Proponents of new gun-control legislation often seem genuinely baffled by their opponentsâ€™ position. They cannot understand how the other side can be so consistently uncompromising, especially as shooting after shooting claims scores of innocent lives. It would greatly illuminate contemporary political debate if the Leftâ€™s bafflement here could be resolved. But this is difficult. While the pro-gun crowdâ€™s motivations are not mysterious, they are obscure. To clear away this obscurity, much that goes unspoken on the American Right must be said plainly. This way, at least, the debate over gun control might become less confused.
The basic reason why pro-gun Americans tend to resist even mild gun-control legislation is that, for them, guns are a symbolic issue. In their guts, they know that if gun-control legislation moves even a little in the direction that anti-gun activists want, then America will cease to be the kind of country it is. But pro-gunners often love America as it is, and therefore resist any fundamental change in its character. This is why they resist even sensible-seeming restrictions to freedom of gun ownership.
On its own, it is not too helpful to say that pro-gun activists resist change because of a gut feeling about the direction the country might go in. â€œSo what?â€ a gun-control activist might wonder. â€œWhy should I care about what these peopleâ€™s â€˜gutsâ€™ are telling them? We shouldnâ€™t be basing important national policies on â€˜gutâ€™ feelings anyway!â€ And itâ€™s understandable to react this way, although it doesnâ€™t help the two sides to communicate. For that, the gun-controllers need to understand where this gut feeling comes from, and whether or not the feeling has any basis in fact.
If the pro-gun coalitionâ€™s feelings do have a basis in fact, then the anti-gun coalition is not merely arguing for a minor change in the specific public policies around gun ownership. Rather, because they see the world in a fundamentally different and incompatible way, their efforts to change gun policy are only one small part of a much broader, general effort to transform American society.
Is this true? To begin to see what the pro-gun coalition sees here, consider the way the Democratic, anti-gun coalition admires the more restrictive gun policies of other countries. Again and again, they hold up Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, or Western European countries as models for better gun policies. Using these countries as models for American policy reveals much about how the Democratic coalition views the world, and what they want to change about America.
Consider Japan. On the surface, it is very different from the United States. It has a culture and a history nothing like our own, and its people share very different attitudes, beliefs, and values. And yet, gun-control advocates are perfectly comfortable using it as a model for American policies. Why?
Because Japan is a democratic country, and, therefore, in the Democratic coalitionâ€™s typical view, it is â€œlike us.â€ To someone in the Democratic coalition, if a country is democratic, its other particulars are often not worth concerning oneself over. In contrast, the pro-gun coalition sees every country in the world as fundamentally unlike the United States. This coalition believes in â€œAmerican exceptionalism,â€ the idea that the United States is unique in the world, and that the root of this uniqueness lies within particularly American standards of personal and economic freedom, individual rights, and, often, a unique relationship with God. These opposing classification systems use completely different standards, and so it is very hard for anyone who intuitively classifies the world the first way to understand the concerns of anyone who classifies it the second way, and vice versa.
These divergent ways of classifying the world explain both why anti-gunners are happy to hold up Great Britain as a model, and why the pro-gun coalition shrugs this model off with contempt. Although, unlike Japan, Great Britain has a culture and a history intimately connected to our own, to the Republican, pro-gun coalition, it is nonetheless alien. Great Britain does not recognize individual rights. It has no formal constitution. Its people are â€œsubjectsâ€ of the realm, not â€œcitizens.â€ In Britain, it is the Crown, not the people, that is sovereign. From the characteristically American and republican point of view, Great Britain is a fundamentally different kind of country, and therefore not a natural or useful model for the United States.
Democratic-coalition members will not find Britainâ€™s stance on rights interesting or important. To them, it is a technicality: trivial, non-essential, and certainly no basis for rejecting â€œpolicies that workâ€ that happen to come out of such a country. After all, they might argue, Great Britain may not formally recognize individual rights, but people in Great Britain seem to enjoy many or most of the same freedoms Americans enjoy. Why focus on legal technicalities when lives are at stake?
Itâ€™s a fair question. To see why the Republican coalition continues to focus on these apparent technicalities, it is necessary to step away from concrete examples for a moment and contrast the competing classification systems directly. The least complicated way to do this is to contrast two â€œgoodâ€ kinds of government: American-style, individual-rights-based government must be contrasted against a democratic government that does not recognize individual rights. This contrast must highlight the principles that distinguish these kinds of governments, as opposed to merely contrasting particulars.
