Oscar Wilde once said “Everything in moderation, including moderation!” He also said, “The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.” Oscar Wilde was very good at puncturing over-inflated rhetoric with a few well-chosen words, and I like to think he would have approved of my syllogistic statement of the source of the almost visceral loathing that animates so much of our modern political discourse. I recently added a fourth point to the syllogism, which I think caps it perfectly.
- I am a rational/good human being.
- Because I am a rational/good human being, I believe X.
- If you do not believe X, you are either ignorant, stupid, or evil.
- Because you are ignorant, stupid, or evil, it is useless to debate with you and pointless to listen to you.
The event leading to my addition of point 4 is the San Bernardino shooting, the latest mass shooting in the US and the most deadly terrorist shooting since the Fort Hood shooting several years ago. Even while evidence quickly accumulated that the shooting was motivated by radical Islamism, most of the political and media heat was turned on the issue of Gun Control. President Obama has called for at least stripping the right to buy guns from those on the Terror Watch List. Startling amounts of vituperation have been poured on any politician or pundit disagreeing with this; the kindest comment is “NRA lapdog.” Others are calling for stronger weapon restrictions and even confiscations, and calling all who object or caution “terrorists,” “evil,” and other not nice things.
To refer to an “authoritative text” on the current state of the debate, I will defer to the NY Times front-page editorial.
The editorial is eloquent and to the point: although many questions need to be asked over how the shooters were able to radicalize and prepare themselves so thoroughly without detection, the Times’ editors feel that the lethality of the weapons used, and the shooter’s access to them, must also be addressed. In other words, it is time to do something serious about Gun Control. Unfortunately, they begin by hitting points 2 and 3 of my syllogism.
“America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday.”
In short, they impute evil and arrogance: “callously and without fear of consequence.”
For their parts, supporters of gun rights are seldom more considering in their language, accusing gun control advocates of conspiring to deprive them of their constitutional rights, etc.
I am not going to take this space to debate the righteousness of either position. But I will note that the NY Times editors have a point: “It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment. No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.”
They are correct; the Right to Keep and Bear Arms is not an unlimited right; nobody argues that the 2nd Amendment gives someone the right to purchase and carry a machine gun in all public spaces. There are limits to what governments must allow, one predicated on both common sense and public order. The purchase and carrying of fully automatic is already significantly restricted, and expanding restrictions to certain classes of firearm that are easily alterable to deliver fully automatic fire is not an insane proposition.
There is, however, something that gun control advocates are clearly missing; it is apparent in nearly every piece of rhetoric they use; gun rights defenders aren’t “gun nuts.” For the most part, they don’t fetishize guns and gun-ownership. Broadly, gun rights defenders fall into two groups with significant but not necessary overlap. They are either civil liberties defenders or personal defense advocates.
Public Liberties Defense
The writers of the US Constitution were suspicious, even cynical, of political power and human nature. They had a right to be; all of them remembered fighting a desperate war of independence against a great and arbitrary power, the British Parliament backed by its armies. So when they wrote the Constitution, the last thing they wanted to do was hand the sovereign powers of the states and citizenry over to another potentially tyrannical power. The Second Amendment was an answer to that; the federal government needed to be allowed to regulate the state militias (to ensure that they would be sufficient to maintain the freedom of the states from foreign invasion), but not to be able to use regulation to abolish the state militias (the fear was that by raising a national army and weakening or abolishing the militias, the federal government could subjugate the states and people to its will).
To defend against that possibility, the writers of the Constitution re-tasked a deeply venerated right, one of the core rights under English Common Law: the right of the free citizen to keep and bear arms. For sport, for hunting, but most of all for defense of one’s person, one’s family, and one’s community. On that individual right, the framers rested the right of the states to maintain their militias.
Knowing that history and intent, today’s gun rights defenders take to heart the warning of Patrick Henry:
“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.”
In that context, many public liberties defenders look at any widening of gun ownership restrictions with deep suspicion, as a potential wedge that can be used as future leverage to deepen restrictions. Threats against gun ownership are both considered a bellwether of potential threats against other civil rights (such as freedom of speech, conscience, and association), and the final guarantor of rights against an over-reaching and tyrannical state should it come to that extremity. Guns are both badges and tools of liberty, and the state that wants to take away your arms wants to take away your liberty.
