The tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, is the latest reminder that our gun laws need to evolve. Unfortunately, the most outspoken proponents of change also tend to be the least thoughtful.
Gun rights opponents have a tendency to behave like pyromaniacs in a field of straw men, relentlessly burning down the most obviously frivolous arguments while ignoring the more complicated ones. If we are ever going to reach a consensus that is respectful of the rights of gun owners while also cognizant of the safety risk posed by the availability of firearms in the United States, we are going to have to spend less time mocking dumb arguments and more time grappling with the complex philosophy that animates the Second Amendment.
Let's start by considering the article penned by my mentor and friend David Frum at The Atlantic. Frum's thesis is actually quite modest and incredibly important. Namely, he observes that arguments against modest regulation that are based on the premise that modest change will not end gun violence are inherently unsound. And on this point, Frum is absolutely right. A series of relatively small tweaks, including restrictions on magazine capacity and a more robust firearm oversight regime, very well could save lives. Maybe not all at once, but over time, I agree with him: Lives would be saved by even modest firearm regulations.
Here's the trouble: Such points are typically lost amid the furor of intellectual and moral contempt that gun rights opponents have toward the Second Amendment crowd. And indeed, Frum — one of the most open minded and least intellectually arrogant people I know — clearly reveals this in his column. He writes:
In the end, the political system shrugs its collective shoulders: The fact that Americans are regularly gunned down in large numbers by lone gunmen — and that Britons, Germans, French, Italians, Canadians, Japanese, Australians, New Zealanders, South Koreans, Danes, Swiss, Poles, and Spaniards are not — is just one of those unfathomable mysteries, like the fate of the crew of the Mary Celeste. [The Atlantic]
This is misleading and counterproductive. If you are legitimately trying to make an argument for modest changes to the American firearms landscape — and let's face it, modest changes are the only changes that have even a remote chance of being enacted in our lifetimes — it is downright folly to cite Britain and Australia as models.
Most gun rights proponents don't oppose modest reforms because they're worried that if they can't have 50 rounds in a magazine, they'll be adversely affected. Instead, they fear the slow erosion of their rights, a fear that is animated in no small part due to the Australian experience on this front. "Australia" is thus a dog whistle in the gun rights world, immediately signaling that the speaker has motives that are decidedly immodest.
But the greatest disconnect in the gun rights debate today is not rhetorical, but rather substantive. At the heart of this disconnect is individual freedom.
I have never, ever met a gun owner who actually believed that more guns would make people safer on the whole. What they do believe, particularly those with military backgrounds, is that their corner of the world is safer if they themselves have a gun. Failure to appreciate the difference is a major error.
The gun rights movement is about individual freedom and American individualism. These are people who believe in their right and obligation to control their own fate by carrying a firearm to protect themselves and those around them, even if that might disadvantage those who choose not to.
Gun rights opponents seem to take the position that this is selfish. But there has always been a tension between what is good for the individual and what is good for the collective.
Whatever else you may think, the success of the American system of government is a powerful reminder that individual freedom is something that should be taken seriously. That is not to say that there are not circumstances when individual freedom should take a back seat to public safety. But what liberals often fail to acknowledge and grapple with is the more difficult question of whether the government should have the authority to limit my ability to protect myself on account of the fact that this same freedom can be used by someone else to harm others.
That's a hard question, and one that does not lend itself to simple answers.