A New Constitutional Convention Would Risk Gun Rights, Abortion

Tearing up our sacred document would leave our country in shambles and risk bedrock rights and values.

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Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has restated his opposition to the death penalty in an analysis in the  New York Review of Books.

I read it, by chance, after hearing the news that certain Tea Party Republicans—including allies of incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—want to call a new Constitutional Convention to tear up and rewrite our founding document.

Their idea is to do away with certain amendments that they find bothersome, like the ones authorizing an income tax, or the direct election of U.S. senators, and to give the states a stronger veto power than they now possess.

As a civil libertarian, I side with Stevens on the death penalty—what greater intrusion can the state make on liberty than to take life?—and am frustrated, as he is, by the failure of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court to see it our way. And it occurred to me that if Cantor’s friends succeed, a Constitutional Convention is just the kind of forum at which—who knows?—the high court could be side-stepped and the death penalty outlawed.

[See an opinion slide show of 12 ways Republicans want to change the Constitution.]

I was actually warming to the idea, until I considered what other bedrock rights might be repealed or adjusted.

The Second Amendment is an obvious target. Things are going well, in the courts, for those of us who support the right to bear arms. I wonder if Cantor has spoken with the National Rifle Association about rolling the dice? There are a lot more urban voters than rural ones, and Mayor Billionaire of New York would no doubt lead a sizable, well-funded delegation to the convention, intent on banning handguns, at least. [Read more about gun control and gun rights.]

And as the resident of a small state, I question the wisdom of revising the process by which senators are elected, as the Tea Party types suggest. A Constitutional Convention would give the bigger states the opportunity to make a change that they have longed for and add proportional representation to the Senate. It may have made sense, as a political deal, in 1787, but why should titans like New York, Texas, or California now settle for the same number of senators as Wyoming or Nebraska or Rhode Island or Alaska? The little states can do with one senator, or maybe even share one.

Do you want to see the churches in your district subjected to taxation, Mr. Cantor?

Or a right to a first trimester abortion enshrined in the Constitution?

Or recreational drug use? Or the right of anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, to marry or to serve in the armed forces? Or a right to die, in a manner and moment of one’s own choice?

Liberals and social libertarians are sure to bring those matters up at a convention. You had a big win in November, Mr. Cantor. But your side lost just as big in 2006 and 2008. Are you sure you can triumph on each and every one of these divisive and incendiary issues on the convention floor? On many of them, the independents and young folks see liberty leaning left.

And here is an even bigger question: Will you really want to live in the shambles of a nation that remains, after you rip apart its sacred document and turn region against region, city against country, faith against faith and liberal against conservative in ways not seen since the Civil War?

Is this the definition of conservative? [Check out a roundup of GOP political cartoons.]

Cooler heads will probably prevail. I doubt that we will live to see it happen. But then, I once thought that about impeachment.

Dear Mr. Cantor.

Please be careful what you wish for.

  • Read more about gun control and gun rights.
  • See a slide show of the GOP's rising stars.
  • Check out a roundup of GOP political cartoons.