The difficulty in having a national, or even statewide, debate over the role of firearms in our society revolves not so much around the 2nd Amendment as two different sets of cultural assumptions and a carefully maintained case of historical cognitive dissonance.
Individuals who see privately owned firearms as the guarantor of a free society, or at least the guarantor against outright, totalitarian tyranny are currently fond of drawing ahistorical parallels between Americans arguing for restrictions on firearms ownership and the great dictators and mass murderers of history.
They say, for example, that Adolf Hitler implemented gun control and then committed genocide. (This is a verifiable distortion of history—under the Nazis gun control laws from the Weimar Republic were actually loosened considerably, but tightened for one group: the Jews. In this sense the situation was much like the post-Reconstruction/first Jim Crow period in American history where it was never automatically assumed that 2nd Amendment rights extended to African-Americans or the organizers of labor union.)
They compare advocates of legal restrictions on firearms ownership to Pol Pot, Josif Stalin, or the dictator du jour, hinting (or outright claiming) that such restrictions in America will lead directly to the killing fields or the gulags. Only firearms in the hands of patriots can prevent government overreach.
Except that, even allowing for the sake of argument the truth about all the conservative/libertarian cultural assumptions about what government overreach is, guns don’t stop it, and never have.
Firearms in the hands of Pennsylvania rebels did not win the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Firearms did not defeat the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams—voting did. They didn’t stop John Marshall in 1802 from extending the power of the Federal government by establishing the extra-constitutional principle of judicial review by the Supreme Court with Marbury v Madison or Federal tax supremacy in McCullough v Maryland. All the guns in the hands of South Carolina’s militias didn’t strike any blows against that taxing power during the Nullification Crisis in the early 1830s—in fact, the good ol’ boys backed down at the mere threat of Federal military intervention.
Armed rebellion by one-quarter of the nation’s population resulted not just in the death of slavery, but the cementing of the supremacy of the National Government with the passage of the 14th Amendment, which effectively inverted the original Constitutional relationship between Washington and the States, and made that inversion the normative rule of law.
Firearms did not allow the railroad unions to strike successfully in the 1870s, or the steelworkers in the 1890s—organized State and Federal military power crushed them.
Firearms in private hands did not prevent the creation of the Federal Reserve nor halt the vast expansion of centralized power during the New Deal. Bullets from large-capacity magazines could not stop the imposition of the national security state during the Cold War, could not prevent the development of the welfare state, halt the integration of public schools, or keep Richard Nixon from recognizing Communist China, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, or implementing virulently anti-capitalist wage and price controls as he took the US permanently off the gold standard.
Firearms in private hands have not curtailed the development of a heavily armed and increasingly violent police state following the war on drugs, nor have they curtailed the rapid creep of the surveillance state.
In fact, what firearms in private hands have chiefly achieved in historical terms is to be the opiate of the masses, convincing their owners that they possess the means to resist “real tyranny” when it rears its ugly, fang-filled head while they were simultaneously redefining what constituted such tyranny down so they wouldn’t have to step out of the house and risk being shot.
A rational person would ask, “If firearms in private hands are all that stand between Americans and governmental overreach/tyranny, after 230+ years of creeping socialism when are they going to do the job?”
This is why the advocates of this position must resort to comparisons with genocidal states, and must carefully ignore that the largest mass crimes in American history (the genocide of the American Indians and the enslavement and mass killings of African-Americans) were primarily carried out by non-State actors … using firearms in private hands.
That’s Point One.
Point Two is that even if one assumes the validity of the “privately held firearms keep us free” argument, there is a difficult in terms of counting the cost. It is such a large, logic obstacle that it requires massive cognitive dissonance, outright fantasizing, and a heaping helping of alternative facts garnished with red-baiting to make it work.
Here’s the undeniable logic: if firearms are essential to American freedom, then mass shootings (including those of school children) are an acceptable price to pay for that freedom. Oh, it is gussied up in fantastic “what if” scenarios about heroic teachers and police officers and bystanders (“good guys with a gun”) who are on hand to stop or limit the damage, but the reality is that many gun rights activists believe (if you hook them up to a polygraph) that such murders are statistically insignificant and an acceptable cost to pay to have what they consider a free society.
Some point to the fact that we continue to drive automobiles even though we know that crashes will take the lives of tens of thousands of people each year, and everyone considers that an acceptable price to pay for personal mobility and the rapid transit of consumer goods. Nice try; false equivalence. Deaths and injuries from motor vehicles are more or less randomly distributed across the country (with a nod toward population density), and are quite rarely the result of an intent to kill other people.
Nor is the purpose of motor vehicles to be instruments of lethality. This is an important distinction. Target shooting and hunting aside (they are not really germane to 2nd Amendment questions, anyway), firearms only exist to exert lethal force against other people or to deter other people through the implicit or explicit threat that lethal force can be employed.
This is pretty much the reason that firearms don’t come with luggage racks, sound systems, anti-lock brakes, or dual cabin temperature controls. Motor vehicles exist to transport people and cargo, and it is only a side effect that transporting people and cargo in large numbers at high speeds creates kinetic force capable of rending human bodies into mush.
