Ditching the Rubric on Gun Control: Notes from an American Moderate

By Casteen, John | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Ditching the Rubric on Gun Control: Notes from an American Moderate


Casteen, John, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Here's the trouble: in America, our unique history of rebellion (against colonial rule, against domestic tyranny), expansion (westward, etc.), and individualism (the Enlightenment and all that) leaves us a peculiar cultural legacy. Our gun control debate, like our ongoing discourses on race and our role as a superpower, is uniquely American in its construction; it depends on our ongoing historical disagreements over the precise balance of power in the social contract, and over the idea of voluntary democratic rule. The argument has, of course, become polarized and is at present dominated by two equal and opposite sets of shrill extremists. On one side are those convinced that the right (possibly the responsibility) to own and carry guns is a national patrimony handed down from the framers; their core constituency is a fairly recently politicized group formerly called "sportsmen" and now popularly known as "right-wing gun nuts." On the other side are those who believe it a moral and legal imperative that the government do whatever it must to prevent gunrelated violence by further restricting the purchase and ownership of guns; this group, whose ranks include the fundamentally well-intentioned million marching moms, differ in their experience with firearms but have in common a conviction that we'd all be better off without them.

To those two camps I say this: you will never get what you want in America. Private citizens will always own guns in this country and will always be subject to just laws governing their access and ownership. The underlying truth is that while both groups are correct in their preferred understandings of the issues, they reach wrongheaded and impractical conclusions for American culture. They insist on seeing only the parts of the big picture that support their own stances. Partial truths won't suffice, though, when the stakes are this high; gun violence affects all of us, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, more or less equally. No solution that serves the interests of one extreme faction while ignoring the other will do any lasting good; no one should accept polemics about guns.

For starters, consider the NRAs claim that the second Amendment guarantees that the government shall not infringe on the right of the citizenry to keep and bear arms. The Supreme Court decided as long ago as 1939 that this amendment applied not to individuals but to the National Guard; it's the "well-regulated militia," not Harry Homeowner, whose right it is to pack heat. The gun lobby (which, quixotically, interprets the Court's verdict in a way contrary to almost all subsequent judges) has encouraged its constituents to confuse the privilege of gun ownership with the right of participation in the national defense. No one-not God, not Alexander Hamilton-ever guaranteed the right the gun lobby claims as a foundation for the rest of its arguments. It's a right that comes and goes with constructionist courts. Consider also that the NRA, for all its posturing about gun safety and responsible ownership, can't refute the raw numbers of dead people who got that way because of a gun (total accidental, suicide, and homicides: 28,575 in 1999, the last year for which the NRA's website lists numbers; I used these because they're the lowest available, and still far too high). Regardless of one's reading of the Constitution, there exists an undeniable tendency of some guns (or some gun owners) to end up putting bullets where they don't belong. The Brady Campaign (formerly Handgun Control) is correct: the problem is real, and the gun lobby doesn't have a solution.

On the other hand, gun control activists have long been stymied by the fact that the NRA has a lot of its facts right. It's telling the truth when it says that private citizens armed with concealed weapons (and the required permits) can be instrumental in disrupting or thwarting criminal acts.1 It's also telling the truth when it says that only honest people are negatively affected by gun control legislation, since criminals by definition won't abide by the gun laws we might enact. …

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