President Obama and the rhetoric of rights

Today the President of the United States gave a speech about gun control measures. I don’t intend to critique those measures. Nor do I mean to critique his rhetoric about gun violence. I do intend to critique his language about rights, because how our leaders discuss rights can have a powerful impact on how Americans understand rights.

Here we go.

Now, I want to be absolutely clear at the start. I have said this over and over again — this also becomes routine. There is a ritual about this whole thing that I have to do. I believe in the Second Amendment. It is there, written on the paper, it guarantees a right to bear arms. No matter how many times people try to my words around, I taught constitutional law, I know a little bit about this.

The President is invoking my Trope Eight, appeal to the authority of a law professor. Here’s the problem: law professors have a habit of taking what they think the law should be and portraying it as what the law is. There are many principled law professors who make a sincere effort to avoid such disguised advocacy. But the fact that the President is a law professor doesn’t make his views on the contours of rights reliable.