Rebirth of Reason


The Gun Rights Dilemma
by George W. Cordero

Recently in the United States the anti-gun lobby was dealt a blow when the Brady Bill expired, thus eliminating some of the restrictions on semi-automatic firearms. Defenders of 2nd Amendment rights have seen relatively few gains by gun control advocates under President Bush, and can probably expect the same for another 4 years. In fact, gun control was among the least cited of important issues in the recent Presidential election. Many have hailed these recent trends as a reversal in the anti-gun culture that seemed to prevail since the late 1960s. 

While I am encouraged by these trends, I think it would be premature to believe that there has been a significant cultural reversal that now favors fewer firearms restrictions. The last 6 years of our nation's history have been politically tumultuous ones: the Clinton - Lewinsky scandal, the contested 2000 election, 9-11, and the war in the Middle East. It’s as if the nation has been so preoccupied, that the gun issue has become very peripheral. So while I do believe that a cultural change has in fact taken place, I believe that it is a small one, and one that is very fragile.

Eventually some sociopath with a handgun will commit a horrific act that will cause another media frenzy. The aftermath of an incident that captures the entire nation's attention will determine the degree to which there has been any genuine cultural change. If the primary focus remains on the issue of crime and the criminal himself, we will know that we have progressed. If the debate quickly degrades into the issue of firearms possession itself, followed by popularly supported restrictive legislation, then we will know that what appeared as a trend was a merely a temporary cultural anomaly.

The fragility of this issue to the possibility of a single sensational crime's ability to cause a popular backlash against the right to bear arms, is primarily the fault of the advocates for gun rights themselves: especially the National Rifle Association, America's largest and most powerful pro-gun lobby. But I will address that later. For now, let us look at the NRA's two primary arguments: the political and statistical.

On the surface this seems logical enough, an appeal made in the name of the 2nd Amendment of the Bill of Rights that guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, followed by a barrage of empirical evidence to support the argument that guns do not increase crime and act as a deterrent. The latter method is flawed because statistical data can be so manipulated as to make any outcome possible. Although I have found that the overwhelming majority of the objective data support the NRA position, this matters little. What matters is whether one can convey this to the public at large. With a stridently anti-gun media giving equal credence to the anti-gun lobby’s misleading data, the statistical approach only works with the most judicious of our populace. 

Another problem with the statistical approach is not only that it is up against the spurious data of the gun control advocates, but against their emotional appeals as well. The media has a lockstep anti-gun position, that rarely if ever allows for a counter-argument. You are not likely to see a 2-hour special on HBO that chronicles the personal stories of people who used handguns to save their own lives or that of loved ones. Anything even remotely close to such a thing would automatically be done with an opposing view for the sake of ‘fairness and balance.’ But there is no end to the heart-wrenching stories from personal testimonies, documentaries, and motion pictures that pound away at the theme of America's violent ‘gun culture’ and the shattered lives that are the result. All of the poignant violin music is reserved for the gun control advocates.

This leaves the former argument; 2nd  Amendment rights. This is the strongest and most enduring of the NRA's arguments. Even after 220 years, by and large most Americans still hold an almost reverential attitude towards our founding documents. As in many other issues, this alone has safeguarded many an endangered right in the past. But this has never been enough. The constitutional limitation on the government from infringing on the right of the people to keep and bear arms, is only as good as a citizenry that ensures that the limitations on government power are maintained. Unfortunately these limitations have not been as scrupulously defended as they should have been.

Dishonest lawyers and an activist judicial branch have done their best to confuse even this apparently straightforward defense of firearm ownership. One method has been the claim that that the 2nd Amendment only applied to ‘well regulated militias’ and that today’s National Guard units represent a citizens' militia; this argument is so easily refuted, that the majority of high profile gun-control advocates avoid it themselves. Nevertheless, it is still repeated often enough that it is widely accepted as fact, and so helps to somewhat obscure what should be viewed as an unequivocal declaration of the prohibition against the government making any laws that abridge a citizen's right to arms.

