Friday, December 21, 2012

Futility: The Response of the Right Wing

A few days have passed since the shooting at Sandy Hook and the right wing response to the horror is starting to crystallize. I have already documented some of the more ridiculous knee-jerk responses here and here, but more recognizable and smarter conservative arguments have begun to appear in the last couple days that deserve closer attention. It is these arguments, I think, that will diminish or thwart new legislation on guns, not so much through fire-breathing anti-liberal rhetoric but through multifarious expressions of futility. The terrible truth of Sandy Hook, as they would have it, is that there's really nothing we can do.

One of the better conservative essays on guns in America comes from Alex Massie at The Spectator. Besides being an interesting (if infuriating) read, it illustrates the patterns in right-wing thinking about the coming debate. As I read it, the defense of gun rights seems to run in two broad categories. The first is the abstract rights-based rhetoric, an invocation of founding documents and founding principles that make access to guns for Americans an inviolable privilege. Massie writes
The (London) Times... editorialised that the Second Amendment "ostensibly protects the right to bear arms". There’s no ostensibly about it. The Amendment does just that and no amount of sophistry about the Founding Fathers’ intentions or the difference between muskets and semi-automatic firearms can change that.
Presumably he is talking about left-wing sophistry such as mine. After dismissing such reasoning, Massie moves into the second broad category, a pragmatic recognition of the ubiquity of guns in America. To "control" guns in a nation where there are nearly as many privately owned guns as people is an impossibility. So Massie, three paragraphs after his nod to the Second Amendment, writes:
Nor, despite the impression given by the international media, are American guns the sole preserve of right-wing lunatics. True, conservative households are more likely to possess guns than liberal households but almost one in three self-identified Democratic homes contains a gun and nearly 60% of those in rural areas do so. So do nearly 40% of Democratic households in the mid-west and south. “No guns” is a fantasy.
Since Sandy Hook this type of argument, reality-based rather than rights-based, has become vastly more popular than the constitutional argument, and for obvious reasons: abstract philosophies and paeans to men in powdered wigs are not compelling when six-year-old children have been shot. Commentary on the omnipresence of guns in our society, however, delivered in tones ranging from the clinical to the resigned, is far more acceptable. The meaning that is conveyed, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, is that conservatives lament this problem just like liberals, but unlike liberals they recognize the hard truth that nothing can be done. It allows them to establish a false middle ground in which they commiserate with the rest of America while rejecting any ideas for reform. Take, for instance, the close of the editorial "Banning 'Assault Weapons' Is Not The Answer," in The National Review:
The Left would like to take this tragedy as an opportunity to reform our laws in such a way as to make public shootings significantly less likely. This is a noble goal. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will not accomplish it.
What would stop such tragedies? In this piece the editors of The National Review have nothing to suggest.

While this second category of gun rights rhetoric, the reality-based category, is more useful in situations like the post-Newtown debate, the first category, rights-based constitutional arguments, remains essential. Indeed, in almost every article, the pragmatists invoke the Second Amendment sooner or later (usually quite briefly to avoid looking callous) to establish an impassable boundary to reform measures. Passing gun control laws, the reasoning goes, will be ineffectual... unless it is effectual, in which case it will be unconstitutional. Those, it seems, are our only choices. The National Review editors are quite plain about this:
Both of these measures raise Second Amendment concerns as well. It is difficult to claim there is a legitimate reason to ban assault weapons, given the above-explained irrelevance of the distinction. And reviving the 1994 ban’s ten-round cap on magazine capacity would outlaw the standard versions of popular guns such as the Glock 17, which is likely a violation of the Second Amendment interpretation laid out in Heller and McDonald.
It is, one must admit, a well constructed closed-loop system—a dilemma with no solution, constructed by the very people who don't want to find a solution. Scalia's reading of the Second Amendment is the cornerstone. Massie does his best to make the whole thing ironclad by delegitimizing any criticisms of these Supreme Court decisions.
The Supreme Court agrees. This is settled law. Arguing that, somehow, it should not be places you in the same category as those people who once began any discussion of the Northern Ireland peace process with the observation that Northern Ireland “should not” exist or that if it were born today it would have looked very different. But it did exist and it wasn’t created today. Regrettable or inconvenient as this may have been, it was the way it was. And is. So with the Second Amendment. (This doesn’t mean all guns are legal. Not at all. Machine guns have been banned for decades. Further restrictions are also possible; prohibition is not.)
But now let's try to take this apart, and I can spot at least one initial vulnerability. Challenging in civil discourse a Supreme Court ruling is like arguing that Northern Ireland shouldn't exist? (Northern Ireland??) No, not so much... citizens and politicians (and even other judges for that matter) do not stop debating issues because the Supreme Court issues a ruling. For one reason, the Supreme Court has been wrong, and disastrously so, on a number of occasions. For another, politics and jurisprudence changes over time, and often because public discourse coupled with groundbreaking events can shift the culture. Eventually, the Court catches up. I do not recall anyone successfully convincing Frederick Douglass to stop advocating for the abolition of slavery after Dred Scott effectively made slavery legal everywhere in 1857. Six years later, I think it's safe to say Douglass had come out on top over Roger B. Taney. In contemporary America, I don't think conservatives have ceased to advocate for pro-life causes because Roe v. Wade is settled law. Nor have they stopped pursuing legal means of ending Obamacare, even after this summer's Supreme Court ruling.

