When my compatriots on the left talk about passing new gun laws—banning big magazines etc.—I keep coming back to this question: Why do you want to do this?
It was clear to us of the smart set that Congress’s wild overreaction after Len Bias died was stupid and destructive (passing the laws that penalized crack cocaine more heavily than powder). We understood instantly that Congress was not only pandering, but yielding to a pre-existing impulse toward demonizing blacks and making their lives harder. Similarly, we understood immediately that by pushing the Patriot Act after 9/11, the Republicans were seizing the moment to impose the kind of fascistic police-state laws that it was in Dick Cheney’s nature to want to pass.
For a counter example, when the bombs went off in London, we pointed to the British and said, “Look at what fine people they are. They suffer a blow and suck it up; they don’t torque their laws and society out of shape in a panicked attempt to feel like they’re ‘doing something.'”
Remember the University of Wisconsin political theorist Murray Edelman; government doesn’t solve problems, it seeks or manufactures problems to justify “solutions” it already wants to impose. Large-capacity magazines have been freely available for years, and the number of times someone has committed a massacre with them can be counted on one hand. The desire to ban them now is not in response to a problem. There is none to solve. So what else is it?
Look at it another way, if we’re going to start talking of banning things. Ban advocates say, “nobody needs a 33-round magazine.” I’d argue that in a free society, one doesn’t have to prove need if one wants something; the burden of proof is on he who wants to ban. Moreover, in terms of which is more destructive — which has caused more harm, and more limited human potention — is the 33-round magazine worse than the 6,000 square-foot house? I’d argue no. Not even close.
The 6,000-foot house consumes tremendous resources to build, heat, and cool, and forces us to lay out communities so they can only be navigated by car. They’ve done incalculable damage to the planet and our way of life. But we’re not talking about banning 6,000 square foot houses.
Rachel Maddow dismisses the Second Amendment with a sneer, saying that a strict reading of it would allow individuals to own nuclear weapons. There is indeed a large wing of the gun community that believes that the Second Amendment precisely protects military weapons. The Brown Bess musket was the premier infantry weapon at the time 2A was written, so today’s premier infantry weapon — the assault rifle — should be the gun most protected by the Constitution and the last to be banned.
It’s about their definition of “the militia” — the collective community of armed citizens. The weapon of an individual citizen is the rifle, not a complex system that requires many people to operate. So nobody’s asking for an F-16 or a nuclear weapon. From the point of view of the 2A absolutists, those are not militia weapons. There is no constituency for those. So to say that people shouldn’t have 33-round magazines because the next step is people having nuclear weapons is the worst kind of straw-man demagoguery.
I would argue that we on the left have a real opportunity here, both to do our side good and the nation some good as well. And that is to calm the fuck down. I’ve already argued at length how reaching for the smelling salts every time someone does something bad with a gun is bad for our side; it drives the other guys deeper into their protective crouch, and makes those who live on a Fox News diet that much easier to stampede. But beyond the partisan politics, rushing into passing restrictive laws because one bad thing happened is just dumb, and beneath or dignity. We knew it after Len Bias and after 9/11, and we should know it now.
What do we liberals want to do? Do we want to reduce gun violence in America? If so, perhaps we should just keep doing what we’re doing, because I don’t know that there’s been another twenty-year period in American history that violent crime has dropped as much or as fast as it has in the past twenty. Or is it that we want to get rid of the guns? If the latter, I come back to the question, why? These past twenty years were when gun laws got much looser and gun ownership went way up.
I think we on the left should be leaders in doing what we so admired in the British — we should say, steady on, people. This was a terrible event. But overall, things are fine. And we don’t need to make enormous, destructive changes just because one bad things happened.
Instead, we on the left are revealing our pre-existing impulse to “get rid of guns.” I understand why we don’t like them; they reinforce everything we stand against — war, force, cowboy individualism and so on. I think it’s fine to argue against war, force and cowboy individualism. But I don’t think it’s right, or smart politics, to use restrictive law to make those points, any more than it’s right or smart to use marijuana laws to reinforce the Protestant work ethic.
[Dan Baum is a respected author and TTAG commentator. Please visit his website www.ourgunthing.com so that he’ll keep cross-post here. So to speak.]