The latest horrific mass shooting in America, this time roughly 30 miles from my Denver home, happened on Monday. Ten died, and the suspect—a Trump-hating Syrian immigrant, hardly the MAGA hat-clad white man that the media so clearly desired—has been charged with ten counts of first-degree murder.
The Boulder, Colorado, shooting has, predictably, reopened America’s tiresome debate over gun policy. The suspect used an “AR-style” modern sporting rifle, thus assuring that Democrats and their media sycophants would rally anew for bans on that technically undefinable and cosmetically amorphous subclass of semiautomatic weapons colloquially referred to as “assault weapons.”
Never mind that the previous 10-year federal “assault weapons” ban, in place from 1994-2004, had no discernible effect whatsoever on gun crime. Never mind the wisdom embodied in the oft-repeated truism that, as a general rule and particularly in a country with more firearms in circulation than people, restrictive gun laws tend to solely disarm law-abiding citizens. Never mind the fact that Colorado already has a “red flag” law in place. Never mind the apparent fact that a more restrictive immigration policy pertaining to Middle Easterners would have been the more causally related public policy alteration. Nope—this time, Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats tell us, an “assault weapons” ban is obvious both as a remedial course correction and as a prophylactic crime-fighting tool.
Conservatives naturally should be very skeptical of efforts to further infringe on the firearm acquisition and ownership rights of law-abiding gun owners. But notwithstanding the fact that I am a proud gun owner—including an “AR-style” modern sporting rifle—it is not necessarily a timeless conservative principle, per se, to universally take a maximalist stance on an individual right to keep and bear arms. Indeed, it is reasonable to ponder the possibility that just and proper gun policy ought to be contextualized based on a polity’s underlying conditions.
The Constitution (with its Second Amendment so cherished by gun owners like me), John Adams once famously said, was “made only for a moral and religious people” and is “wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The paradigmatic conservative Edmund Burke similarly once argued that “men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.” Alas, Americans in the year 2021 can be said to be neither a “moral and religious people” nor particularly well disposed to putting “moral chains upon their own appetites.”
To be sure, gun restrictions are generally still bad public policy due to reasons both intrinsic—criminals do not, by definition, abide by laws—and pragmatic—in a country with more guns than citizens, an Australia-style “buyback” program would be infeasible to the point of absurdity, even if it were not blatantly unconstitutional. But the very rhetorical and intellectual currency of our firearm policy discourse has become woefully debased over the decades. At the time of the American founding, gun ownership was viewed not merely as a check on government tyranny and a logical outflow of the natural, common-law right to self-defense. It was also viewed as virtuous: something that was, can, and ought to be deployed to protect one’s family, one’s home and one’s community. In this sense, a well-armed citizenry was not simply an outgrowth of any particular natural or legal right; rather, it was viewed as fundamentally just and redounding to the common good of a well-functioning, internally harmonious society.
The reader here will conjure up images of frontiersmen and homesteaders protecting their remote homes with flintlock muskets—and there is a lot of accuracy to the early- to mid-republic authenticity of those images. But when is the last time anyone, even a conservative, has made an affirmative argument in favor of gun ownership based not on constitutional meaning or contextual prudence but on the inherent virtue of gun ownership? The long, steady decline of this once-prevalent school of thought is certainly due, in part, to the hollowing out of America’s religiosity and temperance. But it is also due to the fact that manliness itself is increasingly viewed not as a virtue to be nourished and cherished but as a “toxic” vestige of a bygone barbarism that must be tamed and ultimately excised. A society that loses its belief in the importance of manliness qua manliness will necessarily fail to appreciate the virtue of a home- and hearth-protecting paterfamilias. There is a direct, unmistakable connection between the decline of the former and a lessened respect for the latter.
Our firearm policy discourse is hackneyed and wearisome, but if progressives continue to push for confiscatory overcorrections, then conservatives must continue to trot out familiar arguments against draconian strictures. Conservatives’ job would certainly be easier, though, if our society still retained the intellectual currency of yore.
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