Why can’t gun control advocates and Second Amendment advocates talk? Why can’t they find common ground? In early April, Rand Richards Cooper published an op-ed piece on this topic in The Hartford Courant. As regular readers know, Connecticut has been a hotbed of gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Newtown school attack, so Cooper’s article and venue are unremarkable, however, he does raise important questions . . .
Rarely do I feel more estranged from masses of fellow Americans than when confronting the views of passionate gun-rights defenders. I know they feel likewise about my side. Sometimes it feels as if there are two Americas, gun and non-gun.
This was brought home to me last year when I wrote an op-ed describing a scary run-in I had in the parking lot of a department store, where I’d gone to buy a bike for my 7-year-old daughter, with a guy who falsely accused me of scratching his truck, screamed profanities and tried to pick a fight. Amid the post-Sandy Hook conflicts over gun control, I used the incident to question the NRA’s position that arming more people would make daily life safer.
The article loosed a cascade of abuse online. I was “pathetic,” “a clown,” “wuss,” “girlie man,” “loser” and “snob.” One commenter invoked a “hypothetical” scenario in which I was accosted by an armed assailant and, for want of a gun, could only watch, “helpless,” as he murdered my daughter before my eyes, and the police arrived to “draw the outline of her crumpled-up lifeless little body.”
Such startling malice partly reflects the drearily ad hominem tilt of online commentary. But partly it inheres in this particular issue, and reveals the depth of distrust on opposite sides. The argument rages, nation against nation.
Cooper hit on at least some elements of this issue, but misses more. This particularly issue is difficult to discuss because any discussion must take place on multiple levels: philosophy, rhetoric and policy.
The philosophical level represents one’s fundamental beliefs, beliefs usually reflected in one’s politics. Second Amendment (SA) advocates believe that the right to self-defense is a fundamental, unalienable, natural right. Accordingly, all men have this right and the ability of all men to have and to carry the means to preserve their lives and the lives of those they love must not be infringed. They believe–for the writings of the Founders say so–that the Second Amendment was written primarily so that free men might always be free, so that their ownership of arms would deter tyranny, and when deterrence failed, they could overthrow tyrants. But the Second Amendment also recognizes the natural right of self-defense.
Gun control (GC) advocates will sometimes give lip service to a belief in self-defense, but their rhetoric and preferred policies cause the reasonable man or woman to doubt their belief in self-defense. One either believes that self-defense is an unalienable, natural right, with all the implications of that belief, or they do not. There is no real middle ground, yet GC advocates live, at least rhetorically, in that middle ground.
Surely, rational people on both sides of the debate can agree that violent felons and people whose mental illness makes gun ownership dangerous to them and others may be barred the ownership of arms, but beyond that, there is no common ground. SA advocates fight to establish and maintain maximum personal liberty. GC advocates fight to limit that liberty and to give the state even greater power.
Cooper touches on rhetoric which embodies logic, ethics and emotion–as Aristotle urged–in his opening paragraphs. From his encounter with an angry man, he reasons that had the man been armed, he and his daughter could have been killed, therefore to prevent the deaths of innocents, all should be disarmed. From the emotional comments of readers, he takes malice. Cooper is clearly arguing primarily from emotion and a GC ethic that claims moral authority from disarmament.
The writings of SA advocates touched upon by Cooper are arguments from logic, ethics and emotion. Accosted by an angry, armed man, it is best–it is moral–to be armed so that your daughter and you might live if attacked. SA advocates see this as only logical, and nothing more than an inevitable manifestation of the right of self-defense. The commenters to which Cooper referred apparently also believe that men have a duty to protect their children–and presumably their wives–and apparently don’t think highly of men who seem to be unwilling to assume that duty. To such men, it is ethically–morally–wrong not to protect one’s family, which tends also to be an emotional issue, yet Cooper acknowledges the validity of only his emotion.
Cooper notes that engaging one’s opponents helps to perfect one’s arguments, but it also leads nowhere, only to “opponent-bashing” and “preaching to one’s own choir.” Cooper asks:
I’m wondering: Might the two sides engage the gun debate with an eye toward finding some area of agreement — and, in the process, reassure each other about our fundamental intentions and dispel our respective suspicions and fears?
The bottom-line fear on the other side is that that we “gun-grabbers” want to take their guns away. On my side it’s that “gun nuts” are absolutists who will never agree to any limitation or regulation of gun use whatsoever, no matter how reasonable.
Cooper offers what I’m sure he believes to be reassurance:
So let me say without hesitation: I am not interested in grabbing anyone’s gun. Owning firearms is constitutionally protected, it is rooted deeply in this country’s traditions and it is not going to go away. Surveys show this position accepted by the overwhelming majority of so-called “gun grabbers” like me. The dark scenarios of government forces rounding up gun owners and seizing their weapons have no basis in our intentions.
A substantial part of the reason why SA advocates distrust GC advocates is dissonance between the levels. Even if a GC advocate claims to believe in the right to self defense, and even if they claim, as Cooper does, to respect the Second Amendment, and even if they claim they have no intention of taking anyone’s guns, their policy ideas are commonly at odds with the unrestrained exercise of lawful self-defense, and commonly limit the means of defending one’s life, even the mere possession of those means. Dissonance.
