The character-driven 2016 presidential campaign has given short shrift to vitally important issues, chief among them, climate change. But threats to the peaceful transition of power has also pushed gun control toward the top of my list. Civilians in the United States own more than 300 million guns—over 1,000,000 purchased since President Obama took office—and the most per capital in the world. Under “normal” circumstances, 33,000 people kill others or themselves each year. With Trump and his Alt Right compatriots threatening to reject election results and, in some cases, to storm the barricades, the threat level may have risen exponentially.
In the short run, guns will remain on the street, in individual hands, and in the hands of self-appointed militias, who believe themselves to be fighting for their liberty in the tradition of Revolutionary War heroes. Should a succession crisis arise, the United States government would have to deal with treasonous threats—and, of course, treasonous actions—by meeting power with far greater power. In the long run, we need to deal with the economic and social discontent that fuels the threats. In the intermediate run, we need to get the guns off the street and out of the mountains.
You would think that the case for gun control is both known and broadly shared.. Some is but some isn’t. Advocates of gun control cite the violence in the streets, the danger of accidental shooting, and suicides in our homes. They point out that criminals and mentally ill people should not be allowed to own guns. Duh. They frequently make allowances for hunters. And they accept what they have come to see as the Constitutional right to gun ownership guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
During the second debate, Hillary Clinton assured us that she believes in the Second Amendment and that she only seeks sensible safeguards to gun ownership. This fearful, compromised bowing down to a false interpretation of the Amendment has become second nature for virtually all American politicians. In spite of the fact that both Clinton and the majority of Americans want gun control, the prevailing belief among politicians is that you can’t propose banning buns or even severely limit their purchase. It would be fatal to their careers. In effect, they have acquiesced to a powerful political minority, led by the National Rifle Association’s Congressional lobbying and public intimidation campaign—allied to a general right wing agenda, and supported by millions inflamed, largely male voters who believed they are being sacrificed to the interests of corporations, minorities, and immigrants.
The gun lobby is hardly satisfied with the acquiescence in this line of thinking. They maintain that Clinton and all those like her are pretenders. Once in power, the Clintons of the world would seize the guns of patriotic Americans. Two-faced politicians would deprive true Americans of their ability to protect their liberty. This, the protection of individual liberty, has become the true north star of the Alt Right. The gun lobby and its protectors bellow that regulation is simply the start of a slippery slope toward the banning of all guns. Banning guns robs loyal citizens of their fundamental, Constitutionally sanctioned rights and leads ineluctably towards an oppressive federal government. It’s a simple, cause and effect formula.
On this one point, I hope that the Alt Right is correct. I hope that we can ban guns from civilian use, with the possible exception of hunting. The case for banning guns doesn’t seem hard to make. There isn’t enough time and space to document the argument in this essay, but I can summarize it.
To state the obvious,, guns enable violence. Second, do not help us defend ourselves. There is almost no evidence—amid much research—that guns deter violence. . Third, the apparent truism that the Second Amendment was written to protect the individual’s right to bear arms, is false, or at best a tenuous, modern reinterpretation of the Amendment.
Until the 1970’s, the NRA had been an association of hunters, dedicated mostly to gun safety. As Jeffrey Toobin has written, during that decade, “The NRA and conservative lawmakers engineered a coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party…The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms…At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger,” a Republican, “who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as ‘a fraud.’”
That coup d’etat, with sturdy support from an obedient Congress, established the norms that persist today and overwhelm majority opposition. The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Until the 1970s, the interpretive emphasis was on militias, not individuals. The United States had been a loose confederation of states, each jealously guarding its own interests. Having come together to fight the British monarchy, they were wary of federal power—the establishment of a new monarchy. To guard against the powers of a central government, they argued for states’ rights. And to protect the integrity of states, the Bill of Rights, written by the nation’s founders, empowered state militias. Individuals could own guns in the service of these militias, which could be mobilized when states rights were encroached upon. This is the key: Individuals could own guns in the service of militias. And, of course, to hunt. This was the 18th century, after all, and people hunted for their food.
We are now a nation — no longer a loose confederation of states. There would be no contest between the federal armed forces and local militias, no matter how many assault rifles they could mobilize. What’s more, the thousand or so militias currently active no longer correspond to state boundaries. With the obvious exception of the Civil War, the democratic process established in the 18th century has allowed us to resolve our differences through debate and voting. Throughout this period, political majorities win and minorities fume but, eventually the minorities become the majorities. The cycles of liberal and conservative victories represent our triumph, not our failure.
According to the standards proposed by both the Constitutional Originalists, like Antonin Scalia, and those who see the Constitution as a living document that must adapt with the times, there is no logical, legal argument that favors individual gun ownership, and certainly none that favors assault rifles and other military weapons. The Founders wanted to arm militias.
We, the people of the United States, have a right and, I believe, a duty to ban the civilian use of weapons. It will save lives and it will thwart violent revolution. With the possible exception of our own American Revolution, revolutions have not solved anyone’s problems. In the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, to name a few, violence begat violence; and violence, in turn begat tyranny.
It will be difficult, but not impossible, to ban guns. It will require a sustained grass roots effort throughout the country. It will require our belief that it is the right thing to do. It will require stamina and courage for a long struggle. I invite all of you to think with me about how to build much greater momentum so. In the fight against guns.