Gun Control & Democracy

“Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” Winston Churchill

I’m not sure if I qualify as “old” by Winston’s definition … or liberal. I don’t know if Winston Churchill would consider the current Republican mainstream to be “conservative” or just nutty. But, I have slowly been rethinking one of my long-held beliefs recently, and it’s regarding a signature political issue that puts me at odds with most “liberals”, and that is gun control.

Gun-control advocates can point to all kinds of evidence that having too many guns around is a bad thing. There’s no question that, for example, a gun in one’s house is statistically more likely to be involved in a suicide or an accidental death than in self-defense. There’s no question that hundreds of children die, every year, from firearms accidents (or suicides reported as accidents).

But one compelling argument against gun control, and it’s made fairly well by Penn & Tell in one of their Bullshit! programs is that there needs to be some kind of check on the power of the state over its citizens. The fact that nuts use guns to shoot the police doesn’t mean that decent and/or sane people (such as John Brown) might want to also. The first amendment of the US Constitution is freedom of speech, second comes the right to bear arms.

It would seem foolish to argue that its being second means that it’s the second most important. The third amendment (protecting us from having to board soldiers) seems pretty quaint, and it hardly seems terribly farsighted to have given this amendment greater weight than — say — the right to a fair trial, or against unreasonable search and seizure. For most of my life I’ve been convinced that the framers were, perhaps, right at the time but that times change and what made sense then might not make sense now. Let’s make the extreme case — that nuclear weapons are “arms” and that the people should therefore be allowed to have them. I think even hardened anti-gun-control advocates would not take this position.

I think it’s also fair to say that there were some things that the “founding fathers” did not anticipate and, if they had, they might have worded things slightly differently. All this aside, it’s quite clear that the framers of the constitution thought that it was very important that people be allowed to keep personal weapons — as a balance against the power of the militia. The wording of the second amendment is odd, and different from that of the other amendments, but it’s quite clear that it’s the militia that is being well-regulated, and the people who get the arms. These guys weren’t idiots, if they wanted the people to be regulated and the militia to have the arms, they’d have said so.

I think this is a time when “liberals” need to rethink gun-control, both because it’s sensible electorally, and because the political agenda here is no longer driven by liberal values. When the Federal government was, in essence, taken over by the liberal agenda in the 60s it seems to me that many conservatives took solace in their guns. If things got really bad, if — say — the government sent agents into your neighborhood to stop you from using the n-word, or desegregate your elementary school, you could go out in a blaze of glory. Now that the Federal government has been taken over by a reactionary agenda, you may need to protect yourself against Federally sponsored missionaries turning your kids into Baptists and forcing your family to say grace.

I currently live in Alabama so I’m only half joking.

One reason the right likes guns is that they feel put-upon by liberals who won’t even let them call people they don’t like by nasty names. Civil wars are fought over one bunch of people trying to tell another bunch of people how to speak.

Once you throw away the ad hominem attacks and emotionally compelling but essentially irrelevant arguments that form the bulk of Penn & Teller’s arguments, you’re left with the central libertarian* argument, which seems at least defensible and certainly emotionally compelling, i.e. that one of the things that makes the United States more resistant to totalitarian impulses is the profusion of guns. Thomas Jefferson famously suggested that a democracy needs a little revolution now and then.

* Libertarianism deserves an episode of Bullshit! all to itself, but I doubt Penn Jillette is quite that fair-minded.

Here’s a thought experiment: what might happen if Hitler rose to power in the USA. He spouts anti-Jewish rhetoric. Crystal Nacht. Brownshirts in the streets. Would Jewish Americans buy guns? Would they be prevented from buying guns? Assuming that Jews were known to be well-armed, would it hinder efforts to round them up? It’s hard to say. After all, the two countries in Europe which did their best to protect their Jewish populations were Denmark and Bulgaria. I don’t think the right to bear arms had much to do with either.

Now there are plenty of countries with lots of guns and no civil society. Take Sierra Leone, Somalia, or Lebanon for example. It’s pretty clear that you don’t get a great place to live just by giving everyone guns. Similarly, Britain, Canada, and France are all pretty nice, pretty free places to live that don’t seem to rely on private citizens being heavily armed. (And, Britain and France both had revolutions that overthrew the established government without a “right to bear arms”.) Given Germany’s martial traditions, it seems unlikely that it was a lack of privately owned firearms that allowed Hitler to gain power.

But the question remains, would the United States be the country it is without the right to bear arms? Does this right, in the long run, help maintain the better aspects of American society, or not? Are the unmeasurable and unverifiable benefits of the right to bear arms worth the measurable and verifiable costs? In any event, is there any practical set of laws or policies that might “fix” the US gun “problem”?

These are all imponderable, and the next question is even more difficult: is it worth losing elections over?