Guns, Gambling and Gas Guzzlers
The Tea Party people have very deep convictions and so it might seem that what they are saying reflects some deep theme or value in American culture. In that case, a verbal dispute between one of them and a Liberal Democrat or even a mainstream Republican would wind up having brought forward the unbridgeable chasm between basic assumptions. That would be to have clarified the dispute to the furthest extent possible. Yet that is not the case, as can be seen if one bothers to investigate in even cursory fashion an issue that is a main point of contention between the Tea Party and the rest of us.
The issue of the right to bear arms is certainly one of those issues where there seems no room for compromise because the dispute is based on, among other things, a fundamental difference in how to read the Second Amendment, that fact in itself giving the dispute its legitimacy. Pro-gun people say that however foolish you may think it is to carry guns into churches, as is already permitted in Texas, or to carry guns into university classrooms, as is about to become the case in Texas, it is a practice made into a right by the Second Amendment, and so it is unnecessary to question whether it is also a wise policy. Anti-gun people say that the Second Amendment may guarantee the right to bear arms, but not the conditions under which they may be carried. If other Amendments, such as the First’s guarantee of free speech, are subject to conditions, and that is certainly the case because people living under it are still subject to libel laws, then the Second Amendment is also subject to conditions.
The Constitution, however, is not the sole arbiter of what rights are or how they are to be carried out, however much people have generally ceded to the Supreme Court the role of playing political philosopher in chief for the Republic. The current interpretation of the Second Amendment, which is that individuals and not just militias have the right to bear arms, must still be squared up with rights mentioned in the other Amendments. The presence of arms at a public assembly might be thought to intrude on the First Amendment right to public assembly because arms can be intimidating even if they are not used. Also, the right to bear arms is different from other rights in that while the reason for free speech is perfectly apparent in that it means you can state your opinions without fear of government punishment, the reason to want to bear arms to a shopping mall is not at all clear even if the right to do so is guaranteed. Has it no purpose other than to show you can do it? If you actually took a gun out of its holster and shot someone, you still would have to argue that using the weapon was an act of self-defense. The Second Amendment does not give you the right to shoot people. That makes the right to carry a firearm far inferior to free speech, where the exercise of it is satisfying in itself because people speaking their minds are engaging in an essential feature of the democratic process. That is because the spirit of a free conscious exists in its expression and also because free expression is good for the carrying out of fair elections. So the question for gun carriers is how democracy is furthered by having people carry around guns that cannot be used unless some other motive than the Second Amendment is provided.
The answer to that query by a gun-toter is that carrying around a gun makes every person the guarantor of his or her own autonomy and the equal of everyone else, or at least those people who have not trained the speed of their draw to be up to the level of professional gunslingers. The gun is the great equalizer and so the equivalent of other politically supported ways of making citizens equal: giving all of them (with the exception of children and ex-convicts) the right to vote and the right of every citizen, so people have come to think, to have their health needs attended to. No one should die for lack of the money to purchase treatment or medicines. The cause of equality surely runs deep in the American psyche, and so this expedient for establishing equality deserves respect.
The right to bear arms is therefore treated as an image of freedom, the Wild West the place where Americans were truly free. Never mind that Deadwood, Arizona imposed gun control soon after the showdown at the O. K. Corral. The issue is that a person who is carrying a gun makes of himself a guarantor of his own autonomy, able to intimidate people who might insult him or rob him. No one has to have sand thrown in his face if he has a gun and that, of course, is a powerful image for anyone who has ever been a teenage boy. I am here, a being to be reckoned with. The gun anthem should be an adaptation of the anthem of another movement: “I am here; I am woman”. To safeguard the cause of being a man may well require the willingness to accept all those shootings in urban areas as well as at suburban shopping malls and at universities and high schools. That, to the supporters of the gun lobby, is a cheap price to pay for a sense than I am independent as well as the equal of other people.
To turn this image that there is a kind of frontier justice established through arms into a Constitutional argument is, however, to misread the Second Amendment, which, obviously enough, was drawn up long before there was a Wild West. The frontier in colonial times was not policed by the six-guns that had not yet been invented. Long rifles were used to ward off Indians and animals and then, eventually, the British. We need to return to the actual conditions under which the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment or else we will be anachronistic in our imagery. The Second Amendment was designed to allow state militias to overturn and restore the federal government if the federal government and its national army got out of hand. That is made clear by Hamilton in Federalist Paper no. 46, a document disregarded by Anton Scalia in his opinion that upheld the right of individuals to bear arms. However much Scalia may regard himself as originalist in his interpretation of the Constitution, his disregard for No. 46 is like disregarding what the Gospels say about Jesus. The Federalist Papers were written by the very same people who wrote the Constitution or had played an active roll in getting it passed, and so provide as close to an originalist interpretation of what the Constitution meant as is possible.
