In the old Charles Atlas ad, a 97-pound weakling lounging on the beach gets sand kicked in his face by a bully. Humiliated, he tries the Charles Atlas muscle-building program, transforms his physique and puts the bully in his place.
The Second Amendment was once the 97-pound weakling of the Bill of Rights, pitifully helpless in the face of anti-gun forces. The Supreme Court went decades without paying it any mind.
My 1991 copy of the casebook "Constitutional Law," by Geoffrey Stone, Louis Seidman, Cass Sunstein and Mark Tushnet, has 1,716 pages — and no index entry for the Second Amendment. A law professor wrote in 1987 that this provision "is not taken seriously by most scholars."
But in the interim, it has gotten seriously jacked. In 2008, the Supreme Court converted the Second Amendment from feeble to formidable. The justices not only struck down a Washington, D.C., ban on handguns but proclaimed an individual right to own guns for self-defense. Two years later, they tossed out a similar Chicago law.
As a result, the Second Amendment has never been stronger or more protective of gun owners' rights. Yet today Republican politicians act as though it were in mortal danger.
After Barack Obama announced such steps as tightening enforcement of federal regulations on gun sales, Donald Trump lamented, "He's taking chunks and chunks out of the Second Amendment." Ted Cruz said the measures are "unconstitutional."
They overlook two critical facts. The first is that if Obama adopts any policy that abridges the right to keep and bear arms, the Supreme Court will deep-six it. The second is that almost none of what he is doing offends the Second Amendment.
They probably know as much. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, emailed a 1,500-word statement under the subject line "Key FACTS on the Second Amendment," detailing the flaws in Obama's plan. Grassley managed to come up with only one alleged violation of the right to keep and bear arms: his endorsement of a bill to block purchases by anyone on the no-fly list.
He may be right on that. But the steps unveiled Monday are deferential to the limits of government power. Obama wants to require unlicensed gun dealers to get licenses and conduct background checks to block sales to the felonious and the insane — who are already forbidden to have guns.
He wants to encourage states to provide better data for these background checks. He wants the Social Security Administration to forward the names of people known to have serious mental health impairments.
At Thursday's town hall, rape survivor Kimberly Corban challenged Obama: "Why can't your administration see that these restrictions that you're putting to make it harder for me to own a gun — or harder for me to take that where I need to be — is actually just making my kids and I less safe?"
Her question inadvertently exposed the mortifying fact that many people who distrust Obama on guns have no clue what he's done on guns. His new plans will not impede any law-abiding citizens from getting the firearms they want or using them for protection inside the home or in public.
Nor do they conflict with the guidance of the Supreme Court. "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited," the court said in 2008.
It stressed, "Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."
Cruz claims that Obama is "the most anti-gun president we've ever seen." But Obama's package is far less ambitious than the 1993 Brady Law, which mandated background checks on sales by licensed dealers, and the 1994 "assault weapons" ban, which were signed by Bill Clinton.
Both measures had the endorsement of three other presidents: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and — surprise! — Ronald Reagan. Ford and Carter had earlier supported a ban on "Saturday night specials" — small, inexpensive pistols.
It's impossible to know Obama's deepest feelings about mass confiscation. But he has kept the promise he made in 2008: "I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away."
So maybe his GOP critics should conserve their outrage until such time as it's actually needed.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.