still, how long before we cut back on rights that are much more dangerous to "safety" than the right to bear arms?

Starting in 90 days, SB 941 curtails the right of citizens to accept a firearm from a previous owner without first submitting their names and identifying information to the state police and, through them, to the FBI. That's because criminals or mental patients could do some harm with a firearm. (So could anybody else, but that point was ignored in the debate.)

What other rights are supposed to be guaranteed by the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?

Start with No. 1, religion and free speech and press. Religion is a powerful force. In the wrong hands, it can cause far more death and destruction and general misery than a criminal with a gun. Surely someone can make a compelling case for exercising the state police power over misguided expressions of religion before somebody gets hurt.

Even more dangerous: Free speech. Think of all the terrible results that come from listening to a gifted speaker with dangerous ideas. If anything needs a state permit, it's the exercise of public speech lest it be misused by the reckless, the demagogue and the ill informed. And writing is more potentially dangerous still.

The Fourth Amendment protects us from searches and seizures without probable cause. But probable cause it hard to come by. The result is that criminals of all sorts -- even rapists and murderers -- can do what they do for a long time before they are stopped. They could be stopped much earlier, probably, if the police had a freer hand to search wherever and seize whatever they thought would crack the case.

Once criminals are caught, think of how much harder it is to obtain their punishment because the Sixth Amendment -- public trials, right to a lawyer and all the rest.  Think of the people who got away with something, even murder, because the courts were scrupulous in obeying the Bill of Rights. And if squads of security officers could routinely sweep through whole neighborhoods looking for suspicious items and behavior -- from drugs to dangerous books -- imagine how much safer we'd all feel.

If keeping people safe and unbothered is the goal, all those freedoms in the Bill of Rights need revision and infringement. As it happens, not everybody thinks personal safety trumps the Constitution. In the case of SB 941, 28 members of the Oregon House thought liberty was a much higher value. Too bad that 32 others were willing to whittle away at the Bill of Rights. And you would be right if you worried about what other rights these 32 and their successors are willing to weaken next. (hh)

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