A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

What’s liberty when safety tops all?

Written May 12th, 2015 by Hasso Hering
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)

9 responses to “What’s liberty when safety tops all?”

  1. Fred Burson says:

    If they were actually concerned with safety, they would institute a state-wide speed limit of 25 MPH. There is no right to speedy transportation. “If it saves just one life, it’s worth it”.

  2. Jim Engel says:

    May your pen of sensible thought never run dry. May your articulate & probing mind never falter. It’s exasperating that our legislators can’t nail their jello to the wall like you do! JE

  3. Ray Kopczynski says:

    Hasso –
    Most of your items already do, in fact, have some restrictions:
    “Start with No. 1….Surely someone can make a compelling case for exercising the state police power over misguided expressions of religion before somebody gets hurt.”
    That already has happened via the Westboro Baptist Church and their rants against veterans’ funerals. There are others. Where do we draw the line?

    “Even more dangerous: Free speech… it’s the exercise of public speech lest it be misused by the reckless, the demagogue and the ill informed.”
    Again — Where do we draw the line? Yelling “Fire!” in a theater? There does have to be *some* lines drawn at some point…

    “And writing is more potentially dangerous still.”
    It conceivably might be if the “writing” is used to foment sedition & revolution… But again — Where do we draw the line?

    “…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.”
    You only have to look back to the total abrogation of the constitution/bill of rights with the incarceration of the Japanese American Citizens…

    So – Where do we draw the line? How is that decided? And more importanly, who gets to decide?

    • Hasso Hering says:

      As for Westboro, I think the court has upheld their obnoxious conduct as being protected by the First Amendment. “Fire in the theater”? Where have you been? Today, the First Amendment is routinely violated on collage campuses that deprive students of liberty to protect the feelings of people who might be offended by unpopular ideas. When today’s students go to work in government in a few years, we may see the final attack that kills free speech once and for all. (hh)

      • Ray Kopczynski says:

        Westboro: You are correct. SCOTUS 8-1. Being a veteran, I let emotion get to me on that issue. I guess the best thing that can happen is to have a group opposing them have a higher decibel level…

  4. Shawn Dawson says:

    Hi Hasso,

    You are absolutely correct. In the names of safety and security we have been giving up individual freedoms since I can remember in the 70’s. I’m sure folks back them thought the same. It does seem like it has progressed significantly since then, however, and I too am frustrated by the trend.

    No, safety should not top all.

    I work at a government laboratory, and I recall 20 years or so ago, the head of the division talking to us after a government stand-down due to a mishap. When talking to us he was quite blunt.

    To paraphrase: Safety is our Highest Priority’ is just not true. If that were the case, we could sit on our thumbs all day, guarantee that no accidents or other mishaps occur, and not get anything done. If Safety is the highest priority, that is the only way to guarantee no accidents. Getting our work done is our highest priority, which does need to be done in a manner that is reasonably safe. But safety cannot be used as an excuse to put into place precautions for which the risk is so low as to be negligible. Risks are measured and balanced with safety regulations and work procedures.

    This man was a scientist and brought this logical point of view to the division. He is now the head of another large government laboratory that successfully performs all sorts of potentially dangerous work.

    I agree, this bill does not balance risks vs onerous limitations on citizens. Rather it plays up fears, trampling on constitutional rights, and is justified by supporters with the same (flawed) logic that as the phrase ‘if it saves just one life, it’s good’


  5. James Carrick says:

    Well said, Hasso. Benjamin Franklin said much the same thing with this simple quote:

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    SB941 IS REGISTRATION by another name. It’s time we put the responsibility on those who are NOT legally allowed to posses weapons instead of those that are. A tattoo on the forehead? I’d have no problem with that. I know a couple of convicted felons that own weapons, weapons they LOST their right to posses upon their conviction for the crimes they committed. By their simple possession of a firearm they are committing another felony, one for which I doubt they will ever have to answer. THERE is a good place to start and leave the law abiding among us alone to protect ourselves against people of their ilk.

  6. Peggy Richner says:

    Most people in this world want safety, not liberty. H.L. Mencken

    It’s unfortunate that most people don’t appreciate that without liberty, there can never be safety, safety being a relative concept. Unless we’re speaking of the safety of the grave.

  7. D Simpson says:

    And this is the result when emotion substitutes or reason. This is certainly not the last chapter of this book.


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