In America, gun rights are enshrined in the Constitution. The Supreme Court has been clear and insistent on it since District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), and recent political changes guarantee that liberals are not going to take control of the court any time soon. Further, Americans own vast numbers of guns, and show no inclination to stop buying or using them.
That is the situation. Before we can understand our predicament with opponents of private gun ownership, we have to clarify what their opposition to guns really means.
Liberals who honestly want the government to confiscate hundreds of millions of weapons are not the real problem. They are fools who do not understand politics.
The real trouble is with dishonest liberals who use gun control as a polemical weapon against other Americans. These people are one part of a partisan conflict that works now to conceal the real problems Americans face by getting the two American political coalitions worked up into a lather of hate for one another instead of working toward discovery of what they have in common.
After every shooting, celebrities—of both the political and the Hollywood variety—attempt to affix the blame for the horror on their political opponents. Many of the the smarter liberals involved in this ritual understand that they stand no chance of making practical changes, but they don’t care. They just want some political victories, at whatever cost to the country.
If partaking in real hysteria is no way to conduct oneself in public, participating in fake hysteria meant to serve partisan ends is even more contemptible. Americans would be better served by sober reminders of the role of guns have played in securing the freedom of the republic.
The political reason for permitting gun ownership in America is to promote the defense of our civilization. America would not exist and cannot survive without its guns. The greatest military on earth depends, ultimately, on the habits of citizens who teach their kids about weaponry. Americans are not the only wealthy or comfortable people in the world; but they are the only people of any political importance that has not been disarmed. That is a fundamental fact of geopolitical reality, and it is the open secret of American freedom.
But let us not allow liberal hysteria to hide the fact that, for now, they are dominating the public narrative. Conservatives may lay claim to the political victories which, over time, have produced an enduring, tested consent of the majority on the gun issue, but in speech liberals are having great success in moving public sentiment.
Now, for conservatives to begin reclaiming public sentiment, they need to go beyond the victories they have already secured. They need to stop thinking in purely polemical terms and start taking seriously the most serious insights of their liberal opponents on gun rights. Conservatives are great on the individual rights aspect of this fight, but they remain bad at advancing argument on behalf of self-government as it pertains to gun rights.
Consider the approach to two of the most common problems involving guns in America today: mass shootings and the suicidal impulses of the mentally unstable.
The federal government may be able to help address the problem of mass shootings at the margins. But ultimately any kind of prevention will depend on the resources and intelligence of local communities. Maybe the answer is for cities and state to change the way police investigate reports of suspicious or dangerous behavior. Maybe the FBI could help effecting those changes; or perhaps the rights of citizens who suffer from certain mental illnesses could be restricted in some useful way that does not run afoul of the Constitution. But the federal government would have to make it clear that onus is on state and local governments to develop solutions. Not only would this kind of local policing be more likely to be effective, it would also protect us from investing too much police power in the federal government. For the federal government to do this kind of work effectively, we would run the risk of turning America into a full surveillance state—one even hysterical liberals would learn to fear.
What about the problem of suicide-by-gun? Firearms are involved in roughly two-thirds of suicides in America each year. But that’s not a gun problem. It’s something much deeper: an American individualism taken to such an extreme that people feel adrift and alone. One can anticipate the liberal solution: access to more resources that would provide support for at-risk individuals. Lots of awareness and consciousness raising, too.
Quite apart from the cloying and heartless jargon of the liberal approach, there is also the problem that such “solutions” would create institutions that liberate communities from any responsibility for individuals.
What if no constitutional way exists to take away guns from worrisome and mentally unstable people or to force them to attend counseling, aside from the indignity of the liberal options? On the other hand, what do conservatives propose when it comes to dealing with the large numbers of suicides?
In some ways, America seems trapped between two ways of destroying communities. One is to always rely on the federal government and suffer the indignity of an infantilized population; the other is to leave everything to individuals, even when individualism run amok can be the source of of many of our problems.
When we have so many people seeking to commit, either by their own hand or by suicidally committing stupid acts in the expectation that police will remove the burden of that choice from them by taking them out, it says something more serious about America’s problems than any gun debate can address. In truth, mass murder is not about guns, either.
A gun is a tool. But guns serve as a distraction from the essential human problems at the heart of these symptoms of our national ill health. The cure for what ails Americans is to seek approaches that strengthen our communities. A serious commitment to that end would require liberals to renounce their tendency to publicize hysteria and it will require conservatives to renounce their reflexive impulse to turn every political question into a rehearsal of our individual rights.
What America needs to go forward, with liberal and conservative inclinations working toward real solutions for our broken country, is ways to restore the habits and authority of smaller communities to govern themselves. It may be that we need to require more serious policing, but we also have a duty to look after our most vulnerable people. We need to talk about ways to accomplish that and to do any of that we need to stop talking past one another.