From the Atlantic’s Secret History of Guns:
“In the 1920s and ’30s, the NRA was at the forefront of legislative efforts to enact gun control. The organization’s president at the time was Karl T. Frederick, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer known as “the best shot in America”… As a special consultant to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Frederick helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model of state-level gun-control legislation. (Since the turn of the century, lawyers and public officials had increasingly sought to standardize the patchwork of state laws. The new measure imposed more order—and, in most cases, far more restrictions.)
Frederick’s model law had three basic elements. The first required that no one carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police. A permit would be granted only to a “suitable” person with a “proper reason for carrying” a firearm. Second, the law required gun dealers to report to law enforcement every sale of a handgun, in essence creating a registry of small arms. Finally, the law imposed a two-day waiting period on handgun sales.
The NRA today condemns every one of these provisions as a burdensome and ineffective infringement on the right to bear arms. Frederick, however, said in 1934 that he did “not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The NRA’s executive vice president at the time, Milton A. Reckord, told a congressional committee that his organization was “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation.” According to Frederick, the NRA “sponsored” the Uniform Firearms Act and promoted it nationwide. Highlighting the political strength of the NRA even back then, a 1932 Virginia Law Review article reported that laws requiring a license to carry a concealed weapon were already “in effect in practically every jurisdiction.”
So, why are today’s gun lobbyists such sanctimonious prigs when it comes to the slippery slope of individual rights? There are all kinds of legal rights, some enshrined in the constitution and others merely encoded in law or policy, that require a certain balance of individual and collective wellbeing, a certain sense of proportion. The right to vote, for example. The right to peaceablly assemble. More prosaically, most of us are willing to cede our ‘right’ to resist searches of our person every time we go to an airport. We’re also generally willing to temper our ‘right’ to drive like maniacs, inhale toxic fumes, set fires on public lands, not wear seat belts – and on and on – because, mostly, we are not idiots and we understand that our rights to freedom are tempered by someone else’s right to freedom from our injurious, costly escapades.
So if we can all grasp this – even the National Rifle Association itself did for a number of decades – why do today’s crop of gun lobbyists give themselves a free pass when it comes to the social contract? As the Secret History of Guns notes, the NRA didn’t even talk about the 2nd amendment for the longest time!! The right to own guns, according to the NRA’s first president, “lies in an enlightened public sentiment and in intelligent legislative action. It is not to be found in the Constitution.” When asked if gun safety measures violated the constitutional right to bear arms, he responded: “I have not given it any study from that point of view.” Whoaaaaah!
But it really shouldn’t sound so crazy. Most of us understand that these slippery slope arguments are complete hokum: “If you regulate alcohol in any way, the sky will fall in, Chicken Little, and we’ll return to the days of Prohibition!!” Come on. Look, many people think raising the drinking age to 21 was a bad idea. But the truth is that we saw a big dip in alcohol-related car crashes when the drinking age was raised, even when controlling for other explanatory variables. Turns out that raising the drinking age actually protects the younger potential drinkers, the 15, 16, 17 year-olds – the ones with the really immature frontal lobes and brand new driver’s licenses – who would be buying and drinking more alcohol if the drinking age went back to 18. See, the point is that we made a tradeoff between the right of a 19 or 20 year-old to buy a handle of vodka and the right of our society not to bear unnecessary and costly excess deaths at the hands of a 15 year old.
We make these compromises every goddamned day, and somehow the sky manages to stay where it should. The slippery slope predictions don’t come true. Wearing seat belts hasn’t resulted in a mad legislative rush to encase our bodies in mandatory full-body Bat Man suits every time we get behind the wheel. Alcohol legislation over the past 40 years hasn’t resulted in renewed calls for prohibition. Airport security may indeed make us insane, but it hasn’t spread to too many other public spaces in American life. (Travel to a country like India, where your breasts and crotch are routinely frisked at shopping malls, museums, theatre performances, or national monuments – women are dragooned into a separate booth behind curtains, for privacy - if you want a glimpse of what intrusive security measures look like. Yet… even then, I’m guessing most Indians would tell you that they accept the tradeoffs for public safety.)