Earlier in my article I alluded to the fact that the fault for a superior defense for gun rights lies with the NRA. The problem is identical to the one that many pro-choice advocates in the abortion debate have: the issue has been hijacked as part of a contradictory package deal. To a large extent the extremist fringes of political activism, the environmentalist-hedonist-pacifistic left and the xenophobic-religious fundamentalist right, are the primary advocates for individual rights issues. These so-called single-issue lobbyists carry with them the baggage of a political package deal that acts to subvert the core issue for which it supposedly exists. There is an analogous dilemma faced by both a firearms rights advocate who does not accept the rightist package deal, and say for example, a pro-choice advocate who does not accept the leftist package deal.

That many of the national spokesmen for gun rights are on the extreme fringe of the right wing weakens every logical, historical, and statistical argument that they make in favor of this individual right. Many of the same advocates for the individual's right to carry a firearm, also advocate in favor of forcing creationism onto science curriculums, the gay marriage amendment, and the criminalizing of abortion. Their respect for individual rights ends at the barrel of that gun with which they defend their own life. “God, Guns and Gays.” it is little wonder that gun right advocacy has made so little headway into urban America. Many a sympathetic ear has been lost to the psychological impact of the perceived package deal that comes with support for firearms rights advocacy.

Conversely, that the majority of national spokesmen for ‘choice’ are on the extreme fringe of the left wing undermines every logical, medical, and philosophical argument that they make in favor of this individual right. In this case the same national spokesmen who defend a woman’s right to her own body advocate in favor of restrictions on trade, gun control, banning pornography, hate-crimes legislation, and extensive redistributions of wealth by government. Their respect for the right of a woman to make decisions about her own body in the case of a pregnancy does not seem to extend to person's wallet, property, or even self-defense.

In some ways it is a perverse irony that the defenders of firearm rights are on the right wing. The left wing has consistently painted itself as the champion of the ‘little guy’ (and in many ways they really have been). It looks like the defender of his political, social, and reproductive rights drew the line at his right to living and breathing! The common man, more than anyone else in our society, benefits from the freedom to own and carry a firearm. Whether he is protecting himself from the crimes that threaten him far more than the affluent classes, or protecting himself from the tyranny of government, our founders understood that a man who has no right to defend his own life—had no rights at all.

The illogic of gun control advocacy is staggering, an argument to usurp the fundamental right of a man to defend the ultimate right, the right to his very existence. If ever there was an issue that should be above the petty politics of left and right it is this one.  That the issue of our individual rights has been cut up and dealt out to warring political factions is saddening. The advocate for individual rights in their entirety finds that he is trapped between two political package deals, neither of which he can accept. Whatever specific individual right they champion, it is done for expediency's sake, merely as a tool by which to further a much broader agenda.

As an Objectivist I accept only one package deal: the inalienable right of the individual to every aspect of his own life. Unfortunately, the current mixed premised society in which I live does not allow me the luxury of being an activist for a political party that holds that as its fundamental standard.  What’s worse is the fact that the hoped-for ‘Libertarian’ alternative has become a bastion for cranks, crooks and nihilists. In this respect I am in agreement with the Objectivist writer Robert Bidinotto, that Libertarianism (both as a term and political party) has become a repository for “moral libertines, philosophical subjectivists, political anarchists, isolationists and anti-Americans.”

That said, there are many reasons for hope. Although the so-called single-issue pressure groups tend toward the extremist fringes of their respective politics, Americans as a whole have begun to trend away from the extremist fringes and towards a more rational approach. From my personal experience and observations, among the man in the street, it is no longer akin to seeing a ‘white elephant’ in seeing a pro-choice advocate with a .357 magnum in his house.

From environmentalism to abortion, from religion to free trade, an increasing number of Americans refuse to be ‘packaged’ and pigeon holed into extremist worldviews. As a result, both the Democratic and Republican Parties have been forced to re-assess their agendas and adjust to a more skeptical American electorate. In the end, the direction America is heading in relation to gun ownership rights will not be determined by the success or failure of any single pro- or anti-gun lobby, but by the overall direction of the culture at large.
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