Vail Daily column: Donald Sterling, Michael Sam, smart guns, and the nation of Brunei
The nation of Brunei, Brunei, officially the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace, is a tiny little speck of a place, sitting on the north coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Apart from its coastline with the South China Sea, it is completely surrounded by the state of Sarawak, Malaysia; and it is separated into two parts by the Sarawak district of Limbang. It is the only sovereign state completely on the island of Borneo; the remainder of the island’s territory is divided between the nations of Malaysia and Indonesia. Brunei’s population was 408,786 in July 2012.
Recently, the sultan of Brunei imposed the harshest form of Islamic sharia law on his country for all citizens, including Christians and Buddhists who, together, make up 30 percent of the population. Sharia law, if you don’t know, means the moral code and religious law of a prophetic religion, in English usage, usually identified with Islam. Sharia deals with many of the same topics addressed by secular law, including crime, politics and economics, as well as personal matters such as sexual intercourse, hygiene, diet, prayer, everyday etiquette and fasting. Though interpretations of sharia vary between cultures, in its strictest and most historically coherent definition it is considered the infallible law of God — as opposed to the human interpretation of the laws (known as “fiqh”). Historically sharia has been implemented in its strictest interpretation.
Sultan Hassanai Bolkiah declared that the new code of law would be implemented in two phases. In the first phase, fines and jail terms would be imposed for offenses such as indecency and missing Friday prayers. In the second phase — to be implemented next year — punishment such as flogging and the amputation of limbs will be used to punish crimes such as theft and stoning to death would be employed for adultery, gay sex and insulting the Quran.
Predictably, the United Nations criticized the move, and most of us in the West would agree that the scheme appears to be at least a little harsh. In America, we value wide open spaces of the mind and thought and fancy ourselves a nation of hardy individualists.
But are we?
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What, you may be asking yourself, does the nation of Brunei have to do with a legal column plopped down in the middle of the Rockies? Well, both very little and a lot. It has to do, you see, with freedom of action and of thought.
In a recent column, I argued that, notwithstanding, ass that he is, Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, should not be divested of ownership of the team despite his hateful, racist rant. I asserted that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteed Mr. Sterling’s freedom of thought and of expression. Scorn him, yes, but to take his property because of what he thinks and says is un-American.
Which takes us, perhaps a bit inelegantly, to smart guns.
Don’t know nothin’ about “smart guns”? Let me take a moment to explain.
You know how with the new iPhones you can switch it on with your thumb print? Somehow through the hocus-pocus of modern electronics, the darn thing recognizes you as you and not as your brother, wife, Han Solo or Chewbacca. Smart guns are sort of like that; they know it’s you and not your toddler or a bad guy who has picked it up and wants to fire it. The thought is that if the gun can only be used by its rightful owner, then maybe we could cut down on at least a few accidental shootings, having a gun turned on its owner, and a dash of crimes. Some folks think implementing smart gun legislation could ultimately save thousands of lives per year.
Predictably, the NRA doesn’t like the whole idea, claiming that requiring smart guns is the first step down the road to depriving citizens of their Second Amendment right to freely bear arms.
I’m not taking sides here. In fact, just the opposite. What I’m advocating is that both sides are entitled to their opinions and to expressing them. The First Amendment guarantees it.
But just as I argued that Donald Sterling should not have his property confiscated owing simply to what he thinks or says, neither should gun vendors or those employed by smart gun manufacturers have to suffer death threats for what they think or say. Sadly, though, this has happened to the extent that no one dares to sell a smart gun. A couple of weeks ago, a gun dealer in Maryland who began stocking smart guns along with the rest of his stock of firearms, had to back down when the spate of death threats became too much. While those making the threats may have thought the dealer was chilling their Constitutional right to bear arms, by threatening the dealer into inaction, didn’t they chill his First Amendment right?
Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL draftee, was all the sensation earlier this month. To the St. Louis Rams who had the courage to draft him, kudos. To Mr. Sam for having the fortitude to claim who he is, Michael, please accept a huzzah. What disturbs me though is this; just because you, or I, or your Aunt Maddie may think that whether or not Michael Sam is gay or not in no way influences his 40 speed or vertical jump, others should be free to disagree. When a former NFL player tweeted his objections, he was shouted down with death threats to both him and his family, and when a current NFL player expressed concerns, he was suspended and was fined.
This simply ain’t right. We should — each, every and all of us — be entitled to freely express our opinions even if unpopular. The Constitution guarantees this fundamental right which can be extended to the right to dissent. Big Brother should not be breathing down our necks.
I’m sure Brunei is lovely and the people are warm and wonderful. I’ll, however, take my Rocky Mountain home, where my thoughts are — and must be — completely free to roam.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.