So I think there is one dimension of our discussions of guns and gun rights that is being ignored in our current arguments: the status of guns as property.
Notably, the NRA began its crusade to convince people that the Second Amendment protected a person’s right to own whatever guns they wanted in whatever numbers they wished (to stop crime, or prevent the coming of a totalitarian government, or whatever) in the 1970s, at exactly the same time another political movement hit America: the property rights movement.
The property rights movement was, like so many movements that began in the 1970s, a reaction to the liberal 1960s. People got mad that government moved homeless shelters and drug treatment clinics to the suburbs; they got mad that government zoning laws restricted their right to use their property as they wished; they got mad that property taxes rose. Some mobilized this anger into a counter effort to restrict government’s power to shape how they could use their private property.
At its most effective, this movement was able to pass initiatives like California’s Prop 13, a measure that limited the state’s ability to raise property taxes on current homeowners. (This law still hamstrings California’s budget.) At its most extreme, the movement generated groups like the Montana Freemen, a group that believed the government had no right to tax or otherwise enforce the law on any property the Freemen owned. Most commonly, the movement embedded the notion in peoples’ minds that the government was doing too much and working too hard to limit what ordinary people could do on or with the property they owned.
I think that a fair amount of the push back I have been hearing about what seem like perfectly reasonable gun control measures (mandating the use of gun safes and trigger locks; mandatory registration of all firearms; mandatory reporting if a weapon is stolen; eliminating the gun show exemption on background checks) — none of which restrict anyone’s right to own a gun in any way — derives from peoples’ anger at the idea that government has the right to tell them to do anything with their property.
The equation seems to go: guns are legal + guns are private property = government leave me alone.
As with most things, of course, the real story is more complicated than the private sentiment. Just as no other right is absolute (even most gun owners don’t expect to own automatic weapons or anti-aircraft missiles), no property right is absolute (I can’t set up an oil rig or a strip club in my back yard). But once people get to squabbling, nuance and moderation seem to leave the room, only to be replaced by extremist absolutist rhetoric.
I get why gun people want the right to do with their property that which they wish to do. I just wish they got why they might face more burdens than, say, a book owner does. It is, after all, pretty hard (not impossible, just pretty hard) to deliberately misuse a book and kill someone, but it is actually quite easy to properly use a gun and kill someone.
The fact that the gun is “property” in no way changes its special status as a tool of killing.
Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government for and by the people. We are responsible for each other. We have the right to worship freely and safely; that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The right to assemble peacefully; that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.
That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown; and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent basis to tolerate; and all the families who never imagined they’d lose a loved one to — to a bullet, those rights are at stake. We’re responsible.
Alas, too much of our discussion of gun rights these days starts and ends from a primitive understanding of the relationship between the Constitution’s statements about our rights and the real-world applications of those rights.
Put simply, the Constitution is almost always direct and simple. Amendment 1, for example, says ”Congress shall make no law” limiting speech, or imposing religion, or interfering with your practice of religion, or limiting the press. What could be clearer? “No law” means “NO LAW,” right?
But practice is always murkier. Thus, while I have freedom of speech, we all know I can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater (when no fire is present). Likewise, if I oppose scientific medicine on religious grounds, I have the religious freedom to refuse to go to the doctor. However, the law says I have to take my son to the doctor regardless of my beliefs. And of course I have the right to assemble peaceably to petition government for redress of grievances, but I can’t block traffic just because I want to. No right is absolute and inviolable regardless of circumstance or context.
But not, according to the gun nuts, the second amendment. The gun wackos quote the second amendment—which has a limiting amendatory preface that the first amendment lacks—as if it is gospel. No limitation of any kind can be accepted … because the Constitution says so! The Second Amendment, then, is special, different: the one that is not subject to any kind of real world analysis or compromise.
It’s analytically primitive twaddle, but it drives our discourse about guns in America. We are the worse for it.
Gun control is currently taking over the airwaves, news websites, and blogosphere. As it trends up, the backlash is already forming. Many blogs and news outlets have already condemned the spike in gun control conversations to shameless people using one of the worst shootings in American history to push a political viewpoint. Unforgivable, shameless, awful, they say.
That’s ridiculous. The massive surge in the gun control debate is notbecause people are trying to use a national tragedy to push their own political agenda. It is a natural, national reaction to an overwhelming tragedy.
The truth of the matter is that I, sitting at my desk 3000 miles away, am completely powerless to assuage the awful tragedy of this Connecticut shooting. I am angry, I am upset, and there is nothing I can do. Everyone feels this way right now. They feel the need to turn that anger and helplessness into some sort of action. “Something needs to be done,” someone thinks, “to make sure this never happens again”. And what does the blogosphere/hivemind/national consciousness turn to, in all its impotent anger and rage? Gun control, naturally.
For the record, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
The Gospel according to Fluff Logic.
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people
Nope. A gun is designed to fire ammunition at a target. That is all it does. A person can live, laugh, cry, reproduce… many, many things.
It’s not just guns that kill people
A knife can cut and prepare vegetables to eat. It can cut back nuisance plants. It can be a survival tool. A gun, again, fires ammunition at its target. Its sole purpose is that. You don’t get guns designed to do other things.
If more people were armed this would not happen
No. Wrong. I assure you, in a situation where a gunman opens fire, armed people die just as much as unarmed people. Look at the barracks shootings that happened while armies were training police in Iraq. How many of those armed people firing at armed people got shot?
But the second amendment says
The second amendment says the right to bear arms as part of a militia. It is meant as a defence against armed invaders, like the home guard in the UK during World War II. It is not the right to go out and buy an M16 because guns damnit.
This isn’t the time to talk about gun control
When is then? When people forget? While parents bury children, at Christmas? When is it convenient to talk about “we should stop buying machines for murder”? There is no such time. Quit wasting everybody’s time with this lame duck.
It’s my right to carry a gun
It’s not, and never was. See second amendment, above.