As a society we accept the inherent risks (and tragic deaths) involved in owning and operating motor vehicles because they are far more effective tools for getting us around and making sure the stores are full than privately owned firearms are effective at preventing governmental overreach and tyranny.
Conservatives and libertarians who believe, however, that these firearms are effective at preventing tyranny are implicitly stating their beliefs that a few mass murders, thousands of homicides, and tens of thousands of suicides every year are an acceptable price to pay for personal freedom.
Those among that group who have thought it through will reluctantly admit that. They don’t like it, but they will eventually admit that it’s the “price of a free society.”
This brings me to Point Three: the difference in understandings about what the point of society (or civilization, or government) is in the first place.
Conservatives and libertarians today would much prefer that the Declaration of Independence had enshrined insuring “life, liberty, and property” rather than “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the foundational purposes of government. (That’s why a lot of mid-19th Century conservatives got conned by the 14th Amendment, which put “property” disingenuously back into the mix while cementing the supremacy of Federal power into the Constitution on a root basis.)
To them, all rights derive from property rights, the only valid rights are “negative” rights (as opposed to “positive rights”), taxation is inherently theft no matter what the circumstance, and the only purpose of government is to defend our borders, secure individual liberties, and protect the economic interests of capitalists. They fervently believe that the same system of government that loosely controlled the actions of about 3 million people (70% of whom were either enslaved, indentured, or female, and therefore without consideration in the calculus of individual liberty) can work for 320 million.
They do this by maintaining a patchwork ideological structure that derives in unequal measure from George Fitzhugh (“Cannibals All!”), the Republican “Free Labor” Ideology of the 1850s, Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, Og Mandino’s “Acres of Diamonds,” and a flimsy pretense to having read John Stuart Mill, Lysander Spooner, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman, which in fact 99% of them never have. They’ve only experienced Alexander Hamilton through quotes on social media, and have never even heard of Rawls. They believe that all modern political expression to the center-left is directly derivative of Karl Marx and Saul Alinsky.
That this actually requires them to trash “classical liberals” (who were yesterday’s conservatives) as proto-marxists because they believe in public schools, LGBTQ rights, and abortion rights is no longer even inconvenient to them. They have adopted a satisfying, self-referential, self-censoring intellectual approach to ideology that neither requires nor accepts critical examination. After all: God.
The formerly accepted consensus of classical liberals, modern liberals, and even (dare I say it?) progressives that government and society exist (or, at least, should exist) to create the conditions to allow every human being an equal opportunity to achieve his or her potential, and that society should be able to place some limits on the concentration of wealth and coercive power in the hands of either the State or oligarchic private individuals is now successfully lampooned as socialism, communism, and a conscious prelude to genocide against Christians. Or just people who button their shirts all the way to the top.
Let us not ignore the excesses of those classical liberals, modern liberals, and progressives. In exchange for advances on the domestic social front over the past four or five decades they have traded (with horrific results) any moral high ground on killing black, brown, and yellow people all over the world (we call it “foreign policy”) as well as neutering themselves in terms of any significant restrictions on the corporate-government crony capitalism that exacerbates the differences of race and class; pollutes our air and water; and makes the exportation of weapons one of our primary products. They have made noises but they have not drawn and fought hard enough for those lines in the sand.
They have in effect said that illegal wars, a mass surveillance state, and a barely taxed military-industrial state is an acceptable price to pay for more wage parity in the workplace, slightly less toxic rivers, and marriage equality.
But I digress (I often do), and just lost my entire left-of-center audience most likely. Yet if you are still reading. …
The final recourse of the extreme gun rights advocate is the argument that more gun laws will not, in fact, reduce gun violence, because such violence is perpetrated by the mentally unstable or the criminally inclined, and those individuals never feel bound to follow the laws. This is, of course, one of those circular arguments that people have been making since Ben Franklin first introduced it with respect to the British Navigation Acts in the early 1770s. It boils down to this:
What you wish to legislate against will never work, though what I wish to legislate against will be effective.
You cannot effectively keep guns out of the hands of the criminal or the psychotic by making laws against it, but we can keep women from having abortions, people from imbibing marijuana, or LGBTQ people from building families via legislation.
It is a particularly virulent form of cognitive dissonance that finds those arguing (a) that stricter gun laws won’t have any effect on gun violence also making the case that (b) capital punishment will deter potential murderers.
Undoubtedly it would be more effective, in terms of having a debate about the role of firearms in a free society, to use the analysis of actual data. Then one could begin to understand that the same constraints on violence that functioned with some adequacy (though less, historically speaking, than people tend to believe) in a country with between 3-30 million people spread across a large continent will function at all within highly concentrated urban populations that are wracked with poverty, unemployment, and a break-down of any hope of getting out—all structurally reinforced in such as way as to make leaving only the prerogative of the middle class or higher.
Of course, one would also have to deal with the fact that hundreds of millions of firearms are already in private hands, and are not going anywhere else. Nor, I think (and many readers to the point will herein find me paradoxical), should they.