Moreover, if the defense of the Republic were the issue, then those who support the NRA because they are squirrel or quail hunters or target shooters or arms collectors would find little defense for their activities. The question before the country would not be firearms as recreational toys or for personal self-defense; it would be whether you could also store up Howitzers along with your AK-47 so that you could protect your family when the Russians, maybe now the Chinese, came to invade. And, of course, that is not what the NRA is pumping for. Rather, they want citizens to have the freedom to carry a six-shooter or its present day equivalent into church and into crowds.
Some gun rights supporters might go along with the idea that there is a downside to establishing that sense of independence through side arms and shoulder arms. Supporters of rights to individual guns might say just make sure that people who are not fit to bear arms are not allowed to have them. It is the shooter not the weapon that kills people. The NRA, however, is reluctant to regulate gun purchases because it might scare off followers who do not do well with encounters with public or regulated agencies. These people are mentally weak—not insane, mind you, just of limited imagination. These are the sorts who find paperwork intimidating and also think that the only way they can be independent is to carry fire arms. Have they found no other way of freeing themselves from an oppressive teenage culture or from a work life or a family life that is impoverished or overly circumscribed? We ought not to provide guns to particularly alienated people any more than we ought to provide casinos for people who have no other way of gaining self respect than by throwing money away on a riverboat so that they have the pleasure of someone saying “Thank you for having visited us.”
The same willingness to sacrifice others, to pay any price for a substantive image of freedom because some people have so few mental resources to claim to be free in some other sense, is also part of the mentality of those who not so long ago refused to give up their gas guzzlers. Big cars were not matters of ostentation, so the reasoning went. They were just safer on the highway. Big cars were therefore the functional equivalent of gun ownership. I am independent because if I get into an accident with another gas guzzler, I have as much chance to get out alive as the other driver, while if I had a small car, mine would be the car crushed. The driver does not think that a trade-in of big for little cars for everyone would maintain equality. There would still be some bad guys on the road, and I need to defend myself. That argument parallels saying “Don’t restrict the size of my firearms because you cannot guarantee that everyone else will also have only low firepower weapons.” In that case, everyone does indeed need an AK-47 for self-defense.
The gas guzzler, like the gun, provides a sense of what freedom means that is also seriously deficient in that it does not invoke any of the kinds of things that philosophers have always taken to be the meaning of freedom. Those include individuality and privacy as well as a sense that the outcome of a life is not guaranteed. (Remember that the Declaration of Independence speaks of “the pursuit of happiness” not its accomplishment.) The possession of a gas guzzler only indicates that I can go off on a long trip any time I want to. I could leave work at lunch and no one would know I was missing until I was halfway to Florida. I can gather up my buddies and go on a vacation to Las Vegas. Never mind that I won’t ever do either of these things, even if I might actually just ride away from work for a few hours to let off steam before returning home to my family in the evening, just as if I were making a routine return from work. It is nice to dream, just as it is nice to dream that my lottery ticket will win me a million dollars. I couldn’t dream that way if I had an electric car that went only fifty miles without refueling, never mind that an electric or other small car is the convenient way for me to get to work and to get about in the suburbs. Protecting the right to dream about impossible things is certainly a part of freedom, though perhaps it is not the sort of thing that can be constitutionally guaranteed.
The argument that Americans, so much involved in the image of the frontier, have to allow people to head out West at least metaphorically and in their daydreams, suggests that Americans are no more likely to give up on its gas guzzlers than on football or guns. That argument, however, seems a bit dated now that Detroit is recovering its mojo by turning out small, fuel efficient hybrids and electrics, or that GE is educating the public about the soon to be available recharge pumps at a mall and a highway turnoff near you. Gas prices have not abated, which OPEC always thought was the way to get the American people back on their gasoline dependency when they occasionally wandered off the reservation because of a temporary oil saving fad. Energy issues have moved beyond the sensed right of Americans to have gas guzzlers. Americans can’t afford them and they have subsequently become less interested in having them, as that is buttressed by advertising which has switched towards pushing cars for their economy rather than for their resemblance to high performance tanks. Highway deaths have also dropped from about 50,000 a year to about 35,000 and will go down further when more people have small cars and use them less. That is a lot of lives that have been saved.