So why do gun lobbyists think that it’s all or nothing? …Why do we let the gun lobby exempt itself from this basic social compact: You get some of what you want, but not all of it. Why do they wring their hands and pull the Bill of Rights trump card every single time a piece of legislation is proposed – all because of an ambiguously worded amendment that says absolutely nothing (nothing!) about the type of weapon or the type of scenario that would guarantee such a right? What happened to that “livable” constitution we’re always droning on about? Do I get to build nuclear bombs in my basement because of some exalted and idiosyncratic sense of personal rights? If we all pulled this kind of stunt, governance would grind to a halt. Our whole society would grind to a halt.
What we have here is not a reasoned argument but a cultural tic, so let’s just call it like we see it. Americans love guns. We love guns so much that we think our (adult) fascination with guns shouldn’t be intruded on even when the result is lots of dead children. We have lost our ability to see reason. And like the proverbial frog that doesn’t perceive it’s being boiled alive and thus doesn’t leap out of the pot until it’s too late, our cultural fetish for guns blinds us to how extreme are views have become. Does anyone remember that the NRA once supported reasonable gun safety measures? Anyone?
I had a conversation with a student from Alaska the other day in which he said that he totally understood, coming from the wilds of Alaska, that people want and need certain kinds of guns but that he didn’t think there was a reason for ordinary citizens to have automatic handguns. As we were talking, another student ambled over – an ROTC student from Texas; he rolled his eyes and said he wasn’t going to step into this ‘controversy.’ It made me so sad that his immediate reaction was to flee the conversation and that his assumption was that a member of ROTC from Texas would automatically be against an argument for gun control, that such a posture was imcompatible with being from Texas or serving in the military. This is how far we’ve come: young people from big swathes of our society think that it’s totally crazy and threatening and fundamentally un-American to advocate for any kind of gun control measures. How did this happen?
Do we really not understand that we are safer than ever and don’t actually need 300 million ‘firearms?’ The supreme irony of all of this gun lobby rigor mortis is that American society is safer than it’s ever been! Of course the gun fanatics will tell you that it’s because of all those 300 million guns. But the facts speak otherwise. We are safer in spite of, not because of, the proliferation of guns. We’re safer for a whole host of reasons, including a better educated population (the high school drop-out rate is half what it was in 1970); the revitalization of American cities after decades of decay; the ‘feminization’ of American culture following profound changes in women’s rights and roles; delayed age of marriage (resulting in less domestic violence and child abuse); better preventive, community-based policing; the list goes on and on. (And most violent crimes don’t even involve guns, by the way.)
But the one area where we are demonstrably not safer is accidental deaths from guns, including teenage suicide and the murderous rampages we see so often in the news. If anything, those figures are going up.
Let’s stop glossing over the fact that the Sandy Hook killer got his automatic guns from his mother. I don’t want to hear about her mahjong games and community service! What’s relevant is that she had a thing for the kind of guns that serve no real purpose for the vast majority of ordinary citizens. We’ve all been conditioned to think it’s unseemly and in “poor taste” to say this but let’s be straight here: her guns killed her. If this lady hadn’t been a ‘collector’ of automatic weapons, she might be alive today. And even if Mr. Lanza had murdered his mother using his bare hands or an ice pick, those 26 other folks surely would still be living. Just look at the maniac in China who, on the same day as Shady Hook, went on a knife rampage and injured – but didn’t kill – 22 kids.
There’s a whole literature on why guns really do kill people. Suffice to say that in countries where gun control laws are enacted, we don’t see compensatory rises in murders from knives, ropes, and candlesticks.
But speaking logic to a gun lobbyist is like trying to speak Mandarin to a sea slug. People hear what they want to hear, I guess. What I’m hearing is that a bunch of selfish, data-optional gun fetishists have us over a barrel and they’d rather see kids get massacred than pay their citizenship dues like all the rest of us.