Rethinking the Right to Bear Arms
The inhumanity of the slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut should not be met with despair. Though no society can extinguish human evil (and any that tries will likely not end well), democratic politics assumes that collective action can at least mitigate the problem. Seeing as no other developed country has anything like our problem with gun violence, it seems like murder-by-gun isn’t a pre-political, immutable feature of modern life.
But to hear the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies tell it, the roughly 32,000 deaths from gun violence per year are unavoidable byproducts of the Second Amendment. “We doubt that [meaningful action to reduce mass killing] is possible, in a way consistent with the principle and the fact of the Second Amendment,” the editors of National Reviewwrote. Nevermind that the majority in the Supreme Court case establishing a right to own handguns, DC v. Heller, found that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on…laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” No intermediate step between an outright ban and our current lax regulation could, according to National Review, make a dent despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.
That’s because the “Second Amendment” so commonly invoked by gun advocates isn’t the actually-existing Second Amendment to the Constitution. It’s a stand-in term, one that signifies adherence to an ideology – call it, for lack of a better term, the gun rights ideology. I use the term with caution, as the gun rights ideology isn’t about rights in the ways we ordinarily understand the term. Rather, the gun rights ideology is more properly a form of anti-politics, one opposed to a decent political order rather than part-and-parcel of it.
It’s important to first clarify what the gun rights ideology isn’t: sincere and well-justified belief that the United States should protect handgun ownership. While I think Heller was wrongly decided, there’s a reasonable case that the Court got it right. Moreover, it isn’t clear that a handgun ban would actually work. So the gun rights ideology must be separated from the debate over handgun ownership specifically.
What distinguishes ideology from reasonable disagreement is the former’s sweeping totalism. The right to bear arms, on the ideological view, is a right with virtually no limitations. Any restriction on gun owners’ ability to acquire and maintain weapons of their choosing is an intolerable violation of individual liberty. Charles C.W. Cooke, decrying calls for gun control after Newtown, put it well: “In a free republic, the people cannot be disarmed by the government, for they are its employers, and they did not give up their individual rights when they consented to its creation.” Cooke sees this right as ruling out “any attempt at gun control in America,” presumably ranging from gun bans to stricter background checks.
The NRA, of course, is the gun rights ideology’s guarantor, opposing everything from federal research on the epidemiology of gun violence to international treaties on the arms trade that don’t actually regulate domestic gun sales. While the lobby’s power is oft-overstated, there’s no denying that the NRA’s totalist opposition to gun regulation has had a dominant influence on American gun policy, ruling out effective gun regulations that would not restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens to own or carry guns. Federal law allows 40 percent of gun sales to take place without any background checks on the purchaser; 80 percent of gun crimes involve guns purchased in these off-the-books sales. It has also, on the gun lobby’s request, restricted the feds from sharing information with local police attempting to solve gun homicides. Though most NRA members actually support enhancing regulation in these and related areas, the NRA itself opposes them, along with the swath of mostly red-state congresspeople who toe the NRA line. The gun rights ideology, then, is not marginal: it plays a critical role in limiting the options available to federal and state legislators looking to mitigate the loss of 32,000 lives.
But the problems with the gun rights ideology extend beyond this terrible human cost. While its proponents cloak themselves in the language of “rights” and “freedom,” the argument they give for unfettered gun access is antithetical to the foundational assumptions about democratic decision-making.
Consider the argument from tyranny: state control of guns forecloses our last line of defense in the event that America goes Weimar. On first glance, this argument sounds just like the standard argument for freedom of speech and expression. These rights protect the stuff of democracy; they enact our ability to freely shape our own collective destiny. Absent certain protections, the government would be free to curtail individual freedom without protest. The Second Amendment is the First’s backstop.
But that’s wrong. The tyranny argument is different from true political rights in one crucial respect: it doesn’t protect a right to democratic action. Voting, staging a protest, or writing a personal blog on politics are all attempts to influence political life through the democratic process. Protecting these rights absolutely, without exception, is a means of ensuring free and equal access to the levers of collective self-determination. Democratic rights open up the sphere of deliberation, attempting to maximize our ability to make change through democratic, constitutional processes.
Say what you will about armed revolution, but it isn’t that.
This difference matters. Asking a liberal society to take some options off the political table to safeguard the foundations of participatory democracy is one thing; asking that society to allow unrestricted access to deadly weapons so they can suborn the system itself if necessary is quite another. It’s not just that the gun rights ideology, per Alan Jacobs, represents “the absolute abandonment of civil society,” though that’s also true. It’s that it places itself against the democratic process in the name of paranoid fantasy.
The logic of perpetual apocalypse is unremitting. Because no modern liberal democracy as stable as the United States has ever succumbed to totalitarianism (and please, don’t talk to me about Nazi Germany), there are no warning signs to look out for, no knowledge about what infringements on gun rights are the first step towards tyranny. Assuming that gun rights are really the first thing to go if we start down the road to serfdom, then it would seem necessary to protect them absolutely, as you never know which gun restriction might represent the first mile marker. Indeed, that’s why NRA arguments against prudentregulation so frequently lapse into paranoid conspiracy-mongering about plots to undermine the Second Amendment.
This thinking is profoundly undemocratic and, in a certain sense, profoundly unconservative. Democracies are supposed to, except in cases where fundamental democratic and human rights are at stake, be free to consider all available policy options to solve problems at hand. 32,000 gun deaths a year mean that we undeniably face a real problem. Yet by making the specter of totalitarianism the lodestar for the American gun debate, the gun rights ideology precludes the sort of collective deliberation that democratic societies value as a means of solving problems. It also abandons a conservative appreciation for empirical detail and moderate, pragmatic policy experimentation in favor of wild fantasy. If part of what we appreciate about democratic politics is public, rational deliberation, then argument from tyranny is a heresy.
Some critics of gun regulation will undoubtedly object, arguing that this isn’t a fair description of their position. In their view, the burden should be on gun regulators to prove that restrictions on sales work. People have a right to purchase and own whatever they’d like without constraint unless that in some way violates the rights of others. Gun enthusiasts enjoy the same freedom to pursue their passions as, say, avid drinkers or stamp collectors.
This argument, whatever its merits, is divorced from our actual debate about guns. There is no way to get from that principled libertarianism to opposition to background checks on gun sales. Nor do the most prominent exponents of gun rights ideology really accept it – you don’t often hear congressional Republicans supporting cocaine legalization, for example. The modern discourse on gun control makes no sense unless it’s understood that one side is motivated by gun rights ideology, underpinned by the argument from tyranny.
The point here is not to suggest that the NRA and its allies are a threat to American democracy itself. Rather, it’s that they’re a threat to the quality of our democracy. Democratic theorists tend to see open, rational public deliberation as a key element of a successful democratic order: it helps citizens make honest and informed choices about which policies and politicians are worth supporting, about which values they want to shape the system that’s supposed to represent them. The move to cast every gun regulation as a threat to the Second Amendment is opposed to that democratic debate. It’s a stalking horse for the specter of tyranny, a fantastical conversation-ender rather than a point of view worth taking seriously.
So the next time someone invokes the American Revolution as a reason to oppose gun control, it might be worth mentioning that they’re undermining the very values the Founders risked their lives for.
Zack Beauchamp is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org. Follow him on Twitter.