Of the firearms in private hands, 99% will never be used for inappropriate purposes. They will not be used to commit mass murders or in suicide attempts. The problem, of course, is that the aberrant 1% is over 3 million, or about four times as many weapons as the US currently keeps military troops in active service.
If life and safety rather than tyranny and conformity are the true purposes of such a conversation, with all due respect to my friends who would prefer a firearms-free civil society, then the conversation needs to be addressed in those terms.
The rhetorical bifurcation of “responsible gun owners” and “gun grabbers” represents (as Freeman Dyson once observed in a different context) not two differing positions, but two different languages. We need a different language for common use, which is—unfortunately—not the direction in which we appear to be heading.
You cannot argue with people who insist that the reason we have more mass shootings today is because third graders in public schools are no longer handed Gideon Bibles and forced to memorize psalms.
You likewise cannot argue with people who insist that their historical interpretation of past events like the Civil War become the litmus test for treason and loyalty.
You cannot debate in logical terms with people who have learned their history and logic through the memes of social media—right or left—and who have abandoned all possibility of considering compromise (or even new evidence) on any issue as tantamount to surrender.
Instead, I think (glumly) that you have to argue in actuarial terms. Some day the United States of America will have its Edward Gibbon because it will no longer be here. It will be examined in the light of history for the reasons of its disappearance, with the fulcrum probably being placed at the moment our republic began transforming itself into an empire (like Rome) in all except the name.
(I’d place that around 1945-48, pointing out to conservatives who reproach FDR for the New Deal that they should visit equal opprobrium on Truman for the national security state. But, being inside it, they cannot see it.)
We will be one of the “good preliminary tries” at achieving a workable civil society, lost in the end because we could not find more to tie us together than to separate us, and because while doing so we consistently ignored our own impact (politically, financially, and environmentally) on the rest of the world—until such time as the rest of the world decided to have its much-belated impact on us.
I am a pessimist today—as if you could not tell—a pessimist in search of an elusive ending to this rambling essay.
So here it is: we are in an era that rightly or wrongly defines political discourse in terms of winning, instead of communicating or compromising. So be it: to win your point, make your opponent gore himself on his own ox. The beginning two-thirds of this effort is at least instructive in terms of locating that beast.
You are responsible for finding your own skewer.
Very thoughtfully written piece. For others interested in a sound history of the Second Amendment, here you go —
At minimum, we ought to approach weapons and their owners exactly the way we treat those vehicles and/or their owners — train beforehand, register vehicles and owners/operators, require insurance, revoke the right to own and/or operate in the face of negligent or criminal use, tax appropriately. With rights come responsibilities … you know the argument … protect all of those law-abiding citizens…all of them.
I don’t particularly like the Waldman book. I think he gets his history wrong in several key places, and it eventually descends to the level of at least mild polemic by the end.
I also don’t like the motor vehicle registration argument. That omits the fact that guns = cars is at its heart a false equivalence. The mere existence and/or ownership of cars/trucks, etc., is not and has never been a political issue, nor one tied to an enumerated right; likewise firearms are not related to massive infrastructure investments in transportation nor to the economic functioning of the country.
Moreover, in order to be implemented, it would require the development of an additional massive bureaucracy, as well as creating an entirely new insurance industry spin-off that would very likely end up more focused on corporate profits than on public safety. There are actually other ways to accomplish the same end (not that I am endorsing it–this is a thought experiment). For example, people who wish to carry a firearm outside their own property could be required to post a forfeiture bond instead of buying insurance. Any weapon you carry via CCW is already known to the authorities, so there is no “registration” fear. The bond could be significantly lower for long guns (especially bolt-action weapons) and higher for those guns statistically associated with criminal use. The bond could be forfeitable in the event the weapon was used for, say, suicide; or was part of an accidental shooting or theft due to not being appropriately secured. This creates no new insurance industry.
The problem here is that this is a complex issue, as much as people like to come up with “simple” rhetorically based solutions, and any potential remedy to the perceived harm has to be thoroughly examined from all sides by all parties. The devil remains in the details.
What an impressive analysis! I would love to see all of our legislators get this piece. (Not that they would all read it — it’s too long for their obviously short attention spans!) Jack Polidori is right. Maybe we need to shift the effort away from prohibition towards regulation. I see no evidence that our legislators have the backbone to support the important substantive bills currently under consideration.
As you rightly note, logic plays no role in this issue for 2nd Amendment enthusiasts. They are driven by fear, which is impervious to reason.
Another source comes to the same conclusion re: gun ownership preventing tyranny:
In fact, guns in the hands of American militia soldiers have been more often used to repress people’s rights than to safeguard them. Most militia units in the Antebellum South existed to keep slaves in bondage and put down their potential rebellions. The National Guard from the 1870s-1890s was really state militias used as strikebreakers against railroad and steel mill workers. The closest you can really get to a militia attempting (with any success at all) to “resist tyranny” would be the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island in the early 1840s–it did better than the Whiskey Rebellion even if less well known.
Large groups of men with guns in American history pretty much tend to be supporting the State, not resisting it.
Also, too, Kent State.
“responsible gun owners”
Is that like a responsible pipe bomb owner ?