This piece originally appeared in The American Moderate (Nov. 2017) under the title “Gun Rights Are Rights, Too.”
This conversation would be easier if it were about sex. I would propose to my fellow liberals that we get serious about rape culture through simple, commonsense regulations: No one could take a new sex partner without a background check and a 10-day waiting period, with a limit of one new partner per month. Why does anyone need more than that? (Very progressive states might even choose to require that you show police a legitimate reason for needing a new partner.) Rape would not disappear under my plan, but surely it would plummet.
The other liberals would crucify me—as well they should. But I would feign incomprehension: My plan promises to uproot an infamous scourge. How could any person be indignant?
When it comes to sexual and reproductive rights, my fellow liberals quickly re-discover their civil libertarian principles. They acknowledge a right to sleep with whom one chooses, to conceive a child, or choose an abortion. Even if someone promised social improvements if we, say, rationed abortions or required licenses for prospective parents, we would have none of it. And not simply from caution about the social science claims involved. Even if the science were a slam dunk (in a way that is rare), we would not buy some improved social measures at the cost of a woman’s sexual rights. We would stand fast on principle and repeat with Rachel Maddow, “Here’s the thing about rights. They’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.”
I am an armed liberal. A registered Democrat, I have never voted Republican, nor has any member of my family. I am a devout Buddhist. I also belong to two gun clubs and three rifle and pistol leagues and, like meditating, I handle guns every day. (Well, maybe not Christmas.)
Let me be clear: I support background checks, waiting periods, safe storage laws, and many of the same policies you do. I have never lived in a state without those laws, and there is a good chance that you have not either. (Guns are regulated mainly by the states, not Washington, and few people without guns know how loose or tight their states’ laws are.) In California we have universal background checks; drop-safety and storage regulations; limits on magazine capacities and semiautomatic rifles; and much more. In this we are entirely typical of all jurisdictions from Boston to DC and other Democratic strongholds like Illinois. I find these strictures nuisances, but mostly necessary and livable. Ordered liberty requires limits and I know virtually no one who disagrees. The question is what liberties and what limits.
We are all readier to limit other people’s freedoms. None of us finds a utilitarian calculus—a statistical weighing up of net costs and net benefits to society—so compelling when it concerns freedoms that we ourselves value. And in my leftist circles, it is lately popular to propose reducing gun crimes by reducing the gross number of guns: If the populace had 50% fewer guns, says this argument, there might be 50% less misuse. This appeals to the social planner in all of us, unless we ourselves will be affected.
An easy way to make a big difference would be to enforce existing gun laws wholeheartedly. The ones we already have. Gun owners LOVE this idea. Our favorite example is “straw-man sales,” in which ex-convicts buy guns through an intermediary with no convictions, a “straw man.” This is hugely illegal and often easy to spot, but it is extremely common with guns used in crimes and almost never prosecuted. Both NPR and the National Review have published calls for crackdowns. Talk about strange bedfellows! This is a true win-win, and it is easy because the laws are already on the books.
Since we have an unequivocal, black-letter Constitutional right to bear arms, if we circumvent it, we set a precedent that others will try out on freedoms that we do care about and lack explicit Constitutional protection. They could promise to improve public health through commonsense measures concerning sex, parenting, abortion, and privacy.
If forced to, I doubt that I could make a utilitarian argument to defend allowing just anyone to bear a child, regardless of addictions, mental stability, family support, and income. I could easily be convinced statistically that we could eliminate most social ills (and many environmental ones) if we limited the right to have children to eligible people who could show a legitimate purpose. I could be persuaded of the same thing concerning panoptic surveillance or police profiling. But those things are not open to negotiation for better social indicators, or anything else. I hope.
Do we really want better morbidity rates? Through shared sacrifice? We could always revive the 55mph speed limit. It would affect Reds and Blues equally, save 12,500 lives annually (more than all gun homicides), and have zero Constitutional implications.
We are scared of you
This may surprise you, but we gun people are terrified of you. “But why?” you may ask in sincere wonder. “You have a powerful lobby in Congress. And a ton of guns!” First, even if we feel safe in Congress, the courts are another matter. Just as with abortion, we fear the day when the Supreme Court’s composition will change and yesterday’s right is reinterpreted. This fear is our sword of Damocles. Second, Congress has less power over us than our state laws. Here in California, as on the east coast, the legislature is solidly anti-gun and adds strictures every year. Some are laudable, but we do not know where they will stop. We suspect they will tighten the noose every year and choke off gun ownership by adding nuisances, much as red state legislatures could make abortions unavailable by shackling abortion clinics.
Above all, it terrifies us if you have no personal familiarity with guns and gun laws. So many of you have passionate convictions about guns and how to regulate them and you vote on those convictions but—I say this lovingly—get your impressions of guns and gun laws from entertainment, third-hand lore, and journalists who try hard but commit a lot of howling blunders. This is even true of high-profile gun legislators. Often they make hilarious terminological mistakes that make us doubt they understand the bills they are sponsoring. We gun people exchange those video clips and chortle at the legislators’ ignorance. (Admit it, you laugh at the idiots on our side too—it’s OK!) But it is nervous, queasy laughter: these people have the power to change our lives.