Piers Morgan has become the authentic voice of Europeans on gun control. It’s not that he’s particularly eloquent – he comes off like a haughty English tourist demanding his way to the airport in pidgin French.But he does articulate common liberal concerns on the issue, wrapped up in assumptions that suggest he doesn’t quite get the country that he’s living in.
Piers provided a rare moment of insight when he recently admitted that banning assault weapons “will not solve the gun crime problem in America” – and he captured the myopic authoritarianism of his breed perfectly when he immediately added that Americans should do it anyway. Why? Because they can and they must. It’s the right thing to do. Better than that, it’s what the British would do.
The gun control debate is as much about culture as policy. Neither side can adequately understand the other’s worldview and neither side particularly wants to. Both deal in myths and fallacies and, for the record, it’s healthy to be sceptical of both. But part of being a visitor to a foreign land is making an effort to comprehend the alien culture that you find yourself in.
While it’s understandable that Europeans should regard the horror of Sandy Hook as a case for swift federal action against easy access to weapons, it’s still incumbent upon us to at least try to understand why there might be some resistance to that idea among ordinary Americans.
For the sake of Piers and other European tourists, here’s the conservative take on guns in three simple points:
1. Gun ownership isn’t just constitutionally protected – it actually reflects the spirit of the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers were terrified of tyranny reasserting itself, so when they created a democracy they framed it as a constitutional republic bound by limits. Ergo, the Second Amendment gives individuals and communities the leverage of physical self-defence: they can protect themselves against potential state terror. It’s true that the language of the Amendment is surprisingly ambiguous, making reference to the right of contemporary “militias” rather than individuals to own guns. But interpreting a text thoughtfully cuts both ways; you can choose to read it as historically situated or as something with timeless intent.
George Mason, principle author of the Bill of Rights explained the Amendment’s meaning thus, “What is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.” He later added, “A well-regulated militia, composed of the Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other Freemen was necessary to protect our ancient laws and liberty from the standing army.” Note use of the world “regulated”, which implies that there is room for legal regulation of firearms. But on the theoretical link between gun ownership and self-government, the spirit of the Amendment is easily inferred. Americans like small government and many think that carrying a gun guarantees it.
2. A right is a right and you don’t have to justify it. A question Piers keeps putting to gun owners is “why do you need to own an assault weapon?” To them, the question is redundant. The Constitution says that they can, so they will. This Don’t Tread On Me spirit might strike the liberal as pure bloodymindedness (the spike in gun sales following Sandy Hook will be motivated in part by Obama’s threat to regulate firearms more tightly), but it’s also the product of a culture that prioritises individual liberty over corporate responsibility. Moreover, a conservative would argue that an assault weapon is only an assault weapon if used to assault someone – and in a healthier society that would happen as rarely as possible.
It might read like rhetorical deflection when gun owners insist that violent movies and the decline of religion are more responsible for gun crime than guns, but the position is consistent – again – with that culture of rugged individualism. Conservatives would insist that blaming assault weapons for deaths is the real act of deflection, for it distracts from the responsibility of the individual to make the right moral choices. To quote Charlton “Cold Dead Hand” Heston, “There are no good guns. There are no bad guns. A gun in the hands of a bad man is a bad thing. Any gun in the hands of a good man is no threat to anyone, except bad people.”
3. Guns kill but they can also save lives. America is awash with guns to the point where they have become part of the fabric of the social order. That means that while they are the source of anarchy, they can also be interpreted as something that keeps the peace. Conservatives argue that because criminals have ready access to guns then it’s only fair to even the odds for potential victims by permitting them to own them, too. And there is some evidence of a correlation between the liberalisation of gun laws and a declining rate of violent crime. While a tragic number of people continue to die from gunfire every year, the statistics are shaped by two ugly but exceptional phenomena: lone shooters venting their rage in public places, and drug crime.
In both instances, there’s little reason to think that Obama’s raft of legislation will stop the mad or the criminal from doing evil. In some cases, argues SE Cupp, it illustrates a misunderstanding about gun technology. For example, banning magazines over 10 rounds would make little difference for this simple reason: “A proficient shooter can reload within seconds. One of the Columbine shooters had 13 10-round magazines for his 9 mm carbine, which he shot 96 times.”
The pro-gun message is thus informed by a mix of nostalgia, resistance to authority and practicality. While you can easily find examples of Right-wing fruitcakes who hide their arsenals up trees in preparation for the apocalypse, in most cases the gun lobby is a legitimate part of the mainstream conservative cannon. How sensitive it is to public mood is a different question. The resistance to any sort of regulation (even that endorsed by Ronald Reagan) is just one dimension of the gun lobby’s strangely tone deaf response to human tragedy. Truly, the NRA has done just as much as the President to put gun control back on the agenda.
But that doesn’t change the fact that guns are a part of American society and the well choreographed rage of a few pundits isn’t going to make them go away. The culturally prejudiced response of Europeans like Piers is akin to travelling to France and displaying outrage when being served horse meat. You might not like it but, then, you’re not in London any more. “Autre pays, autre coutume“, as the chef might say.
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