On Demythologizing Guns

For as long as anyone can remember, whenever liberals try to regulate guns conservatives whinge that the government secretly wants to confiscate them. Invariably, liberals respond by bending over backward to show that they respect an American constitutional right to own guns and then, just as surely as day follows night, somewhere between that right and reasonable regulation no major solutions get enacted. Gun deaths -- and gun massacres -- continue unabated. Liberals point fingers, grouse about interest group politics, and worry whether they have yet to present enough sufficiently strong arguments to make their case but, paradoxically, at the same time liberals shy away from identifying the crux of the problem. Conservatives, however, correctly understand what's at stake: The choice is, in fact, about whether to confiscate guns because -- conservatives realize this intuitively -- the only way to control American gun culture is to stamp it out.

It's a simple enough proposition: few to no guns equals no gun culture whereas a proliferation of easily available guns make the gun culture indestructible.

This conundrum is analogous to slavery, or abortion. You couldn't have a society that partly owns slaves. Nor could you have a society that partly legalizes abortion. Under ordinary circumstances you don't change from one condition to the other gradually, either, just as you wouldn't shift from a system of driving on the left to a system of driving on the right by letting people drive for a while wherever down the middle of the road they may feel like.

Once again, unfortunately, signs of preemptive liberal surrender abound, from photographs of President Obama shooting skeet, to the vice president's cardboard commission, to professions by dozens of distinguished professors of constitutional law that gun regulation is 100 percent consistent with the scope and meaning of the Second Amendment. Obviously, liberals wish the argument were about verifiable facts, logic, rational thought, the epidemiology of gun violence, a comparative analysis of gun regulations in other industrial countries, and so on and so forth. Equally obviously, no leading liberals have shown a willingness to engage in an out-and-out fight. The proposition that the politics of gun ownership is entirely about irreconcilable psychological differences, an inversion of normal human values, if you will, on the part of the gun culture, remains anathema.

It would be helpful, therefore, for liberals to remember and think about where the American gun culture came from in the first place, because it is by no stretch of the imagination a natural cultural development. The problem, like so much else that's tragic and fatally flawed in the U.S. Constitution, starts with slavery. James Madison, a Virginia slave-holder, drafted the Second Amendment to guarantee that state militias, also known then in the South as "slave patrols," would forever be available to slave-holders for use in suppressing slave revolts and for capturing runaway slaves. Second Amendment protections of gun ownership had nothing whatsoever to do with fears of a standing army. Quite the opposite. The Second Amendment intended that a sordid monopoly on power remain firmly in the hands of the state.

Conservatives airbrush this narrative to make it seem as though James Madison had had something more noble in mind. And because, even back then, politicians were sufficiently ashamed of slavery that they spoke of it through euphemism and in whispers ("protection of property" was a favored line), it's a non-trivial problem to locate the proverbial smoking gun. Moreover it's easy, of course, to forget history when one wants, as all Americans do, to venerate the founding. Nevertheless, the truth is irrefutable.

The same sentiments that animated those slave patrols animate today's gun culture except that instead of actual slaves the gun culture has an ideation of slaves in its fear of "the other." What matters in terms of practical solutions, however, is that the gun culture seems to have driven everyone outside of it into a form of psychological servitude. It's so bad we don't even talk about it. Most peculiar, indeed!

Faced with fundamentalist believers in the Second Amendment, a system of government that celebrates minority obstructionism, spineless politicians everywhere and an all-pervasive culture of violence, there's a strong temptation to settle for peanuts.

But if you stop to think about it, no civilian has a good reason to own a semiautomatic weapon of any kind. Hunters can use bolt action rifles or pump shotguns. Those interested in personal safety can use old-fashioned revolvers. Leave semiautomatic weapons to law enforcement and the military. There's no need, and no sense, in civilians trying to compete. We could, and should, have high standards for licensing civilian firearms owners, including required training and re-certification programs and (expensive) insurance. Indeed, instead of having almost one firearm per person in America we could probably get by very well with one tenth of that number, or less. Finally, confiscating the outstanding inventory is hardly the Augean task it's made out to be.

The bottom line is this: There never was a golden age of wisdom regarding gun ownership in America -- if we want to do what's right we're on our own.