Despite horrific shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin in recent weeks, gun-control laws aren’t likely to make a comeback. Spectacular but sporadic outbursts do not, as far as I can tell, move voters to demand limits on firearms ownership. Restrictions on Second Amendment rights were politically viable for about 20 years as a response to rising urban violence (the big cities still, for the most part, maintain their anti-gun laws) and the racial politics of the ’60s and early ’70s. Consider California’s 1967 Mulford Act, signed by Governor Reagan, which prohibited open carry and elicited an armed (but peaceful) protest in Sacramento from the Black Panthers.
Gun control was the offspring of liberal nannyism and racialized right-wing fears for law and order. The latter have had a different outlet in recent decades, with an emphasis on prisons and unleashing the unitary executive — when there’s a Republican in office, at any rate — against subversives real or imagined at home and abroad. Safety-first liberalism by itself doesn’t have the mass appeal to give gun control political currency. There are millions of gun owners, and unless millions more Americans fear they might be victims of gun violence, there won’t be any national momentum for restrictions.
But a reasonable liberal might argue that trigger locks and limits on the number of firearms anyone is allowed to own, even an outright “assault weapons” ban (as opposed to weapons that cannot be used for assault, presumably), ought to be up for discussion. If a little nuisance for gun enthusiasts stops even one killing, isn’t it worth it? Who needs to own more than, say, two firearms or possess high-capacity magazines?
This kind of argument for seemingly common-sense restraint of civil liberty is something one hears from every side of the political fray, depending on the issue. You can make the same case for modest restrictions on free speech — why not confine protesters to designated areas where they can freely (and futilely) exercise their First Amendment rights without risking a riot? — and for applying a bit more law-enforcement scrutiny to Muslim Americans or other feared minorities. Most members of the targeted group are clearly nonviolent and not dangerous; the trade-off is supposed to be a slight loss of liberty to a wide group in hopes of forestalling an occasional James Holmes or Nidal Hasan. Statistically, the risk to any American from owners of legal guns or from the Muslims that Pamela Geller and company demonize are minuscule. But those who buy this argument for restricting liberty claim that the consequences of minor abridgements and infringements are so small that even preventing one incident is worth it.
Hogwash. It might save lives at the margin, too, if every American riding in an automobile were required to wear a helmet, but even Michael Bloomberg isn’t contemplating that. Risk is a corollary of freedom, and while there may be irresistible political pressure to compromise liberty when there are enormous risks to the general public, it’s with good reason that there is little constituency for such things otherwise — unless, that is, dangers are magnified out proportion by ideologues and ill-premised fears are indulged by people who wish to wallow in timidity or paranoia.
The next time a liberal wants to restrict gun ownership, he should stop to think whether he would restrict the rights of minorities on such “better safe than sorry” grounds. Right-wingers agitated about Sharia likewise ought to ponder whether they would agree to restrictions on their own Second Amendment rights under the same precautionary pretext. You can consistently limit both sets of liberties, of course, but better to consistently refuse to circumscribe the rights of others to assuage your own fears.