“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
–falsely attributed to Thomas Jeffersion
The epigram is correct. More than a couple of times I have heard or seen that quotation cited as an example of the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson. As it turns out, the whole thing was likely a fabrication by someone who did not believe being honest in political discussion was as important as appearing to have the support of a great American thinker. Serious Jeffersonian scholars hold that the man never wrote any such thing.
He did, however, write, “no freeman shall be debarred the use of arms (within his own lands.)” Though that too has been distorted by dishonest advocates, its occurrence in a 1776 draft of the Constitution for Virginia is just as it appears in this paragraph, complete with parenthetical. Broader surveys confirm the notion that Jefferson was not so much concerned with supporting bunkers full of anti-government militia gunmen as he was concerned with supporting the ability of American landowners to defend their personal turf.
It is true Jefferson worried about aristocratic oppression, and he clearly stood in support of some right to bear arms. That only makes it all the more odd that opponents of gun control policy would elect to distort his words so much, lacing their literature with falsehoods. Sticking with the facts would still show him supporting related principles. Then again, those who support strong restrictions or even outright bans on civilian firearms also tend to take things too far.
Esteemed legal scholars have made mockeries of their own reputations by interpreting the 2nd Amendment as if it existed only to address issues related to militia activities. It would be absurd to suggest that matters of personal self-defense and even defense of property never entered into the framers’ discussions. While it is fair to characterize the actual text of the 2nd Amendment as ambiguous, to summarily invalidate all arguments related to armed personal defense is an unreasonable stance that seems oblivious to context.
Somewhat like the abortion debate, gun policy suffers from the hijack of extremists. Those who absolutely insist there is a public interest in preserving civilian access to .50cal vehicular sniper rifles constitute one faction pitted against another that is committed to prohibiting any civilian participation in America’s gun culture. I would imagine an overwhelming majority of Americans occupy some middle ground. Yet policy emergent from that middle ground gets hammered by extremists launching attacks from opposing directions. Good ideas are cut down in the crossfire.
More relaxed supporters of extreme gun control may fall short being true advocates as they acquiesce to the depth with which gun culture has become a part of American society. Yet those truly concerned about saving lives ought to recognize that disarming America’s civilians is not likely to be the best method of accomplishing their goal. More than a few other societies support or even encourage firearm possession and use by ordinary citizens in a way that does not translate gun culture into an persistent increase in firearm killings.
In part this can be blamed on the extremists. Though a cutthroat economic paradigm, draconian enforcement of vice laws, and assorted other self-inflicted social problems are part of it; a shortage of responsible regulation is also part of the problem. In some states, selling a small bag of cocaine to partygoers intent on a lively weekend is cause enough for lifetime imprisonment. Selling a gun to a likely murderer usually draws a much lesser penalty, while selling a gun to an unstable undocumented individual who can briefly wear a safe sane facade may not result in much of a penalty at all.
It is true that respectable storefront gun shops risk being run out of business for failure to follow procedures and keep proper paperwork. That is all the more reason those business owners and their loyal patrons should oppose the continued legality of car trunk gun dealers and vast firearm expositions where regulatory oversight often cannot be brought to bear effectively. Can whatever value these institutions add to American culture really offset the lives they indirectly remove from our society?
Efforts for comprehensive firearm bans fall flat for all manner of reasons. Municipal examples like Washington, D.C. or Chicago, IL are not entirely misleading. It is true that people intent on gun violence in those areas can take a short drive to a place where ordinary gun commerce is unaffected by local laws. Yet in both those places, people intent on gun violence are usually but a stroll away from a black market dealer. It seems to me that an outright prohibition on guns would do more to unite gun seekers with criminal organizations than it would to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals.
So what should you think about the 2nd Amendment? Lots of people have strong feelings one way or the other. Yet a thoughtful approach does not lead us to either extreme. This is clearly one area of governance where compromise could work wonders. Eliminating American gun violence is not a realistic goal, but curtailing it through more sensible regulation surely is. The trick is to balance this compromise so that it accomplishes real good by keeping firearms out of the hands of citizens known to be insane or predisposed toward violence without going so far as to drive responsible gun owners into the black market.
Accomplishing this on a political level would involve getting gun owners’ advocacy groups down off the mountain of bogus slippery slope argumentation. Replacing a mishmash of state policies with a more coherent federal approach could be helpful. Sure, it would mean that law-abiding gun owners would have to let The Great Satan of federal government keep records on their identities and arsenals. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear,” does not apply to torture, unwarranted incarceration of indefinite length, etc. The potential for abuse is too great. On the other hand, just what plausible scenario involves government abuse of a database recording who owns which guns?
Of course, safety measures should stop short of being silly. Mandatory trigger locks serve much more as window dressing than a reasonable alternative to traditional methods of safe gun storage. Prohibitively expensive ammunition taxes would discourage practice shooting — a vital part of making the transition from inexperienced new gun owner to trained safe gun owner. Besides which, given what Canadian tobacco taxes do for organized crime, imagine what a 500% bullet tax would prompt.
One set of extremists ought to abandon false narratives about a totalitarian state being the inevitable outcome of federalizing gun policy and closing enforcement loopholes in gun commerce. Another set of extremists ought to abandon false narratives about unrealistic or ineffective safety measures. Without those blights on the political landscape, it should become easy to focus on measures that respect the American tradition of responsible gun ownership while also respecting the American desire to minimize abuse of the deadly power that comes from holding a loaded gun in your hands.