A stunning ruling

The United States Supreme Court just made a singularly sensible ruling that stun guns are weapons. Duh, what else would they be? Perhaps. But here's the thing. As UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh explains (and by the way I heartily recommend his multi-author blog for the Washington Post, "The Volokh Conspiracy"), what was at issue was a bizarre ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution only protects weapons in wide use in 1789.

Now as Stephen P. Halbrook pointed out more than three decades ago in That Every Man Be Armed, people would be outraged if an American court tried to impose this sort of narrow construction on any other key right. Imagine the outcry, including from Canadians, if an American judge suggested that free speech was limited to the government, as some have claimed the right to arms is limited to state militias, or restricted its application to 18th-century-style hand-cranked printing presses.

By the same token, there's no justification for taking such a view with respect to modern firearms or to "stun guns", often casually referred to by the name of one particular brand, the Taser, which incidentally is an acronym from "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle" from the 10th instalment in the once very popular children's adventure series whose excessive fondness for adverbs accompanying speech acts gave us the "Tom Swifty", of the form "'I'm thirsty,' he said dryly."

There's another point to consider, and one that speaks directly to Canada's incredibly tight restrictions on weapons. The Massachusetts decision in question, COMMONWEALTH v. JAIME CAETANO, involved a woman who was found, in the course of an investigation into shoplifting, to be carrying a stun gun for protection against a violent ex-boyfriend.

Is that so wrong? There is no suggestion that the weapon was used, displayed or mentioned in the alleged shoplifting incident, and if it had been, there are criminal sanctions against armed robbery that would apply. But she did say she'd had to display it to scare off her ex-boyfriend at least once, which sure sounds to me like a socially desirable outcome as well as an action clearly protected by the American Second Amendment.

Now consider that in Canada such devices are prohibited. You just can't have one. Not in your car, not in your purse, not in your house. Only the government can have them.

Why? Does anyone fear a mass tasering leaving dozens dead? Even if you grant the legitimacy of restrictions on certain types of firearms, which I don't, what possible justification exists for forbidding a woman to carry a stun gun for protection against a stalker? To have one in case she is swarmed by hostile men in a public place? Or at least to have one beside her bed in case she wakes up to find an intruder looming over her?

If you can't answer those questions either, stay tuned for our documentary A Right to Arms, where we argue that Canadians' unquestioned historic right to self-defence was sound on utilitarian grounds as well as those of natural law, and should be restored.

Meanwhile, good for the U.S. Supreme Court. They've given the Massachusetts court orders to try again, but with a pretty clear warning that it better come back with a more sensible ruling.