American Guns

The images are engraved in our American minds; all of our heroes have guns strapped to their sides. Cowboys in the Old West, rebels in post-Apocalyptic futures, and even Luke Skywalker; all of them packed heat. Some two decades ago, it was a Democratic party position to fight for aggressive gun control. Handguns and assault weapons were the most common targets, and why not? In a 2000 survey by the United Nations, the United States ranked in the middle of total homicides, a number driven by the 7th highest total in gun homicides. People may indeed kill people, but it is easier and quicker with a firearm.

By the turn of the century however, Democratic politicians had largely conceded the issue of banning firearms on the federal level. Many Democrats who lost their seats in the 1994 election attributed the defeats, not to the Clinton attempt at health reform, but the votes for the assault weapons ban. The Clinton ban ended in 2004 as the Senate voted 90-8 against a bill that would have reauthorized it. In 2007, after the Democratic takeover of the House, a measure reauthorizing and expanding the Clinton-era assault weapons ban garnered just 67 cosponsors. H.R. 1022 was introduced in February and dead by March.

For decades, the NRA and other groups have repeated the mantra that gun control legislation only keeps law-abiding citizens from owning guns. And friends, they were all correct. Most of the gun laws enacted have little to do with reducing crime or saving lives. The simple fact is, gun laws targeted at defining ownership miss the point entirely. For any law to be effective, it would have to be targeted further up the value chain, at the gun shows and distribution systems. Most of our gun laws are reactionary pieces of legislation passed in the wake of traumatic events. This has made for bad policy. But I don’t blame liberal politicians for the bad policy…I blame the NRA.

For the last few decades, the NRA has played fast and loose with the rights of American gun owners. Engaging in a kind of legislative chicken, the nation’s most powerful lobby has dared lawmakers to pass any legislation at the federal and local levels. They continually risk public backlash against gun ownership by thumbing their noses at the responsibilities that attach to every American right. And now, when the Democratic president has lived up to the platform promise acknowledging the 2nd Amendments guarantee of individual rights, when that president avoided action on assault weapons along the American border with Mexico, they are still fighting against him.

At this time of historic freedom to keep and bear arms, the rights secured and protected are not, apparently, good enough. Armed marches have become, almost, a political fad. If you live in Louisiana, you can thank God, literally, for the right to carry firearms in Church. The aim here is very clear. The gun lobby wants the 2nd Amendment to define the only American right not subject to modification. They have even objected to banning firearms sales to individuals that America’s anti-terrorism folks consider a danger to our nation. Over a six year period, 91% of individuals on the terrorist watch list who applied for permits to buy guns were approved. Why not, I guess; guns don’t kill people, airplanes flown into buildings kill people. What am I worried about?

This is a teeter-totter we are on in America folks. Our politics, far from staying in the middle of debates to generate moderate results, is now flopping helter-skelter from one extreme to another. From the “ban a gun, stop crime” legislative mentality of the 90’s to the “any law with gun in the title is wrong” philosophy today, it is a world gone mad. The one, indisputable fact in this debate, is that there are too many guns in the hands of the wrong folks. The pure legislative question should be; “How do we do something about it?” I reject the notion that any law regarding guns creates unreasonable restriction of liberty. The unreasonable part, by the way, is the key.

I find many of the arguments against any form of gun control unreasonable, especially in the strangely defined partisan atmosphere of post-9/11 America. The NRA and others who take pride in self-affirmed labels as defenders of liberty, have all been curiously silent regarding the devastating assaults on  our rights under the guise of homeland security. An exchange on a pro-zero restriction website that was designed to support the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court sums up the confusion perfectly. The author compared Miers favorably against Reagan nominee Robert Bork. Bork, if you will recall, is the patron saint of strict constructionists on the Constitution. The John Roberts Supreme Court channels his views with great regularity, but Bork remains opposed to the all-you-can-eat mentality attached by some to the 2nd Amendment. Read this quote carefully:

Following a July 1, 1992 incident in which a crazed gunman slew two lawyers and two judges in a Texas courtroom, Miers wrote in the Texas Lawyer, “How does a free society prevent a man from entering a courtroom and opening fire?” (hat tip, David Kopel)

The very liberties we hold dear, such as, “access to public places, the right to bear arms and freedom from constant surveillance” make such crimes possible, noted Miers. Yet, she concluded, “We are not willing to sacrifice these rights because of the acts of maniacs.”

By contrast, Robert Bork dismisses the Second Amendment as a useless relic of bygone days. In his 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah he writes that, “The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that there is no individual right to own a firearm” — a statement which is demonstrably untrue. Bork also writes:

“The Second Amendment was designed to allow states to defend themselves against a possibly tyrannical national government. Now that the federal government has stealth bombers and nuclear weapons, it is hard to imagine what people would need to keep in the garage to serve that purpose.”

“We are not willing to sacrifice these rights because of the acts of maniacs.” Really, Miss Miers? All evidence to the contrary. But this is what happens when one tries to defend a fundamentally challenged hypothesis. It has happened to Democrats who have tried to defend simple bans, even as evidence stacks up against their effectiveness. It is happening to the zero-restriction crowd now, because they are stepping briskly away from their liberties, and onto those of the good folks around them.

The 2nd Amendment provides for an individual right to keep, and carry, weapons. All rights are subject to conditions that minimize the negative effects on other, more basic liberties. The classic example is the notion that one can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater; that speech is not protected speech. The abortion battle is a contest between supporters of two very different interpretations of individual rights; whatever side of that fence you fall on, you must understand that someone in that equation will have their rights limited. The question, on guns, is whether a balance can be found that effectively reduces the number of weapons in the hands of the criminal element, while preserving the full diversity of individual gun ownership.

As The Rational Middle is a great believer in individual responsibility and stewardship, it is the position of this space that the NRA should step up and write that responsible legislation. Thus far, the organization has done a remarkable job of promoting rights, but a regrettable job of promoting responsibility. A hunter safety class does not a responsible movement make. We are talking about a fundamental piece of the American experience here, and the great defender of that piece should be fully engaged in the process. Americans, above all else in politics, are sick of groups that just say no to legislation, without ever coming up with fixes to the problems.

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