This tactic, rhetorical idol worshiping of the Second Amendment, is significant for its superficiality. Few of these pundits want to engage in a real discussion on the merits of the Second Amendment because it is a losing proposition. Consider Republican Congressman Steve King on Constitutional gun rights in (I'm not making this title up): Caffeinated Thoughts: Stimulating Christian Conservative News & Commentary. King states that the Second Amendment was "the right of the individual" granted by the "Founding Fathers to ensure that a nation of armed individuals could always act as a check against any type of tyrannical encroachment by the federal government."

No one with any familiarity with American history can make this argument seriously because there is scant evidence that Americans have ever used privately owned arms to fight off the tyranny of the federal government. (Spare me any references to the American Revolution or the Civil War... those were professional armies with guns procured by their governments. Also, the Confederacy lost.) To the contrary, the great mass of historical evidence suggests that private arms are themselves the instruments of oppression, and the federal government has (too infrequently) intervened to protect its citizens. King, a Tea Party darling, can throw that kind of red meat around without fear of criticism, but pundits with half a brain and an educated readership know better. They have to tiptoe around the history of the Second Amendment.

Meanwhile, the superb New York Times opinionator series, "The Stone" has in the past few days since Sandy Hook demolished the philosophical defense of the Second Amendment. The phenomenally named Firmin Debrabander has argued that guns inhibit freedom. Michael Boylan has written that self-defense is not a reasonable argument for a society to protect gun ownership. And Jeff McMahan, following all these lines of reasoning to their logical end, concludes that the only effective gun control is to end private ownership of guns.

What would such a ban look like? Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat claims banning guns would resemble Prohibition itself. In a response to Adam Gopnik's brilliant essay in The New Yorker, "The Simple Truth About Gun Control," Douthat argues:
All of the arguments that he’s making could be made with equal force and feeling about alcohol — and indeed were made, plausibly enough, by temperance crusaders in the years leading up to our national experiment with prohibition....

I am not one of the many millions of Americans for whom gun ownership provides a sport, a pastime, and a feeling of security, and like Adam Gopnik I enjoy a glass of wine with my dinner. But I don’t confuse that cultural difference with a self-evident moral distinction.
Here is the final manifestation of the reality-based defense of gun rights, and one that does not stand up to scrutiny. While I like Douthat's work quite a lot, it is rife with self-evident moral distinctions, so let us dispense with the implication that various "cultural vices" cannot be evaluated critically or morally. The question worth asking here is whether guns as a commodity resemble alcohol as a commodity under the terms of government restriction. And some Prohibition history photographs (linked below) ought to help provide some of the answers:

  • During Prohibition nearly anyone could produce alcohol if they wanted to. Local hardware stores sold home still equipment. The illegal production of guns could never occur on such a household scale. To compare the viability of small arms manufacturing with home brewing is ridiculous.
  • Alcohol during Prohibition continued to be sold through giant loopholes for medicinal uses. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no medicinal use for guns. More to the point, people could package alcohol in a bottle and call it something else in order to sell it during Prohibition. One cannot bottle a gun, call it a cold remedy, and continuing selling it at Walmart.
  • It is not terribly difficult to drink alcohol inconspicuously. Speakeasies could operate in the middle of cities because customers could duck in for a drink and sneak out again. Do we actually imagine an equivalent of the speakeasy for guns? How would that work... customers sneak in and, very very quietly fire illegal assault weapons at the carefully hidden firing range no one else can hear? Consumption of alcohol is not readily comparable to "consumption" of firearms. People keep wine in their cellars because they want to drink it, but a lot of people keep a gun in their home hoping not to use it.
  • Alcohol can be addictive. Pulling triggers is not.
  • A massive percentage of tax revenue for state and federal budgets was derived from liquor sales in the early part of the 20th century making Prohibition a dubious economic policy at best. Sin taxes remain a matter of great policy debate, but as a percentage of budget revenues they have dropped substantially over time. In fiscal year 2009, the government collected $20.6 billion from alcohol, tobacco, and firearms & ammunition combined (incidentally, an up year), less than 1% of total federal revenues. Banning guns in 2012 has significantly fewer economic ramifications than banning alcohol in 1919.

What, then, should we make of the right wing expressions of futility regarding guns? There are, I would say, a number of worthwhile lessons to draw from conservatives. Certainly real gun control will be tremendously difficult—no one denies this (left wing writers, like Ezra Klein and Alex Pareene, have already acknowledged this). Comparisons with Prohibition might be quite useful and cautionary, even if problematic. It will be a long, gradual fight to rid America of guns, just like other worthwhile fights that conservatives claimed were impossible, like ending slavery or enforcing civil rights, took decades.

But if we accept that guns don't make us safer—and they don't—and that guns don't make us freer—and they don't—and all we have left is Antonin Scalia's word that the Founding Fathers wanted us to have them, then complaining about regulation being too difficult is not a persuasive or useful reaction. Gun rights advocates owe the nation better stuff than that.

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