Rights, Responsibilities and Rationality

As anyone following the perpetual gun debate knows, those who resist gun regulations tend to fall into four camps (which obviously overlap): (1) people who think they need guns to protect themselves or their families; (2) “sportsmen” who think they need military weapons to hunt; (3) those who buy “floodgates” arguments that accepting any gun regulation will eventually lead to confiscation of all privately owned weapons; and (4) the hard-core Second Amendment absolutists who will if pushed come right out and tell you that yeah, they need to remain heavily armed in case the government tries to impose “tyranny” (though the don’t much like to admit, even if pushed, they are reserving the right to decide when it’s time to start shooting police officers and members of the U.S. armed services).

This fourth group alarms me (as they would alarm most anyone who thinks for a few moments about how they’d feel if people they strongly disagree with maintained the same “right” of self-triggered violent revolution) and I continue to think “pro-gun” folk and the Republican Party really need to repudiate them unconditionally before the rest of us treat them as worth talking to on the general subject. I feel similarly about group (3), the “floodgaters,” though more as a matter of contempt and exasperation rather than fear; arguing that a government completely unlike anything we’ve experienced in American history might turn gun safety regulations into something wildly different is a ludicrous if common claim.

Group (2), the “sportsmen,” puzzle me, probably because when I grew up in the Deep South and went hunting occasionally the weapons of choice were 12- or 16-gauge shotguns and small-caliber rifles, not military assault rifles, though some hardy folk preferred the bow-and-arrow, (or in the case of hunting possum, just climbing a tree and cramming the suckers into a gunny sack so you could take them home and fatten them up).

It’s Group (1) that’s easiest to sympathize with, particularly if they happen to live in relatively dangerous areas or have been victimized in the past.

But as David Frum notes in an interesting response today to another Daily Beast writer who talked of the impulse to protect his newborn child, what if the believe that packing heat really makes you or your family safe is basically irrational?

Human beings are notoriously poor estimators of risk. We are phobic about flying, but not about driving – although driving is vastly more dangerous. We buy shares when the market has crested, and sell when the market has hit bottom. And we hope to protect our children by laying a loaded gun in a bedside table – where it is hugely more likely to cause a tragic accident than ever to stop an intruder.

Since (unless you are a Floodgater, of course, or a hunter who wants to atomize his or her prey) all “gun control” talk in this country involves separating the responsible citizens who want to protect themselves and their loved ones from the bad guys, and ensuring that the responsible citizens and their loved ones aren’t keeping weapons around more likely to kill them than a bad guy, this should be a pretty important discussion to have. With violent crime rates falling steadily for two decades now, and a lot of gun owners living in places where they are about as likely to get killed by road rage or falling space junk as by thieves or carjackers, the idea that maybe we should rely on the police officers that we employ for our deadly force needs ought to be enjoying a renaissance instead of a precipitous decline.

Obviously, the “right of revolution” folk won’t go along with the “police should have a monopoly of the use of force” theory since they imagine themselves riddling the bodies of jack-booted government thugs with hot lead. But aside from that, it’s not clear to me why all Americans should have an unconditional right to whatever lethal weaponry they irrationally think they need.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.