Rational Approaches to the Gun Issue

I’ve been writing of late about Agatha Christie. A novel I recently consumed in the space of an evening was the mildly unusual Poirot opus Sad Cyprus. In it (I’m giving nothing away you don’t get on the first page), the instrument of murder is poison – an overdose of what the British were still colorfully calling “morphia” when the book was published. (I always regret that they stopped calling it laudanum.)

Off the top of my head, I’m having trouble recalling one of Mrs. Christie’s novels which uses a gun as the murder weapon, but, like many an American, I have been thinking quite a bit about guns of late. My intent here is not to tip my hand and write a polemic in defense either of the Second Amendment or of Gun Control. Rather, I’d like to point out a few aspects of the gun question that might lead to a clearer appreciation of that which actually is being debated.

The first item is the fact that the question of limiting the purchase of firearms has descended hopelessly into the world of politics – where it does not belong. The Constitution is supposed to unite Americans, not divide them, and the politicization of the Second Amendment has made the foundation of our republic’s laws a source of impossible divisiveness. If there is a discussion to be had with regard to the Second Amendment, it ought to be made outside of a partisan squabbling. You’re now in favor of gun control if you’re a Democrat, and opposed to it if you’re a Republican. It becomes a knee-jerk party politics reaction when those really aren’t the lines across which so philosophically significant an issue should be discussed. Constitutional issues of such import shouldn’t be defined by two warring political parties that usually want something simply because the other party doesn’t want it. Following the Constitution’s guidelines, the Second Amendment discussion belongs with the Judiciary, the branch of government that was intended to rise above party politics and interpret our laws fairly and equitably.

Party politics and polemics removed, the heart of the gun issue is the striking of a balance between the armed populace posited by the Bill of Rights (able to rise as a militia in its own defense if necessary) and a safe populace (which can be free of fears of militia-unrelated gun violence.) The balance is hard to strike, because striking it requires concessions on both sides from entities that are as stubborn as Dr. Seuss’ Zax: a gun-toting Right-Going Zax and a heart-bleeding Left-Going Zax. Emotion has stepped in to cloud the issue hopelessly. No one is thinking anymore: debate has degenerated into a battle of irrational fears that the other side either wants to get you shot at by a sociopath or to empty forever your truck’s gun rack.

It’s not a very adult way of discussing things.

There’s a further aspect to the debate that I don’t feel receives the kind of measured discussion it deserves. Above, I opposed an armed populace and a safe populace, taking as axiomatic the belief of those advocating increased gun control that limiting the purchase of firearms by certain classes of the population will result in a safer America. Both sides have statistics to wave about, but can we really state with certainty that the gun control measures currently on the table will reduce incidences of gun-related violence?   Will increased background checks close the loophole that allowed, for example, Dylann Roof to obtain the gun he used in Charleston last May? Moreover, will increased background checks do anything to stop a violent criminal from obtaining a weapon illegally?

There was much automatic pooh-poohing by the left of Wayne LaPierre’s statement that the only thing that can stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun – and, indeed, it does sound prima facie like another catchy NRA slogan. Whatever my position on the gun issue turns out to be, I have heretofore not been a fan of the NRA, and I have a powerful instinct to pooh-pooh anything Wayne LaPierre says. I therefore almost don’t want to say it, but doesn’t he have a point here? If you pull a gun on me, aren’t you more likely to stand down if I have a gun on you than if I’m waving a stick? I know I’m fond of rhetorical questions. That isn’t one.

The aspect of the gun issue which has caused me the most soul-searching is the Constitutionality question. Not in terms of how the Supreme Court has deliberated on the interpretation of the Second Amendment, but in terms of my own relationship to the Constitution.

I spent much of the summer railing in defense of the First Amendment and the way it was being threatened by the misguided belief that, living in this country, one has a right not to be offended. That’s not what the Constitution promises. On the contrary, it guarantees my right to offend you – because my ability to offend you is what guarantees your freedom of speech. To a generation not reared on such things as the Skokie Affair of 1977, this may be a bitter pill to swallow, but such is the law of the land.

I have forcefully advocated this bitter pill and the right of Americans to say things that offend other Americans, witness the Blogfolio entry I salvaged from mdgpundit.com about “Freedom of Stupid Speech.” I don’t agree with Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s ditty about excluding a certain racial group from their fraternity, but, yes, I will defend to the death their right to sing it. I believe in the broadest possible application of the First Amendment. Think of it in these terms: the same right granted the SAE boys to sing their “nigger” song is the right that allows you, as an intelligent and reasoning person, to rebut the song’s message. Freedom of speech permits and fosters the debate and discussion that allow humanity to march forward along the path of civilization.

Given that passionate defense of the First Amendment, am I not obligated to offer a similarly passionate defense of the Second? If I argue that the Constitution is paramount – even if you don’t like some of it – doesn’t that make it only fair that I advocate the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment? In a sense, is it not your having a gun that guarantees my free speech, in the same way that my right not to incriminate myself guarantees my protection from unlawful search, the Bill of Rights being a package deal? Our Constitution bundles freedom of speech with the right to bear arms. Can I really defend freedom of speech so passionately and without hypocrisy if I don’t similarly defend the right to bear arms?   The only way to pick and choose from the Constitution is to start your own country. They tried that a while back; it didn’t work out too well.

I never intended the writing of this essay to make clear to anyone (not even to myself) my position with regard to gun rights. Nor has it. I nonetheless believe that I have teased out questions which are not being asked in the thick of the partisan dust storm that has so hopelessly clouded the issue. Emotion has made rational debate impossible, and this is too important a question to be decided by squabbling children. In a functional republic, laws stem from reason. Reason requires thought, and it is thought – rather than raw emotion – that I have sought to trigger here.

I hope I have succeeded.

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