Two weeks back, social conservatives found a new cause célèbre, strange not in substance, but in procedure: the “Thune amendment,” a rider tacked onto the Defense Authorization Bill, which would have required states which grant “concealed carry” permits to honor similar permits from other states (see text, SA 1618). Despite being billed by conservatives as a “must-pass” Democratic agenda killer, it failed, narrowly, leading more than a few on the right to crow happily about the continuing vitality of the “conservative movement.”
Not so fast. The mere fact that this amendment ever saw the light of day reveals more about the continued incoherence of conservativism as a philosophy than it ever could about the Democrats’ inability to gather a significant majority around gun control laws.
The amendment’s proponents framed it as an exercise in constitutional fidelity, firmly grounded in the “Full Faith & Credit Clause,” which requires states to recognize the “public acts, records, and judicial proceedings” of their sister-states, as effectuated by Congress. U.S. Const., Art IV, § 1. But sister-state comity doesn’t work like that. Full faith & credit is commonly understood to apply to things like marriages — a divorce valid in California is still valid in Florida — but not to creatures of an individual state’s creation, like concealed carry permits or, to those who hold a certain, super-limited conception of the clause, the right to same-sex marriage. See Franchise Tax Bd. of California v. Hyatt, 538 U.S. 488 (2003) (“Our precedent differentiates the credit owed to laws (legislative measures and common law) and to judgments.”).
Accordingly, it is by no means mandatory that any state recognize as valid, or lend any weight whatsoever, to extraordinary state-created privileges like concealed carry laws. Any argument to the contrary would build the concealed carry privilege into a right, which it emphatically is not. Without the full faith & credit argument, though — which would treat the Thune amendment as merely doing what ought to be done, anyways — the Thune amendment starts to look fairly draconian, or at least offensive to any strict notion of “states’ rights.” After all, not all concealed carry laws are created equal, and several states already provide their own form of reciprocity by state law. Who’s Congress to preempt these delicately balanced arrangements?
And there’s the problem. Modern conservatism is supposed to stand for states’ rights and limited spending, if nothing else. But no modern Republican Congress or President has ever managed to slash federal spending, and now Republican Senators are happy to scuttle their respect for states’ rights, provided a sufficiently compelling social issue comes along. Compare the right’s willingness to drop their concerns for states’ rights in this case, with their vigorous assertion of the same whenever same-sex marriage starts to look like it might “go federal,” and you’ll come to this simple conclusion:
Conservatism has never been about states’ rights, at least not in the modern era. It just so happens that it’s a convenient argument to make against progressive social policies, like the Civil Rights Act or gay rights. To modern conservatives, concerns about states’ rights are a means, not an end in and of themselves.