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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Left-Wing Conservative - Is Gun Control Slavery?

Wayne LaPierre, the chief lobbyist of the NRA, has proposed that the solution to the string of mass killings in public schools is, not to put any new restrictions on the ability to purchase semi-automatic weapons, or limits on the size of ammunition clips, but rather to provision and train an armed team to defend against any attack.

That this is the recommendation of the largest sportsman's and gun enthusiast's organization in the United States (and that so many endorsed his view) highlights that the issue of gun control is very much akin to another "peculiar institution" in our history  --- slavery.

Of course, owning a gun is not owning a human being. Rather, I think the issues suffer from the same defect of moral reasoning in that they involve taking an entrenched cultural practice and the conflation of property rights with human rights.

Slavery was deeply entwined within our culture because it served the twin goals of providing cheap replaceable labor and endorsing a caste system which even the non-slave holders benefited from, as even the lowest white sharecropper could hold himself over a slave, and it was a "fundamental right" for whites to rule over blacks.

Much of the rhetoric in support of slavery considered it a "sacred institution" and its abolition was considered a violation of constitutionally protected "property rights". So powerful was the property rights rationale that many who supported abolition (including Abraham Lincoln) believed that, absent a constitutional amendment, a just solution was for the federal government to purchase the slaves from their owners, a "just compensation" to the owners.

Gun ownership, like the issue of slavery, is intertwined into our cultural DNA. For generations, Americans have privately owned firearms. It is estimated that today there are between 250 and 300 million weapons in private hands in the US. Generations have used them for hunting, protection, and sport. Many before and today have grown up around guns, and learned how to handle and store them safely.

The Supreme Court recognized this long tradition, having ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010) that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess firearms for traditionally recognized purposes such as "defense of the home". However, the Court also specified that this right did not invalidate laws regulating who can own a gun ("felons or the mentally ill") where they may be carried ("schools and government buildings") or laws "imposing conditions or qualifications on the commercial sale of arms".

I would argue that the Court acknowledged only selective aspects of American tradition, and there are other interpretations that suggest the Second Amendment is more about states and communities being able to provide for their own internal security. That aside, the Court's decisions, in my view, are not unreasonable. And I think the Court clearly, and wisely, left the details of gun control to be fleshed out by the democratic process.

Rights mean nothing if they are not underwritten by moral values that encourage human flourishing in a democratic community. They mean nothing if they are simply a shorthand for our own preferences or desires. In short, they have to be brought back to earth.

But still we hear that the right to a semi-automatic weapon, the right to carry a concealed weapon, and the right to own high capacity magazines, are such central 'fundamental rights' that they are beyond discussion, and the only permissible solution is to "fight fire with fire" and have more, and more heavily armed, people to shoot back at mass killers.

Like the slavery issue, we are using the rhetoric of property rights, but not in terms of ownership of assets, but in terms of a consumer's demand for goods and services. Like the slaveholders, the NRA's position, and the position of its fellow travelers, is one that puts their own desires above the well-being of their community, and relies on abstract " property rights" to glorify same.

Today, the discussion around gun ownership needs to be about values that lead to a flourishing culture, or the participation of an engaged citizenry, not those of a well-trained consumer.

To refer back to the Supreme Court's decision, the consumer ignores the citizen's obligation to responsibly define what weapon is necessary for self-defense, or defense of the home, versus what is simply a dangerous toy for selfish amusement.

The burden is on the gun owner to justify the need, not on their neighbors to argue where the limits are. Are we to believe that we can pass laws against excessive noise so our neighbors can sleep, but not excessive firepower so we make our public spaces safer?

It is a consumer, not a citizen, who says "I want what I want, when I want it, and as much as I want". It is a consumer, not a citizen, who says "I should be able to own whatever gun I want, when I want, and fire as many rounds as I want, as fast as I want."

A consumer's values are not those of  a citizen, capable of moral reasoning, aware of their interdependence with others, and trusted to self-government and democratic selection of leaders.

Rather, they are the values of a child.


  1. "Today, the discussion around gun ownership needs to be about values that lead to a flourishing culture, or the participation of an engaged citizenry..."
    I think this is the real, core issue. Would a flourishing culture breed so much fear and insecurity that people feel the need to arm themselves to the teeth. If people felt they were a robust part of our democracy, would they think they needed to be armed to overthrow it, or would they take a vibrant part in reshaping it in a non-violent way. I think the myth of "individualism" has led many to forget that humans are social creatures, and that the social compact has rights AND responsibilities. I think the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps, I did it all by myself, you should too" mentality has left so many feeling powerless and vulnerable.
    ~Sandy F.

  2. Its hard to see how more guns lead to any type of solution. In the end, it seems the only group that would unequivocally benefit from the NRA's positions are gun manufacturers and gun dealers.