It was inevitable that after the massacre in a Colorado movie theater, the matter of gun control would come up and that the president would weigh in on the subject. And, according to this report by Michael A. Memoli in the Los Angeles Times, he has:
Acknowledging sensitivity of the issue, [the President] said he nonetheless believes that even gun owners would agree “that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of children.” He offered no specific proposals but referred to background checks to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons, and preventing guns from getting into the hands of the mentally unbalanced. Previous efforts to do the same have been thwarted by political opposition and the reluctance of sympathetic elected officials to take on the National Rifle Assn., among the nation’s most potent lobbying forces.
But most comment and analysis seems to indicate that not much will happen and the reason for this is, according to E.J. Dionne, “[a] profound timidity on the part of politicians in both parties.”
Dionne is a reliable indicator of elite, liberal, beltway opinion and his argument deserves consideration, not least because gun control is an issue about which a lot of people have very serious beliefs. Which explains the "timidity" of those politicians. People who are opposed to gun control vote their convictions. It is easy to blame the NRA for this, which, predictably, Dionne does. But the "gun lobby" would not exist or, certainly, would not be able to reduce so many politicians to a state of timidity if it did not represent the strongly held beliefs of millions of people, not all of whom are members of the NRA.
It might be interesting for Dionne and others in his business to ask themselves why this is so.
It begins with fairly small distinctions and arguments and escalates to much more serious concerns.
People for whom guns and the Second Amendment are serious matters tend to react strongly to arguments about how "AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of children." In the first place, where did "the children" come into the picture? Who, exactly, favors arming the children? More important, though, is the implication that there are nice guns and bad guns and that the people who favor gun control only want to regulate the latter. The "assault rifles" and such. The aim should be, according to Dionne, to "ban automatic weapons."
To which one says, "They are already illegal."
The arguments about banning only certain kinds of guns are troubling precisely because the people making them don't understand guns and don't want to. Assault rifles, automatic weapons ... it is all the same to them. Ban 'em all. To repeat a distinction that has been made many, many times, when you pull the trigger on an automatic weapon, it will continue firing until you release the trigger or you have fired the last round and the weapon is empty. It is illegal for most civilians to own such weapons. A semi-automatic weapon requires a separate trigger pull for each round fired. Civilians can own, for instance, an AK-47 that is configured for semi-automatic fire only. Millions of soldiers and terrorists around the world carry AK-47s configured for automatic fire. Either way, the AK-47 is a scary looking weapon. And that, in the minds of many who argue for gun control, is the definition of an "assault rife," an otherwise meaningless term.
But the argument for banning "assault rifles" is troubling to supporters of gun rights not just because it is uninformed. The problem, in their minds, is much graver than that. It gets to the notion of a "legitimate use" of guns. Which, those in favor of gun control generally concede, includes hunting and target shooting.
If gun rights are about nothing more than hunting and target practice ... well, then, the battle is lost, according to people who are absolutists on the Second Amendment to the same degree that Dionne, no doubt, is on the First. Free citizens do not own guns because the government has granted them permission to hunt deer and bust clay pigeons. Or even because the government has conceded that it cannot entirely keep the peace and people may need guns for self-defense. The pro-gun rights position is that gun ownership by free people is a check on the government and a defense against tyranny. It's that simple and was summed up by George Orwell when he wrote,
Even as it stands, the Home Guard could only exist in a country where men feel themselves free. The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer's cottage, is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.
The pro-gun, Second Amendment position is that it is not merely possible to have a society where citizens are free to own guns but necessary if that society is, indeed, to be free. And that gun ownership does not necessarily lead to a dangerous unlawful society.
This last point is crucial and the argument is easy enough to make by citing the examples of Chicago and Vermont (where I live).
Chicago has plenty of guns. Most of them, doubtless, illegal since the city has, on its books, some of the most severe anti-gun legislation in the country. However, people are routinely killed by guns in Chicago and many of the victims are, by the way, "children." Much of the killing is done by gang members who like to arm themselves with "assault rifles," to include AK-47s, some of them converted so they will fire automatically. Illegal, of course, but in a society that is approaching a state of nature, who cares?
Vermont also has plenty of guns. I do some shooting at an old gravel pit and it is routine to see people shooting AK-47s and other "assault rifles" there. None of them "children," however. No permit is required for concealed carry in Vermont. And the state has a very low crime rate. Second lowest in the nation, according to one of its senators.
Finally, pro-gun rights people wonder just what they could expect in return for compromising on what is, for them, a fundamental issue. What kind of enforcement can we expect if we pass new gun laws? Drugs are illegal and we have a DEA to enforce the laws. We still have lots of drugs and corruption. Illegal immigration is ... well, illegal. We have a big agency of the government that is charged with enforcing immigration laws and securing the border. And we have a lot of illegal aliens. We already have, in fact, an agency of the government that is supposed to deal with violations of federal firearms laws. And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms engaged in a program by which guns were purchased illegally, shipped across an international border, and used in the commission of crimes to include the murder of a federal law-enforcement officer.
So even a gun-rights supporter who might be wiling to bend a little wonders just what Leviathan would accomplish in the way of reducing crime if it had new authority and new laws to work with. He does not share the faith of Dionne and others in the ability of the government to do much more than make itself larger and more intrusive and, in many cases, exacerbate the very problems it sets out to solve.
Which is tolerable, if barely, in the case of many things the government does ineptly and expensively. Airport security comes to mind. But not when we are dealing with fundamental things.
Like the Second Amendment.