Personal defense advocates are less historically aware and ideologically motivated; they take the commonsense approach that since restrictions on gun ownership and increased penalties on gun-use in crimes have not measurably lowered gun crimes, private citizens without criminal records should have the ability to defend themselves. They look at urban environments with both restrictive gun laws and high gun crime and point out the obvious fallacies behind arguments for preventing law abiding citizens from purchasing and keeping guns, even in their own homes.
There are strong statistical facts on their side; probably the strongest is historical statistical analysis that shows that increased gun restrictions in response to rises in gun-crime did not bring about subsequent declines in gun-crimes. It is not the prevalence of legally owned guns that raises gun-crime. As common sense would argue, since gun ownership laws are really only observed by the law abiding, increased restrictions don’t significantly influence criminal gun use.
On the other hand, personal defense advocates are usually much more open to arguments for for things like widened background check requirements. They don’t always see such restrictions as “an opening wedge.” Most Americans today are in favor of personal defense gun ownership and are not too interested in the public liberties defense issues.
In short, they are the gun control moderates. They are also the majority of gun rights advocates. The National Rifle Association does not represent this majority, except by virtue of inclusion in its wider defense of public gun ownership liberty. By keeping their eye on the line drawn by Public Liberty Advocates, they also defend personal defense gun ownership.
The National Rifle Association stands on a principle, one not shared by progressives who are not concerned by government encroachment on public liberties; or more specifically, are not concerned by that form of government encroachment.
The editors at the New York Times look at conservative’s refusal to back commonsense restrictions on magazine capacity and their refusal to consider restrictions on gun purchases by those on the Terrorist Watch List (more than a million Americans are on it, most arbitrarily, and with no effective appeal), and see only an irrational and paranoid bunch who refuse to allow common sense restrictions on their not-unlimited rights to keep and bear arms “for the good of their fellow citizens.”
Conservatives look at arguments for what are admittedly common sense restrictions, as the opening wedge that leads to the effective negation of their rights to keep and bear arms.
What is the solution?
I don’t know, but I do know some of the necessary steps.
1.) Gun control advocates need to turn off the hateful rhetoric. The great majority of gun rights defenders are not ignorant, stupid, or evil. Since they know they aren’t ignorant, stupid, or evil, calling them ignorant, stupid, or evil only convinces them that your motives for slandering them are either ignorant, stupid, or evil. It’s a vicious circle, and one that both progressives and conservatives recognize in other contexts like the War on Terrorism.
2.) Both sides need to find the common ground. And there is a lot of it; everyone pretty much agrees that the mental health system has gone so far in the direction of patient’s rights that dangerously mentally ill persons are allowed to remain free and untreated. Yes, we once went too far in the other direction, but now a significant percentage of our homeless are mentally ill persons who should at minimum be wards of their families or the state with supervision of their meds and treatment.
The great majority agrees that individuals should be able to possess the means of their own defense. There is increased nationwide support for “shall issue” and concealed carry laws, and decreasing support for public-property gun free zones (like colleges and universities). At the same time, there is strong support for reasonable gun safety laws. For example, stronger background check requirements and gun-owner certification laws that require you to take a class and pass a written and practical test before carrying publicly (open or concealed).
But such laws must be written and administered in good faith; not like Chicago’s dodge of requiring firing-range time for certification, and then zoning against all gun ranges inside city limits!
3.) Both sides need to recognize that America’s gun violence tragedies are a symptom of serious ills in our civil society.
With deference to Mr. Jackson, it’s a bit more complicated than that but he is aiming in the right direction. And this is where calls for specific bans that will have no effect on the vast majority of gun-crimes is part of the problem; while progressives see it as “at least trying to do something,” they both exhaust their own political capital and give ammunition to their gun rights opponents, losing the opportunity to swing moderates to their side.
Regulation and restriction (ie. “infringement”) are not synonymous except when advocates make it so, and this is one issue where moderation would be an effective political tool if used by either side. Be firm in your moderation, and firm in your continued appeals for the other side’s moderation. Understand them and try and build bridges rather than denouncing them and vilifying their arguments and motives. Give reassurances and find every possible foot of common ground you can.
You may not win them. You probably won’t. But if you continue to display moderation in the face of your opponent’s refusal, you will win the moderate majority and shift the ground in your favor, one vote and election at a time.
Ballots, not bullets. It’s the American Way.