In a democratic system without individual rights, there are no limits on what the government may do in order to achieve whatever purpose it has set for itself. A democracy of this kind may pass any law. It can reward or punish any kind of behavior, for any reason. The governmentâ€™s power is, in formal terms, absolute. Another way of saying this is: the government is sovereign.
This is not to say that this kind of government operates on whim, or that it does, in fact, tend to reward and punish behaviors without any outside considerations or limits. In practice, governments are limited by tradition, and by the expectations of the people they govern. It is only to say that in such a government, in a culture overseen by such a government, any measure that makes it through the democratic process is, by default, considered legitimate, proper, and good.
So government power in such a democracy is subject only to soft limits, by which I mean that the limits themselves are informal and can (and do) change over time. If the people in a democratic country find some kind of law repulsive to their sense of justice, that law probably will not be enacted. But the popular sense of justice can change over time, and so laws that might have seemed inconceivable in a great-grandfathersâ€™ time become uncontroversial for his great-granddaughters. Sometimes it happens that different factions in a democracy like this will disagree about which laws are too burdensome. For example, Great Britain recently voted to leave the European Union, partially because people involved in business were finding the very comprehensive EU regulations to be too much. But many Britons, especially younger ones, disagreed, and thought that the benefits of EU membership far outweighed the hardships that these regulations imposed. But the Britons who voted for Brexit were not asserting a right to be free of particular regulations, or rejecting regulation on principle. They almost certainly believed that their government had the right to join any union it wanted to join, or to subject its people to whatever economic regulations seemed best. For Britons, exiting the EU was not a question of restoring lost rights (because Britons have no rights, not in the American sense); it was merely a question of whether the government was exercising its unlimited right to govern in an effective and worthwhile way.
Because there are no formal or hard limits to what democratic governments permit themselves to do, and because their citizens would probably become uncomfortable with this unlimited power if certain assurances were not made, these governments always advertise that they use their power for benevolent, humanitarian purposes. These purposes do change over time, or else they would become too much like hard limits, and no government of this kind would tolerate such limits.
The advertised purposes for which an unlimited and democratic government deploys its power are continuously negotiated and renegotiated. Every such government operates within an informal consensus â€” a flexible, ever-changing agreement both within the government and with the people â€” about what purposes its unlimited power can legitimately serve.
Since these agreements are informal, there is no way to list them accurately, but it is possible to briefly describe a few of the ideas that tend to come up in this area again and again. First, unlimited democracies, like all governments, believe that government power should be used to keep the peace. Policies that punish criminals and regulate dangerous activities (like driving, flying airplanes, or transporting deadly chemicals) are universal. Second, unlimited democracies tend to aim at some kind of vision of the future, a â€œcommon good,â€ and pass laws seeking to encourage society to develop in the areas that are favored, while curtailing any trends that are not favored. For example, common aims that unlimited democracies have for the future include increasing the general level of happiness, increasing the general level of health, increasing the general prosperity, helping more people to reach their own potential, keeping the poorest people from falling below a certain minimum level of security and opportunity, correcting for injustices of the past, maximizing fairness, or protecting and enhancing the quality of the environment.
Unlimited democracies never settle for only one of these organizing goals. Through the continuous renegotiation of priorities, some administrations will focus on increasing economic prosperity, others might focus on increasing fairness, still others focusing on other benevolent and humanitarian ends.
The contrast between this unlimited-democratic form of government and the individual-rights form is very sharp, even when the differences that result in peopleâ€™s lives are much harder to see. In an individual-rights based country, government is not only limited in what it is permitted to do, it is only permitted to do something if the people have given it explicit permission. This is exactly the opposite of an unlimited democracy, where the government has total freedom, and the people are exactly as free as it lets them be.
The central idea that animates a country based on individual rights is that individuals should be free to pursue the values that sustain and enhance their lives, without interference. Individual rights are therefore incompatible with the kinds of guiding purposes or â€œcommon goodsâ€ that unlimited democracies use to justify their unlimited power. For example, an unlimited democracy might enforce a regulation requiring all passenger vehicles to meet certain crash-safety standards. But each individual who buys a vehicle values certain features more than others. Some buyers value safety very highly, while others value sportiness, or style, or fuel economy, and so on. If all vehicles are required to meet a certain safety standard, then cheap, dangerous, but fun-to-drive vehicles are no longer made. And when they become impossible to buy, then the â€œprivate good,â€ of the buyers who wanted them is sacrificed to the â€œcommon goodâ€ of fewer deadly crashes.
