A friend recently suggested on facebook that, with several weeks having passed since any heavily-publicized shooting, it might now be a good time to have that mythical “conversation about guns”. I intend to define that conversation a little more clearly. Advocates for gun control often appear to expect the discussion to consist of them making points, and their opponents acknowledging that wisdom: I see a real resentment of what seems to them senseless stubbornness on the part of defenders of gun rights.
At least part of the problem, I think, is that gun control arguments on the whole do not address the concerns of those concerned with gun rights. In some cases, they actually make the case for gun control less appealing. For instance, defenders of gun rights often regard that right as a peculiarly American institution, and reflexively assume American ideas are superior to others. To compare foreign laws favorably, especially when combined with the apparent implication that American laws are inferior, is to prejudice that audience against your conclusion from the very beginning.
Now, I think there is a natural right to self-defense, and that there is in the United States a civil right to bear arms – including firearms. In fact the language and context of the Second Amendment suggests “arms” should be considered to include any weapons commonly assigned to infantry: in this respect accepted laws on gun possession are if anything more strict than the Constitution allows. But I am not convinced the natural law of self-defense requires citizens of any hypothetical country to have this right.
In other words, I admit the possible utility of gun control. However, I am generally among those put off by the arguments generally put forward by gun control advocates. If they want to make a case that actually appeals to the sensibilities of supporters of gun rights, they need to do at least three things.
First, they need to respect the law. Advocates of gun control are often dismissive of the Constitution and the legal protections of due process, emphasizing momentary needs over institutional integrity. Many, I believe, support gun rights primarily, like myself, because it is the law: dismissing the Second Amendment, or the concerns of its authors about tyranny, needlessly antagonizes a constituency which is not emotionally or habitually invested in gun possession and therefore is a potential gun control ally.
Second, they need to demonstrate the benefit. Citing foreign experience is insufficient, for reasons I have outlined. Most advocates of gun rights associate high levels of gun violence not with gun possession simply, but with the cities – which is to say, corruption and poverty. Racially-motivated distrust also plays a part. But when it comes to gun control in the American context, cities often have more stringent laws than other places: and so the American concludes gun control doesn’t work in America. “Gun-free zone” is a common a morbid jab at their opponents among gun rights supporters. Gun control might help prevent violence: especially deadly violence, but for it to find approval, American urban crime rates – both violence by private persons, and government corruption – have to be brought down, and the public has to know these rates have fallen, or many people will simply continue to assume gun control does not really work, and is simply a short-hand to achieve “people control”.
Finally, gun control advocates need a population that trusts the government. In America, this is a somewhat paradoxical task: the entire structure is set up under the assumption that people are not particularly trustworthy, and ambitious ones even less so. But at the moment, neither major party is doing anything to counter-act these suspicions. The Republican Party, as an institution. is more or less openly on the side of business and consulting that will keep them fat and happy, but at least has the decency to talk about believing in free trade as a cover; the Democratic Party is not really any better, and does not even make that an excuse – and moreover, is generally always in favor of passing coercive regulations on any subject whatsoever. Those supporting gun rights for any reason whatsoever almost always believe in the ideal and benefits of self-government, while they see advocates for gun control practically denying the possibility.
I am, as I said, not convinced that passage of gun control laws is either necessary or the most urgent cause at the moment. But if a gun control advocate were serious about achieving tighter control without intentionally aggrieving gun rights defenders, I would suggest the working within the laws. I think, in fact, a Constitutional amendment is likely required. If I were working to allow gun control laws, I would suggest an amendment to the Constitution be made up in Congress, reading something like this: “The Fourteenth Amendment shall not apply to laws made by State or local authorities with regard to bearing or possession of arms.” By proposing such a law as an amendment, gun control advocates could show they were serious about working within the legal framework. By returning a specific power to the States, they would cripple a common argument among those defending gun rights, that the Federal government is looking to centralize all power. And by allowing variety – the passage of laws as States and localities desire – we would be better able to demonstrate, in a purely American context, what kind of laws really are best for limiting violent crimes.