History is littered with irony. A particularly delicious irony is that ‘concorde’ is a French word which means “peace” and yet it was near the town of Concord, Massachusetts that America’s War of Independence began. Now, if the peace had been settled in a town called “War”, that would have been something else, but I digress. The reason I mention this is because an anonymous author—per the tradition of the British magazine “The Economist”—has chosen ‘Lexington’ as his moniker, and then saw fit to write an article pondering and well-nigh condemning America’s gun culture in lieu of the failed efforts over the past year to impose tighter gun control over the citizens of the United States. The irony is of course that it was in the town of Lexington where some British soldiers tried to impose some gun control in the form of confiscating and destroying all the arms they could find in the town, and a band of armed citizens took great exception to this effort. Pardon my verbosity, but that is what happens when one writes whilst listening to Baroque music.
People born outside the United States and those who have not lived in the US are baffled by our gun culture, and I understand why. To those who live in first-world nations like Britain or Germany, our gun laws seem like a barbaric holdover from ye olden dayes when horse stealing was a hanging offense and beating your wife was perfectly acceptable as long as you used a rod no wider than your thumb. As for those in the less developed world (where death by gun is often more common than is found in active warzones) I will not for one moment deign to put words in their mouths, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were baffled by the fact that our federales have the ability to prevent people from owning guns yet make no effort to do so. And they aren’t even being bribed!
I will spare the usual explanations about how statistics are misleading and America is not really that violent but instead suffers from the vagaries of geography and differing levels of development and population density, to say nothing of our porous border with one of the most violent countries in the world (Mexico). I won’t bother to tell you how the vast majority of our gun murders are criminals killing criminals as part of drug war related disputes confined within the densely populated inner cities (much like that of the developing world) and how there are pockets of the US that are essentially part of the developing world—pockets responsible for a disproportionate number of our gun murders. Instead, I will skip directly to the question of culture and a critical failing on the part of people like ‘Lexington’ to comprehend a vital part of our culture and history.
What the author ‘Lexington’ and others fail to appreciate is something much deeper and subtler than our gun culture. Our gun culture is brash and all too readily apparent in the wake of another massacre in this age of mass-instant-social-media. What is missed is our culture of legality, but a legality not of the 21st or even twentieth century. The rule of law is deeply entrenched in our society, but this legality is very much stuck in The Enlightenment. Some of us remain rooted to the principles of the Age of Reason, when it was a bold statement to declare that we should have the rule of law, not of men. Our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are not only products of this era: they crystallized our attachment to that era’s ideals. Our nation is permanently bound together with that period in history. So long as our nation upholds those documents, it will continue to uphold those ideals of life, liberty, property, rule of law, individual rights, and limited government, or at least espouse them. I suppose there has always been a gap among governments between their stated principles and their actions.
Other nations have either moved on from that period and its principles or never had them in the first place. Much of the world is today committed to ‘modernity’ (which to me seems permanently stuck in mid-twentieth century Keynesianism and welfare statism) but the government of the United States stupidly allows its citizens to continue to adhere to such Enlightenment notions like personal liberty. Fools, don’t they know that in this modern day and age, the state knows best?
I apologize for that lengthy rant about the late 1700s, but it is necessary to understand what I am about to say. It is telling that ‘Lexington’ rarely and only very reluctantly uses the word ‘right’ as in ‘right to bear arms’ except when summarizing or describing the arguments and positions and opinions of those with whom he disagrees. People like me. He also uses the word ‘right’ in the context of “gun-rights groups” quite frequently, but that is also using the word without saying it; he is utilizing the word without believing in the concepts that belie it. What am I on about?
When ‘Lexington’ finally gets to the crux of his position he perhaps reveals more than he intended when he wrote in his final paragraph: “The past year has shown, with great clarity, that the gun debate is not an argument about law and order or public safety. It is a conflict about power, and power wielded unequally.”
That’s a funny thing to say. One half of the argument (the anti-gun side) does hold that this is merely a question of utilitarianism (aka “law and order or public safety”): are guns good or are they bad? The implication being: if guns are on the whole bad, then we should do away with civilian ownership of guns. But the other side of this argument isn’t at all about people saying “No, guns are actually good and therefore worth keeping,” the other side is saying “Regardless of whether guns are good or bad, we have a right to own and use firearms.”
Lexington does acknowledge that right to exist near the end of his article, albeit with some apparent disdain, but never does he discuss the merits of that right or the merits of rights in general, let alone how the existence of this right affects the debate within the American political system and American society. If one wishes to challenge the concepts of “rights” as outdated and obstructionist (a perfectly reasonable position for a modern statist), that’s fine, but one needs to discuss the issue of rights. One cannot simply skip that discussion as Lexington does and then wonder why American civilians continue to own guns when the remainder of the first world has seen either the heavy restriction of firearms or near total disarmament of civilians.
Instead, Lexington makes the pro-gun side out to be bloody minded charlatans who will mislead, obfuscate, and tell outright lies all merely to keep their symbols of power. Certainly that is how Lexington characterizes the National Rifle Association and “the gun lobby”—as Machiavellian liars and crooks willing to bind and gag widows and grieving mothers to preserve their particular fiefdom. The fact that the NRA (while perhaps at times ham-fisted or downright buffoonish and easily caricatured) draws its power from the many voters and many people who agree with and believe in the principles espoused by the NRA is given only a cursory nod.
I will cease describing Lexington’s stances, lest I create straw-men (and if I have already, forgive me), but my main point remains: Lexington never really concedes that there exists a right to bear arms in America. He barely even acknowledges that some people believe they have a right to bear arms. To what extent he does recognize our so called “right” he seems to fundamentally misunderstand what a right is.
He writes of new laws liberalizing where and when guns can be carried saying “New laws have been passed in several states granting new rights to citizens to wear their guns in such places as bars, churches and on university campuses” [emphasis added]. Rights are not created, and they are certainly not conferred upon us by government. They automatically exist, and we as citizens automatically have them. This fundamental misunderstanding or lack of comprehension betrays really why Lexington is baffled by America and our guns. He doesn’t get that gun control fails ultimately because the government is not permitted by its citizens or by its Constitution to control guns in the manner which people like Lexington would find satisfactory.
They are too used to viewing it through the prism of dogmatic pragmatism (that guns cause more harm than good and therefore we must limit guns irrespective of principles like liberty). To people like me, this is not a question of public safety but a fundamental disagreement over the concept of governance and the role of government. Does the concept of rights still apply in this day and age? One side believes they do, and that a government which respects a citizen’s right to bear arms with few if any limitations to that right is a government which will respect all other rights. I doubt any truly believe that a few shotguns and rifles will make a great deal of difference should the full might of the American military be directed internally at oppressing its citizens, but instead they see guns as the proverbial canary in the metaphorical coal mine. I generally roll my eyes at those who always jump straight to the totalitarian card about why guns ownership is necessary, but is it really so illogical to say: First they came for the gun owners, and I was not a gun owner so I did not speak up…
Perhaps Lexington is right about one thing. This is indeed a “conflict about power, and power wielded unequally” but what we need to worry about when it comes to power being wielded unequally is not a dad in a grocery store with a rifle over his shoulder but our very own government.