This is only one example. In any society that uses government power to force everyone to submit to a â€œcommon good,â€ individualsâ€™ private goods are endlessly frustrated and destroyed. In their daily lives, individuals adjust to this. They come to accept dreams that will never be realized. They mourn and move on as countless opportunities slip from their grasp. This process becomes automatic, so few individuals even recognize that it is happening. In unlimited democracies, those who cheerfully endure the diminishment of their private goods, or those who volunteer to sacrifice their private values to the values of the state, are upheld as â€œgood citizens.â€ Do you give up the lake house youâ€™ve saved for for twenty years, so that you can afford to pay higher property taxes for public schools? You are a good citizen. Do you cheerfully spend an extra two hours each day to use public transportation, because gasoline taxes and other government policies have made commuting by car too expensive? Do you not complain about missing those two hours with your family? You are a very good citizen. Do you sell your guns to a government-sponsored buyback program, even though you live far out in the country, where help from the police is always twenty minutes away? When a violent home invasion takes the lives of your wife and son, do you swallow your bitterness over that needless loss, because giving up your home-defense firearms had served the â€œcommon goodâ€? Now you are a citizen-hero, because you are a broken man.
In a society based on individual-rights, each individual is free to decide which values are worth pursuing. Each individual is free to take whatever actions she deems necessary in order to gain new values or maintain old ones. Each individual is free to choose any personal standard by which to measure and choose among values. If a mother wants to own an AR-15 because, according to her standards, the lives of her loved ones merit this kind of protection, she is free to do so. If she does not want to own an AR-15, because, by her standards, some abstract ideal of public safety is more important, she is free not to own one. In fact, with one exception, her freedom is total: She is not free to force anyone else to pursue, to use, or to transfer values according to her own standards. Or, put more simply: she is not free to force anyone else to do anything.
This degree of freedom makes a society-wide pursuit of any â€œcommon goodâ€ impossible. Precisely because individualsâ€™ standards of value differ, and because their applications of these standards also vary, any society-wide pursuit of any â€œcommon goodâ€ requires individuals to sacrifice their own standards and their own values. The â€œcommon goodâ€ relies on force; it relies on the power of a government to force these sacrifices on a massive scale. Because individuals will not make sufficient sacrifices voluntarily, the general pursuit of any â€œcommon goodâ€ is only made possible by the constant threat of violence. In any society that does not allow threats, there can be no â€œcommon good.â€ And any society that allows total individual freedom can only do so by disallowing all threats. Individual rights and the common good are fundamentally incompatible.
There is no area where this incompatibility is clearer than around weapons of war. The most jealously guarded power of governments is the power to make war. This is because, no matter what standard of the â€œcommon goodâ€ a country claims to follow (and even if a country claims to follow individual rights instead), other countries have their own standards. But any given resource in the world can only be used, at any given moment, to serve one master, according to one standard of value. This leads to conflict. War can be seen as violent, large-scale conflict over which standards of the good will guide the use of which resources. When one country wants resources controlled by another country, if it thinks it can get them more cheaply by killing than by trading, it attacks. This is always perfectly justified by the standards of the attackers. When American colonists displaced and murdered Native Americans, there is no doubt that this was justified by the colonistsâ€™ standard of the â€œcommon good.â€ The same would have been true, from the opposite perspective, whenever Native Americans murdered colonists.
War is the means by which the supremacy of one standard of the good is asserted over another. Any entity with the power to go to war can potentially impose â€” or defend â€” its standard of good, by force. Any entity that has this power is a sovereign. In countries like the United States, where government power is shared between different entities, the offices that hold the war power reveal which government entity is truly in charge. California and Texas and Massachusetts each have laws regulating every aspect of their citizensâ€™ lives, but only the Federal government can declare war. So one is tempted to conclude that the Federal government is sovereign.
Except this is not — quite — true.
In the United States, any citizen can declare war at any time. His unilateral power to declare war is implicit in the Second Amendment, and a presumption of that text is that if any citizen were to exercise this power, it might be against his own government. The Second Amendment guaranteed three things: First, that the people did not need permission to keep and bear military-grade arms. (Rather, the government needed the Peopleâ€™s permission to keep and bear them.) Second, that because of this, the People would be empowered to declare war — on their own government, on invaders, or on or their fellow citizens — if they came to believe that war was necessary. Third, that both of these rights would be formally recognized in the Constitution, making it much harder for future government officials to discredit or to deny them.
