ThinkProgress slammed the NRA over the weekend. The gun group supports federal legislation to let felons win their firearm rights back—something that is essentially impossible for those convicted in federal court. (It’s determined state-by-state otherwise.) But the organization’s executive vice president recently criticized moves in Virginia and Maryland to restore felons’ voting rights.
The point is fair, but it cuts both ways. Efforts to restore voting rights typically leave gun rights untouched, too.
Those on the left are correct to ask why we should trust a person to own a gun if we don’t trust him to vote. But conservatives can flip the question around, demanding to know why we would let someone make important decisions about our government if we’re worried he’ll misuse a gun if he’s allowed to have one. Both rights are highly consequential, both symbolize that one occupies a place in society equal to that of anyone else, and both are often taken away from those who break the law.
Here’s a provocative idea: Why not tie them together, forcing governors, courts, and legislatures to grant or strip them simultaneously?
This would force each side to take the other’s concerns seriously, and to refrain from picking and choosing among fundamental rights. If the Maryland legislature thinks those on probation or parole deserve a say in the workings of the government, lawmakers can make their peace with recently released felons’ having gun rights, too. And if conservatives want to restore violent felons’ gun rights, they can restore voting rights to the same people.
Practically speaking, this is unlikely. It would need to be implemented via federal or state constitutional amendments. States would resist the attempt to restrict their discretion. The rule would forbid targeted punishments to fit each crime, such as loss of voting rights for election fraud. Also, many states currently restore voting rights much more readily than gun rights—voting rights are often restored automatically after a sentence is served, while gun rights are often restored only with a pardon—so this policy would severely disrupt the status quo and, if adopted, possibly curtail rights more than expand them.
But at the very least, it’s worth mulling those questions carefully. If someone can be trusted with a gun, can’t he be trusted to vote? And if someone can be trusted to vote, can’t he be trusted with a gun?
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen