More on Guns and Freedom

TPM Reader MB responds to my piece on the guns and freedom unicorn

“Has private gun ownership helped keep us free? We’ve had two centuries to look at this one. And the results make the very idea laughable.”

It is somewhat silly to think that private gun ownership is the only thing standing between America and tyranny. But a more legitimate question is to ask…why do Americans have more freedom/liberty than other 1st world countries? Why don’t we have video cameras everywhere like they do in Britain? Why don’t we allow the same restrictions on speech that you can find in France? It’s all tied up in the concept of personal autonomy. We’re all horrified at these mass shootings, yet think how many people die in auto accidents every year. How many of those lives would be saved if we mandated that every vehicle have a
governor installed so they can’t travel faster than 55 miles an hour? It would probably be far easier to accomplish that than to try and ban/confiscate all guns, yet no one thinks about it as even a wild possibility.

Which, of course, isn’t to say that we can and should do nothing about these kind of tragedies. The banning of extended magazines seems like the absolute minimum that should be done. But the right to own a gun is very much like the right of Americans to do anything else. Or to put it another way, do you like these ridiculous “free speech zones”
protesters get shoved into? Are you worried that the mainstreaming of that policy moves us closer to other limitations on speech? Well, in the same way, not-entirely-unreasonable people worry that limiting the right to own guns moves us closer to other losses of freedom. That plenty of entirely-unreasonable people also scream and yell about the subject doesn’t change that.

As I said in my personal reply, I think this is a good point. But I think it’s a different point.

It actually put me into the mind of some of the things Akhil Reed Amar has written on this subject — both here in his reply to Ezra Klein over the weekend and here in a piece in Slate.

He makes many points and to understand them in their fullness you’d read the Slate piece.

The gist, or the part I want to focus on, is that private gun ownership is deeply rooted in American culture. You couldn’t root it out by government regulation if you wanted to. And there’s also a libertarian streak in American political culture, in a generic sense not the capital-L sense we see it batted around a lot today. It’s in the bill of rights. But it’s also pervasive in less formal ways and a constant tension in our lives. Maybe it would be safer to never drive over 55 mph. But maybe we want to. Maybe it’s fun or we want to get places faster or whatever.

Woven through these different constitutional and informal restrictions is a belief that there’s a healthy buffer between what the state might efficiently do or might do to achieve some social good and what we allow it to do. One of Amar’s points is that the 9th and 14th amendments are in the mix for the constitutionality of gun ownership as well as the 2nd. And these are good points.

In any case, we can say that private gun ownership is part of our culture and something protected by our constitution and that it’s part of our devotion to freedom that we don’t just toss that away because of one or more horrific incidents. Where you draw the line is the key. But that’s quite different from arguing that guns themselves either made America free or even more are keeping America free. It’s truly different.

The post I did on this last night was sort of lambasting. And some readers have written in to say that’s no way to start a conversation with gun owners or people who deeply believe this. (My answer would be that that’s not my goal with every post.) But I’ve focused on this because I think it’s important in a very specific way. If you really think it’s guns standing between you and tyranny that infuses the whole conversation with a pretty intense sense of self-righteousness and absolutism. And while conversations are important and finding ways to come to agreement are important, this is also a bubble that is worth piercing.

Because it just ain’t so.