It may therefore be a mistake to think that gas guzzlers are an expression of a deep set American value. The truth is that the rationale for gas guzzlers is (was) only a cliché about the glory of the open road as that was made plausible by auto advertisers. Americans could have (can) as easily come to identify their desire to be mobile with high speed cross country trains, an idea, indeed, that was about to become a commonplace of American culture in the 1930’s and 40’s, before the nation opted, instead, for the interstate highway system. What arrives through advertising can disappear through advertising. Slogans are not American values even if some purported American values, such as fighting the Second World War for the girl back home, are summarized as slogans. Slogans change; some are dispensed with when they no longer serve the public interest. Think about the Marlboro Man or Camels’ “Not a cough in a carload”.
The slogans for gun ownership may also become antiquated. This may seem a tough argument to make at a time when the gun lobby is ascendant and is insisting that their views are the American Way. It may take a generation or more for Americans to wake up to this, though it has been less long than that since Detroit championed big and fuel inefficient cars even for the less affluent slices of its market. But it isn’t the specter of atrocities in Tucson or Columbine that is likely to switch the trend away from the cliché that owning a gun is part of being a true American. Nor is it legislation that the gun lobby can block or eviscerate. Rather, it will be a set of circumstances that shift and so makes owning a gun as an equalizer as dated as owning a horse and buggy or a gas guzzler.
The main thing that will make side and shoulder arms irrelevant to both our national imagery and our national social structure is that security is everywhere becoming professionalized. It is placed in the hands of others rather than in our own hands. That has long been true in cities where the police are supposed to defend us. That point of view may not yet have reached some minority streets where weapons equalize and enforce gang control, but it has reached the streets of one time ghetto communities. Harlem is now a middle class community because women can walk its streets at night, as that is supported by the time honored mechanisms of urban peace: good street lighting, merchants and restaurants open late, and the availability of an effective police department. Those do more good than strangers carrying firearms. The wisdom of that may eventually work its way to southern cities, as it may well do because merchants and other people who are good citizens want their security needs met in that way, just as they did when they were a force for civic reform in the Old West.
We are in the midst of a process of cultural dispersion from New York City, where Timothy Bratton, when he was police commissioner there during the mayorality of Rudy Giuliani originated Comstat, the system whereby each precinct is required to address the shifts that go on in its area as to the streets where crimes take place and the kinds of crime that are most rampant. This resulted in a sharp drop in the number of crimes in New York, yielding it, among other things, the lowest murder rate for any large city and a lower murder rate than even most middle sized cities. Many police chiefs around the country originally served as higher-ups in the New York Police Department. That includes Bratton in L.A., Timothy in Philadelphia, Brown in Houston, and McCarthy in Newark. They learned in New York (or in the case of Bratton, invented) information based and situation focused ways of reducing crime. That wisdom may not be far off for the rest of the country even if local politicians and local law enforcement people have not yet caught up with it.
Second of all, citizens have become used to governmental rather than individually enforced security. We all cooperate at airports and open our purses and jackets at museums and other places where the public congregates. We are used to seeing police and national guardsmen patrolling with serious weapons at bus stations and railroad stations. We have even gotten used to dogs sniffing about our luggage. Deference rather than hostility is the major emotion that accompanies such events. Security is delegated to experts rather than remaining an essential feature of citizenship, as if it had ever been otherwise except for a very few people who get their jollies out of the feeling of security that comes from being able to unleash a weapon at any place at any time.
A reliance on personal weapons will become politically as well as culturally and structurally antiquated when Northern mayors, in the wake of Democratic Party victories on other issues that give them heightened Congressional majorities, are able to take on the gun lobby, whose influence may not extend much further than its open pockets, its membership decreasing because the kind of people who join the NRA will be increasingly isolated and have turned their interests to other pursuits, such as dog racing or public skeet shooting ranges. Gun ownership is a diversion no different in nature from gambling on riverboats. It supplies a feeling of importance to people who have none or to people of importance who use gambling and guns and gas guzzlers as methods of conspicuous consumption. Guns will therefore hardly continue to earn the respect that is the proper reward only for a Constitutional right that has not become antiquated.