On Friday night, ABC broadcast the “Your Biggest Fan” segment on 20/20. This episode recounts the stalking death of actress Rebecca Schaefer who was gunned down by Robert John Bardo. Bardo was clearly deranged in his obsession, but nonetheless legally competent to be tried and convicted of first-degree murder. The broadcast recounted events that occurred nearly 30 years ago. But as a society, we continue to struggle with how to balance one person’s liberty with another person’s safety.
The two-hour episode basically has three parts: Part I is the retelling of Rebecca’s life and journey to stardom. She was fresh and beautiful. Her entry into Hollywood and her short career was nothing short of magical. Part II is the attack, death, investigation, trial, and punishment. Part III is the broader societal consequences through the passage of stalking laws and the continuing debate over “sane” gun control. (Bardo was recognized by the gun seller as mentally unfit and turned away. Bardo persuaded his brother to go into the store and purchase the handgun for him.)
The Achilles’ Heel of the 2nd Amendment and for any other unalienable right is the use of that right to harm others. It is understandable that when anyone comes to harm, particularly if they die, and in retrospect that death seemed preventable, the immediate reaction is “There ought to be a law!” And there is the concept that you can’t form a crowd under the right of assembly to riot and smash other people’s property. You can’t have a religious practice involving human sacrifice. You can’t use your speech to intentionally and knowingly lie about someone else with intent to harm them. And you can’t use a firearm to murder someone. Each of these actions involves protected activity turned to an unlawful purpose.
If you stop free association, religious practice, or speech to assure that these unalienable rights are never used to commit an unlawful act, most people see the problem of prior restraint on personal liberty. But many, too many, have no problem with expansive prior restraint on gun ownership and possession. Why is that? How do people differentiate effective self-defense from assembly, religion, and speech?
It is a conundrum. Is it because people feel safer with better societal availability of policing and security forces? Gun sales suggest otherwise. (“When seconds count the police are only minutes away.”) Is it because guns are the leading cause of death? They aren’t. (Murder doesn’t make even the top 10, much less murder by gun. Accidental gun deaths are even lower. Suicide is #9 but isn’t exclusively as a result of a gun.) Is it because the consequences of the unlawful acts involving the exercise of a protected right are so dire compared to other misused rights? Tell that to the victims of Jonestown, Rwanda, Cambodia, China, Russia, etc., who were led to their deaths by an idea.
Truth be told, all liberty is under assault and always has been. There is both a blessing and a curse with liberty. It is the human condition. The level of gun control is a measure of a society’s hubris over the ability to achieve perfection. Nevertheless, gun ownership and possession seem to be the most disfavored right amongst all liberties. Why is that?
My conclusion is that it is at the junction of three things: (1) The government’s fundamental desire to hold a monopoly on lethal force as the best means of securing its power over the people, (2) the impulse to power through holding the levers of government by persons who are, simply stated, “power hungry,” and (3) the sheer number of individuals who have lost confidence in their own ability to live a risk-balanced life either through life circumstances that have made them feel or be vulnerable or the education they have endured by the power hungry to make them dependent on the state. Success in politics too often results from de-linking our reasoning process from policy-making. No wonder perfection is beyond our reach.
And thus I return to the tragedy of Rebecca Schaefer chronicled on 20/20. There were many contributing factors to her death, one or two things done differently would have secured a different outcome. But we focus on the ability of a deranged man to get a gun. Never mind that another event chronicled in the same episode — that of Theresa Saldana — involved a knife. And that other killings involve cars, blunt objects, poison, and bombs. The gun remains the principle villain.
It is the heart and not the hand; it is the mind and not the method. Until we can cure the heart and the mind, we cannot secure our society completely. And if we give government control of our hearts and minds, we will not have a society worthy of securing.Published in