The reality of the meaning of the Second Amendment, once it is understood, makes it more natural to think of America in a new way. It is not, exactly, a union of States. It is a union of individuals, each of them a sovereign unto himself or herself. Unlike Europeans, who submit to a â€œcommon goodâ€ that is chosen and revised through the endless renegotiations of the unlimited democratic process, Americans, when they are distinctly American, recognize no common good. There exists only each individualâ€™s own private good, which he is free to discover and then pursue, without limitation or interference, unless he initiates force against others in the process. Individuals in America retain the right and the prerogative to do just what nations do: go to war to enforce (or defend) their own standard of good.
But by now, I hope and expect that readers have realized how strange this individualist America sounds to our contemporary ears. Do we really live in a country that allows individual citizens to declare war? Do we really live in a country that follows the complementary principles of individual rights and enumerated powers, one that believes the government is only permitted to pass and enforce laws within a narrowly defined scope? Or is the United Statesâ€™ government more like a typical European or Asian unlimited democracy? Do we consider it normal for our government to try to shape our society into something fairer for all, or more prosperous, or more responsive to the structural inequalities that disproportionately affect minorities?
Although the Union of the States was explicitly founded on radical principles of infinitely broad individual rights coupled with strictly limited government power, these principles have never, at any time in history, been shared by a clear and vocal majority of Americans. In the beginning, at the time of the founding, individualist views were popular, but the elites who codified them in law were by no means expressing a broad national consensus. The truth is far, far more complicated than that. America has always been a nation of divided loyalties and contending principles. There were, for example, roughly as many loyalists to the Crown at the time of the Revolution as there were revolutionaries. More profoundly, Christian ethics have always been at odds with political individualism, and America has always been an individualist country with a predominantly Christian population. When America is looked at this way, it is easy to see why many Americans are happy to model our future on Europeâ€™s present: many Americans never stopped being European at heart, because many Americans never stopped believing in the common good.
But whenever one wants to understand the essence of a thing, one must first look to what makes it unique, what makes it different, what sets it apart from every similar thing. If we discover what sets America apart from other countries, we will have discovered its essence. And this is not difficult to do: the essence of America is individualism, because no other country in history has ever been founded on individual rights. No other country in history has ever even recognized that they exist.
Contemporary debates over gun control occur in this context: Roughly half of the American people prefer the European way of life, centered on the â€œcommon good,â€ over the distinctly American way of life, rooted in individual rights. And this is nothing new. European thinking has been predominant in America, and increasingly so, almost from the beginning. As a result, American history has been characterized by centuries of drift away from the radically individualist principles of the Declaration of Independence. Collectivism has won contest after contest. It has won so many contests in so many areas that now, when the founding principles of the United States are described, they seem alien to many Americans. American culture has been transformed, nearly out of existence.
This transformation, however, has been uneven. In a few key areas, despite having become collectivist nearly everywhere else, Americans have held on to elements of their original, individualist identity. One of these areas is gun rights. And this is why the pro-gun coalition resists “common sense” gun legislation so stiffly: the smallest change here will erase lines that have tenuously held the original, individualist America together. Gun policy will decide whether the long American drift toward collectivism will be corrected as a mistake, or embraced as “progress.” Where the Second Amendment goes, America goes.
In this context, it is possible to recognize that the political coalitions divided over guns really represent much deeper factions, divided over a much deeper issue. The pro-gun coalition loves America for exactly what makes it uniquely American. The anti-gun coalition is done with America, and wants to return to its European roots. Thatâ€™s it.
These are not consciously held beliefs. You will not confirm the reality of this division by taking a poll. You will not too often find anti-gun Americans who freely admit they prefer European unlimited democracy in every way to American limited government. But everyone can understand the power of symbols, and everyone, I think, having read this far, can now understand what the AR-15, high-capacity magazines, and other weapons of war symbolize to the millions of Americans who refuse to give them up.
They symbolize an entire way of life, one that rejects the â€œcommon goodâ€ in favor of a personal pursuit of happiness. Guns symbolize, perhaps more than anything else an American can put his hands on, the idea that he is in charge of his own life. He gets to decide when to defend that life with deadly force. He gets to decide when to go to war, for what reasons, and against whom.
If those in the Democratic coalition want to be heard by their opponents on this issue, they need to address this openly and honestly. Tell the truth. Say what you mean. Explain why the â€œcommon goodâ€ is a better organizing principle for society than individual rights. The confusion around this issue will be lifted. Your opponents will really listen to you then.