One of the truisms of the Internet Age is what has become known as Goodwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. Let us turn to the Third Reich in Connecticut.
The reason that Americans permit the tragedy of Sandy Hook to occur year after doleful year has nothing to do with the fear of home invasion. It has nothing to do with cocaine-soaked gangs. It has nothing to do with the love of hiding in a duck blind. It has all to do with George III, Josef Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. This is the half-hidden secret behind the National Rifle Association’s passion and it needs to be judged in its own terms.
The justification for the Second Amendment and the justification for opposition to such real and apparently rational limits on semi-automatic weapons is to keep power in the hands of the people. The local community is a bulwark of democracy. Just as the rest of the libertarian-blessed Bill of Rights is concerned with constraining the heavy hand of state control, so is the Second Amendment. The fantasy is Red Dawn as Groundhog Day. A demand for personal liberty led Charlton Heston to be willing to fight until “they” pry the gun from his “cold, dead hands.”
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, of Aurora, of Tucson, of Virginia Tech, of Columbine the issue is trust. Can we trust that our American regime (or invaders from Venezuela or Mars) can eschew the temptations of tyranny? Does power corrupt absolutely? Although the National Rifle Association is loath to admit it, gun control depends on political theory. The reason for heavy personal artillery is not to provoke one’s children against a break-in by Spike or José, but to kill Sergeant Spike or Colonel José. We need an arsenal not to hunt Bambi, but Senator Bambi. And if the National Rifle Association did not fear public revulsion, this is the argument that they would make.
In fact, the argument is not entirely crazed. Some seventy-five years ago the brilliant German sociologist Norbert Elias wrote of the Civilizing Process. Examining history, Elias found that social interaction was becoming increasingly less violent. We – Europeans at least – seemed less given to violence. Modifications in the rules of sport – from rugby to boxing – supported his claims, as did the increasing objections to interpersonal violence and anger, now often defined as a crime or a mental illness. Publishing this claim in 1939 seemed to some as laughable. Munich was only yesterday. But Elias’s point was that private citizens allowed states to monopolize force and violence, opening them to dictatorships. It has been a trope, although an evaporating one, that the people need weapons to maintain freedom. Sic semper tyrannis is a phrase much treasured by Brutus, John Wilkes Booth, and Timothy McVeigh, but also by serious freedom fighters of various stripes.
Do guns in the hands of patriots prevent oppression in reality? Perhaps as much as canned goods in a bomb shelter. But they make for a comfy survivalist fairy tale. In 2012, American institutional capacity based upon a separation of power and a shared value consensus is more likely to dissuade Generalissimo Barack or Reichsführer Cheney.
Still, the discussion of how freedom is to be guaranteed is worth having: whether or not we choose to water the tree of liberty with our rebellious blood each generation, as Thomas Jefferson advised. And this discussion requires more candor than has been recently evident. Gun rights are, for good and for ill, about imaginings of rebellion. They are not about personal safety from wilding naïfs. The National Rifle Association is willfully and transparently disingenuous when they suggest that the answer to Sandy Hook is to have a policeman in every school, extending the reach of the state into largely placid corners of civil society. If the NRA were candid, they would add to their mantra of “more guns,” “less cops.” From this perspective, these twenty children who died in Newtown were bystanders, dying for the right for all to bear arms. The fact that few – even few gun owners – see this battle as an insistent and immediate reality means that the National Rifle Association must bob and weave, deny and dissemble.
In this, they have erased their libertarian birthright. Guns are necessary when freedom is at risk. But once a society is sufficiently secure to recognize other and better ways to insure freedom, including secure protections on privacy rights and the creation of spaces of free action outside the reach of forces of control, limits on weaponry can coexist with individual rights. With this commitment, the present collateral damage that finds children in pine boxes becomes a luxury that only the ludicrous could embrace.