GC advocates commonly say, “I believe in the Second Amendment, but no one needs magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. No one needs ‘assault weapons.’ No one needs semiautomatic handguns, etc.” Or perhaps they propose that people that have such guns and magazines now can keep them, but they must be registered, and no one may have them after such and such date.
It is this kind of dissonance between the levels that convinces SA advocates that GC advocates can’t be trusted, that they do not negotiate in good faith. Another facet of rhetoric that works against building trust is that GC advocates insist on framing the language and terms of the debate and demand that SA advocates accept their premises before the first word is spoken:
Can gun-rights defenders offer a reciprocal reassurance about their intentions? Is there a willingness to discuss trying to reduce gun-related injuries and deaths in this country? This question presupposes a prior question: Can we agree that 30,000 annual gun-related deaths (and many more injuries) is undesirable; that it is a problem? If we can agree on that, we can proceed to discuss how one might reduce these numbers without threatening the fundamental right to own a firearm.
Cooper’s questions assume that SA advocates don’t want to reduce “gun-related injuries and deaths,” and that “30,000 annual gun-related deaths (and many more injuries)” are somehow desirable. His premise is that supporters of liberty don’t see such things as a problem. In other words, those that don’t accept his premises–even when they do–are not only illogical, but unethical and devoid of the proper expression of emotion.
Additionally, SA advocates are wary of the rhetoric of GC advocates because they have a long track record of cherry picking or slanting facts and statistics. Despite there being far more firearms in the hands of citizens than at any time in history, accidental shootings are at the lowest level in history, this accomplished by the tireless efforts of the NRA and gun owners. Violence of all kinds has been dramatically declining for decades, this too despite soaring gun ownership rates. GC advocates also tend to blatantly lie, as in the recent claim of 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook, by Everytown For Gun Safety that was quickly and easily exposed as fraudulent.
I assume Cooper is sincere and is actually trying to speak honestly about this issue, but he, like so many others on his side of the divide, apparently believe advocates of liberty to be devoid of empathy for others, or at the very least impaired in such attributes, or so their rhetoric would lead one to believe. There is no group of people more dedicated to gun safety and the prevention of accidents involving guns than gun owners, who consider every injury and death tragic and, for the most part, preventable. But not every death as a result of gunshot is a bad thing for society, and firearms are used far, far more often for good than bad purposes, often saving lives and preventing injuries. GC advocates commonly don’t want to speak about such things, or even hear about them. There is no dissonance between believing in self-defense, advocating for its means, and feeling good about its lawful application.
Here, Cooper again sounds reasonable, but yet again insults those with whom he wants to speak:
By no means am I suggesting that every measure proposed on my side is sensible. Some seem designed more for moral showboating than for practical results. I recognize that this truly is one issue for which the devil is in the details. But we won’t even get to those details if we can’t agree that the subject is worth talking about. Many gun owners view any such conversation as a Trojan horse designed to take their weapons away. Those on my side, meanwhile, view the refusal to enter into any conversation as a sign of rigid absolutism.
It has been my experience that SA advocates are more than willing to engage anyone in conversation about this topic. Sadly, their experiences mirror mine. When I refuse to accept GC premises, when I calmly and respectfully employ logic and fact, information that I can and do back up with unimpeachable sources and genuine science, I am virtually always barraged with accusations of being inhumane, and wanting people–usually children–to die by gunshot. Often the unbridled rage directed at me is surprising, and such “conversations” normally end with the GC advocate storming off, obscenities trailing behind them, while I quietly say, “nice chatting with you.”
The problem is not, for the most part, that SA advocates are unwilling to “enter into any conversation,” or that they are rigidly absolutists, but that GC advocates brook absolutely no opposition to their beliefs, their rhetoric–particularly when it’s fraudulent–or their policy prescriptions.
Cooper closes with several interesting questions:
The gun divide reminds us just how hard it is to comprehend the views and values of one’s opponents, let alone respect them. It is hard even to try. But how else will we ever bridge the impasse? Was it “one nation, divisible” that we grew up pledging our loyalty to?
The problem is not that SA advocates can’t comprehend “the views and values” of GC advocates, but that they comprehend them entirely, well, and find them wanting in terms of philosophy, rhetoric (fact) and policy.
When the topic is the unalienable, natural right to self-defense, what “common ground” may be found? Human beings, by virtue of being born human beings, have such a right or they don’t. Is there any middle ground? GC advocates believe there is, and its policy manifestations may be found in states and cities that don’t have “shall issue” concealed carry. In those places, for decades, some citizens were worthy of self-defense–the wealthy, celebrities and the politically connected–but no one else. Criminals, of course, don’t obey the law and so are always armed if they choose. Some GC advocates actually argue that this state of affairs is proper. On this topic, what compromise is possible?
And on the topic of the Second Amendment, what may advocates of liberty surrender? The deterrence of tyranny by gun ownership? The ability, when necessary, to overthrow tyranny by force of arms? The ability of each person to defend their lives and the lives of those they love with the most common and effective means?
We pledge our loyalty to America, to the Constitution that makes America unique among the nations and in history, and to all men that honor the Constitution. It is this that makes us indivisible, not that we agree on limitations to, on infringements of, the one amendment to the Constitution that preserves and protects the entire document and our freedom.
This is, in fact, an “impasse” that free men and women don’t want to bridge, that they dare not bridge if the Constitution is to remain in effect and if Americans are to remain free. About that, we’ll gladly talk.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.