The most notable thing about the gun debate seems to be how extreme the position of some gun rights advocates has become.
I say some, because polling on the subject differs substantially from what you hear in the media. What is clear is that the proposals that have actually been made to deal with guns — things like universal background checks and banning large magazines and assault rifles have widespread support. One Gallup poll showed 91 percent support for universal background checks, including support from 74 percent of NRA members.
While the public isn’t that divided, a vocal minority is holding up debate with their absolutist views. To some, any effort to restrict firearms is viewed an all-out assault on their very way of life. When I wrote about the subject a few weeks ago, one reader emailed me to suggest that I was supporting slavery. The irony of this is apparently lost on the reader, as one of the reasons the amendment was included (one among several) was the fear among southern slaveholders of a slave revolt. Another email I received seemed to associate gun control with the Nazis, something that has become quite common. The same reader also associates gun control with World War II Japanese internment and the slaughter of Native Americans. An Illinois state representative recently compared gun control with castration, perhaps fitting given how some gun enthusiasts seem to associate their weapons with their manhood.
Advocates of the absolutist view of the second amendment seem to ignore that none of our rights are absolute. We have the right to free speech, but not to libel or slander. We have freedom of religion, but still ban animal sacrifices and we don’t allow religion to be imposed on others through the state.
Likewise, those arguing for reasonable limits on gun ownership aren’t turning our backs on the constitution. We’re expressing the understanding that there are limits to all of our rights and public safety is a valid concern. The founding fathers never conceived of military assault rifles.
Perhaps the most interesting argument is one that has become very popular lately — that the Second Amendment was established in order to allow citizens to overthrow a potentially oppressive government.
Supporters of this idea pull out a number of quotes from the founding fathers in support of their thesis, some of them fake. Fox News host Sean Hannity has used fake George Washington quotes. Locally, a columnist at the Visalia Times-Delta used a fake quote from Thomas Jefferson to support this thesis.
Never mind that the constitution defined pretty clearly what it would mean if citizens rose up against the government. It was called treason. The founding fathers were quick to defend the government against uprisings. Look up the Shays’ Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion. The leaders of both of those events would have said they were defending the principles of revolution. Nonetheless, the founders of that revolution didn’t hesitate to use violence to suppress them.
But, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. One piece of evidence in support of this argument is that when the Constitution was written, the average citizen had weapons essentially the same as those of the government — muskets that took close to a full minute to load one ball. In a battle between citizens and an oppressive government, the odds might have been close to even from an arms point of view.
Much has changed since the 18th century. Let’s assume the government becomes oppressive or even that it already is. What kinds of arms could they use to quell a citizen uprising?
Well, to start with, there are automatic rifles, surface to air missiles, grenade and rocket launchers, flamethrowers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, land mines, armored personnel carriers, tanks, nuclear submarines, unmanned combat vehicles (drones), aircraft carriers, heat-seeking missiles, fighter jets, not to mention thermonuclear warheads. Need I go on?
However much merit this argument about the intent of the founding fathers might have had, it seems rather moot now. Do you really think the average citizen has a right to even a fraction of these weapons? Worse, don’t think of the “average” citizen. Think about the craziest — but undiagnosed — person you know with a few of these in his closet.
Of course, you could take the alternate pacifist view, that citizens don’t have the right to these weapons, but neither does the government. I’d like to live in that world, but until it’s negotiated internationally, I don’t think we should be the first nation to disarm.
But, if the government must be on the same level with citizens, it has to be one or the other.
As much as I mistrust the government, it seems to me that in our modern world, the military has need of weapons that the average citizen doesn’t need to be anywhere near. Once we understand that, while reasonable people may disagree about where to draw the line, we ought to be able to agree that it’s a policy debate, not an issue of constitutional rights.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at email@example.com.