Thoughts on Gun Ownership
There is evil in men’s hearts.
After this spate of shootings these last couple of years (including Aurora, Boston, Sandy Hook, the Navy Yard, and smaller things like Chicago today,) I would be inclined to support tougher gun laws, for I do not dogmatically believe that the right to bear ams- or any right for that matter- is more important than the security of individuals. I, the statist, am more than happy to trade liberty for security, should the reality of the situation demand it.
However, I do not find the arguments for stricter gun control to be particularly convincing, either in their logic or in the empirical evidence they claim. Such arguments do not explain the relative peacefulness of the owners of such weapons in other times and places, nor the violence conferred in areas where similar bans are in place. And the supporters of bans seem to forget that the great masses of gun-owners are neither government-despising militias nor mobsters with criminal intent, but seasonal hunters and antique gun-collecters- easily the most harmless of factions extant within the United States. Certainly, if collecting up the people’s guns could put an end to the senseless violence, it would be a noble cause; but as much experience points against the efficacy of that, I find much reason to doubt it.
A wise man once said that a cake is more efficaciously eaten by a nibbling about the sides, than a gouging of the center. Similarly, issues of great pitch and moment might be more efficaciously solved by a managing of their effects and conditions, than a rooting out of their supposed causes.
In the case of mass gun violence, it seems that certain provisions to lightly nullify these effects and conditions are in order. Perhaps studies of the types of individuals tending to commit atrocities ought to be encouraged, and from this data, policy ought to be crafted to profile them and deny them their right of gun ownership. It is not particularly novel; present gun applications screen felons and other sorts of individuals whom the government deems unworthy of the right to bear arms. It should not be too far a leap to screen those who, while perhaps innocent, are nonetheless mentally unfit or politically dangerous. Rights will be trampled upon- thus is life.
The above suggestion raises the question of definitions- why should the government define whether I am too mentally unfit, or politically dangerous, to own weapons? My inadequate answer- for the greater good. Managed injustice is the art of statecraft. I am not concerned with fairness in this suggestion- that can be left to the policymakers.
The reality on the ground must not be forgotten in seeking out solutions. At present most guns are sold through private firms and dealerships, or by private individuals (Godwilling it stays that way) but the hand of the state is evident through the necessity of all sorts of permits and paperwork. Gun owners will be the first to tell you that this paperwork is Hellish to manage; nonetheless, paperwork being the mark of civilization, it is somewhat comforting to know that those seeking gun ownership must be thereby screened. It is probably unreasonable to demand that a host of other tests be piled upon the already mountainous requirements; but certain tests designed to screen out certain types of individuals, I believe, can restrict the purchase of weapons by the dangerous, without too greatly harming the business of dealers.
But, the cunning will say, none of this addresses what a gun owner might choose to do upon purchasing a gun. Nothing says he will not go crazy, or give it as a gift to his mentally deranged or aspiring terrorist nephew! This, I am afraid, is a problem no policy can directly counter. There is, of course, the necessity of strict law enforcement, and the imposition of policies of zero-tolerance for such dramatic infractions of civility-I have elsewhere argued for the public execution of the perpetrators of mass shootings- but as a general rule of thumb, only utter tyranny could control what individuals do with their property, and history shows that even that is not sufficient. There is, however, another muzzle which can be placed over the maw of incivility, one which is not often spoken of.
I speak of healthy civil society. One of the greatest blessings of political life in a republic is the flowering of such groups committed to citizenship and patriotism, a zeal which the darkest tyrannies vainly strive to replicate their subjects. Invariably, these civil society groups tend to correspond to various factions organically existent within the larger society; but that rather increases than decreases their legitimacy, as the free man will love his country both out of patriotism and out of interest. In the case of gun ownership, it seems that aside from social mores and customs, nothing but civil society can make probable a healthy culture of responsible gun ownership. The laws can only place limits around it.
There is, indeed, a civil society group dedicated to gun ownership in the United States- the National Rifle Association. Though it is more often either derided or worshipped for its recent tilt towards ‘defending the Second Amendment’ and its increasingly potent role in national politics, both its supporters and detractors tend to overlook its general purpose, for which it was founded, and which outweighs its activity in Washington D.C. by several orders of magnitude. The NRA publishes guides to safe gun ownership and offers courses on the same subject. It hosts shooting competitions and sponsors gun clubs all across the United States. It is more indicative of that quiet, but still alive and strong, portion of the American heritage which values rugged individualism and frontier patriotism as staples to life, than of the McVeigh-ish anti-government cynicism with which it is often associated. I would posit that the NRA, and similar civil society groups, have done more to create a culture of responsible gun ownership widely across the United States, than anything but the social, economic, and political trends which laid the foundations of that culture in the first place.
But clearly that culture has been eroding for some time, and has never been perfect, for causes which I will not speculate about here. While a wishful desire for a utopian climate of responsible gun owners is comforting for those who worship the Second Amendment, it is not sound policy to wish.
The American people (or at least the sober among them) must come to terms with two realities. First, that gun violence will never cease, and so long as men are men and guns exist, they will turn these tools upon each other. Second, that by a mixture of wise policy and happy, fortunate circumstance, they may alleviate this condition to varying degrees. Dogmatism and lust for perfection create only imbalances which complicate the world, a far cry from the utter simplification which the dogmatic hope for. The reality of life is that the freedom which we grasp is the tyranny we impose, and that that same liberty from which gushes forth our happiness provides our anguish.
In a word, then, I see no solution to the issue of gun rights. Americans’ guns should neither be taken nor ensured forever. Prudent policy must correspond to realities on the ground and in the hearts of men, and thus so long as the Left and Right hold their respective views on gun ownership, the usual clamor will erupt every time an evil man extinguishes a few more candles of life. It is the purpose of the statesman, the bureaucrat, and the officer to ensure this happens as infrequently as possible; but that does not absolve the citizens of the Republic of a certain responsibility to promote goodness and civility.