Nowhere is the defeatist liberal approach to American politics more evident than in the post-Newtown campaign for gun control. Liberals are rushing to repeat, like a devout incantation, hand on one's heart, that "we believe in the Second Amendment" -- in an "individual's right to own a gun." Half of the legal and moral battle is lost right there and then. Instead, liberals should emphasize that throughout the total American legal history until 2008, the Supreme Court -- which at times has been very conservative -- has always held that the right to own guns belongs not to the individual but, as the Second Amendment states, to a "well regulated militia." (For details on the cases involved, go here). That the right to own guns is a communitarian right, not an individualized one. True, the Roberts Court recently ruled otherwise, but liberals are still free to urge the court to reconsider this ruling and fashion arguments that will make it easier for the Court to fall back in line with all who preceded it. It would also help to recall that other civilized societies hold that the fewer guns there are out there, the fewer people will be murdered by guns.
Next, liberals have started their gun control campaign, as they sadly so often do, by conceding most of their ground before the give-and-take is even underway. Thus, when dealing with health care, they did not start with a true liberal position (a call for a single-payer system) because they assume that such a position will not play and hence -- being the reasonable people that they are -- they proposed an option close to the conservatives' preferred policy. Then the give-and-take ensues -- further watering down what was a very thin gruel to begin with.
As someone who fired guns for over two years in combat, I hate to tell you that the conservatives are right when they argue that banning big magazines and assault rifles -- the current "liberal" opening gambits -- will make very little difference. It takes only a second or so to replace an empty magazine with a loaded one, and there are so many assault rifles out there that it would take at least a generation (assuming no new ones were sold nor imported nor smuggled in nor stolen from military bases) before these guns would become significantly less available than they are at present.
Liberals, when challenged with these facts, engage in a rhetorical maneuver. True, they say, our favorite (mini) bans will not solve the problem, nothing will, but we can, as Obama put it in his State of the Union address, at least "make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun." True, but the difference, unfortunately, will be marginal. Indeed, in many of the jurisdictions that have gun control laws of the kind that liberals typically call for -- and even in ones where the laws are stricter, still (Chicago, for instance) -- murder by gun is very common.
A true liberal position, the place to start, is to call for domestic disarmament. That is the banning of the sale of all guns to private parties coupled with a buyback of those on the street (Mexico just moved to so control guns). Collectors can keep their guns as long as they remove the firing pin or fill the barrel with cement. Gun sports can be allowed -- in closed shooting ranges. And hunters can be allowed to have long guns (if they pass background checks) with no scopes, which are not sporting. But, these exceptions aside, liberals should call for a gun-free nation and point out the much lower murder rates and fewer deaths due to accidental discharge of fire arms found in those civilized nations where most guns have been removed from private hands -- and often even from those of the police.
Let the conservatives, who, of course, will reject such a policy, however strongly it is supported by evidence, tell us what they are going to do about gun violence. Improve mental health services? A good idea, assuming they will vote for the required spending, as well as recognize that there is no way such an improvement will make more than a marginal difference given the difficulties in both diagnosing who is prone to violence and in treating those individuals. Limit violence video games? Let them show that such a measure would make a difference. Enforce the laws on the books? Let them remove the blocks they have put in place to prevent these laws from being enforced. A good place to start: Let Obama appoint a director for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
I acknowledge that the result, even after Newtown, of a truly liberal approach to gun control might not be very different from the current one. Conservatives are not about to allow sensible measures to be enacted. However, at least we shall have an honest, compelling, mobilizing vision of what liberals stand for regarding what it takes to save many thousands of lives that would be otherwise lost to guns. Domestic disarmament is a vision that can educate future generations of voters about that which must be done and that which the Second Amendment fully permits.
Amitai Etzioni is proud to announce that he just made the NRA anti gun enemy list. For more discussion see his book My Brother's Keeper.