What We Should Do about Gun Control

March 23rd, 2013

(Full text of blog pitch submitted to Huffington Post)

Although I’m in favor of gun control — for what I think are pretty obvious reasons, like not wanting to get shot by some crazy person at the movie theater — I’ve never spent much time thinking about it. But listening to the current discussions and debates in Congress and in the media has left me thinking that there’s something missing in this conversation.

The argument for people freely owning guns rests, supposedly, on “protecting our Second Amendment rights.” But what if it infringes on my rights to have guns readily available to a small minority of the society, that is seemingly angry, or fearful, or likes to kill animals? Don’t I have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that takes precedence over any other person’s right to carry a gun? And given that the Second Amendment was explicitly intended to refer to “a militia” to ensure that America remains a free state, how does it make sense to let people have guns for any other purpose?

In other words, what’s missing is asking some fundamental questions, and formulating them in a way that opens up additional modes of thinking. The ones I’ve mentioned might seem like the sorts of questions we might ask high school kids to think about, except that we don’t. And without well thought-out and principled arguments to counter those of the gun lobby, we allow the latter to carry the day; and whether they believe the pro-gun propaganda or not, politicians use the specious arguments that are forever being offered as justifying what amounts to criminal inaction.

I say this because politicians who cave to the gun lobby are materially assisting people in killing one another, and for the most part the victims are innocent and undeserving of an early termination. This is an argument that ought to appeal even to the pro-life crowd: if you believe that fetuses have the right to be born, don’t you also believe in the right of those already born to live out a natural life, so long as they’re not harming others? I am personally not in favor of the termination of anyone’s life unnecessarily (e.g., except in self-defense), but you don’t have to be opposed to the death penalty to recognize that it ought not to be imposed on completely innocent people.

I think the majority of Americans have, moreover, the innate decency to recognize that this is so. The issue then, is articulating the arguments in favor of meaningful and rational gun control in such a way that even gun advocates are forced to recognize and acknowledge them. Even though these arguments may seem obvious to the residents of most other civilized nations, they need to be stated in America, and applied to our present conditions. We already have over 300 million guns in the country, and there’s evidently not much we can do about the ones already out there and in the wrong hands, except perhaps for buy-back programs. But the only way that we’ll ever really be safe in America is if we make sure that the guns are only in the hands of emotionally-mature individuals who constitute a “well-regulated militia” dedicated to ensuring the security of our freedom from tyrannical oppression, which however you look at it isn’t what we have today.

It’s not clear to me what “well-regulated” was actually intended to mean, or what it ought to mean nowadays, but it’s beyond question, in my mind, that gun owners ought to be regulated in a great many ways, and that this can be done without “infringing on their right to keep and bear arms.” In other words, if you want to own or carry a gun, you should be required to register it, and obey the “rules of the road” in much the same way as you are when driving today, without infringing on your right to go anywhere you want (except on private or restricted property).

So let’s look again at what the Second Amendment says, what it means, what it was originally intended for, and how it ought to be implemented today. It seems to me that this is part of what’s being submerged by the NRA’s massive funding and presence on Capitol Hill, which of course greatly exceeds that of the gun control advocates, who are themselves struggling to get their messages heard. But the promise of democracy is that, by citizens themselves speaking out, it’s possible to change our social order for the better. This means that it is important for all of us to articulate cogent and responsible beliefs, and make the politicians listen to us. This isn’t the only place we need to do this, but it’s an important one. We can’t do anything about any other issue if we’re dead.

So here’s the official language:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Is there anything in this that suggests that “the people” ought to be able to keep and bear arms without anyone checking to see if they’re generally law-abiding, or even sane? Or that those who do “keep and bear arms” ought not to be mustered from time to time, given training in what it means to secure “a free state,” and expected to behave responsibly toward others? Indeed, shouldn’t we be able to revoke someone’s license to keep a gun if they fail to behave that way; and review people’s behavior from time to time, and require them to renew their licenses, the way we do for drivers?

This won’t eliminate all crimes, of course, any more than relicensing drivers prevents all accidents; but it’s a good start toward a society in which guns were only used responsibly, and fewer people were killed by them. What we need now is for others to speak out as to what really makes sense, in today’s America, and share their views with others. With enough voices speaking up we will be heard; and more sensible gun control will truly be an idea whose time has come.

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