A Liberal’s Defense of Gun Ownership

In the wake of the shooting in Colorado, my mom voiced a question I expect many people are asking right now.

 "Can someone please tell me why the NRA would defend anyone's ‘Constitutional Right’ to own two 40-caliber Glock handguns, a Remington 870 single-barrel pump shotgun, and a Smith and Wesson AR-15 assault-style rifle? Benjamin Gorman, I just don't get it!"

I owe my mother an explanation, partly because I'm her son and she asked, partly because I'm a gun owner who was raised to fear and detest guns (especially handguns), but mostly because, when I got my concealed-and-carry permit and they asked me for the name of reference, I wrote down my mom's name. I think she deserves a reply.

Mom's question is actually three questions. Why should anyone have these guns? Should this be a right? And, if it is a right, why should the NRA defend that right?

First off, let's address those guns specifically. I don't own a Glock because there are specific things I don't like about them, but I have a Ruger 9mm semi-automatic handgun. I don't have an AR-15, but I have a carbine which some people would call an "assault-style" gun. I own a .22 and a youth 410 (that will be my son's when he's old enough). I don't own a pump action shotgun, but that's the next thing on my gun buying list. There are myriad reason for owning firearms, and I can't speak for all of them. Personally, I had multiple reasons. First and foremost, I started researching guns because I write novels (nothing published) and I wanted to be able to write as knowledgeably as the story demanded. The more I learned, the more I realized there's a whole world of knowledge I was unaware of. Could I have done all my learning simply by reading about guns? Certainly. A decent writer could also write believably about bicycles without ever riding one, and a moral writer should be able to write about murder without committing one, so if I felt that gun ownership was wrong, then my writing would be no excuse. But I'd also come to believe that gun ownership is not immoral. Few question a hunter's right to own a gun. Even fewer question a police officer's right to carry one, even in an urban setting. We allow these people to carry guns because we believe that most of them will be responsible. They will use these firearms to feed their families and to protect themselves, and us, from those who would do us harm. Implicit in this permission is an acknowledgement that there are those who would use guns to dangerous ends. Not only are there hunters who misuse guns (and police officers, too) but there are those who would use guns to do us all harm. Consequently, as I see it, we have three choices: We could try to create a society without any firearms. We could allow people to have guns and hope they will be responsible citizens. Or we could have some mixture in which guns are regulated but those who prove themselves responsible (mind you, prove themselves to some government official) are permitted to have guns.

I used to argue for a society without guns. When my in-laws first heard I'd never fired a handgun, their jaws dropped to the floor like something out of a cartoon. But even after firing some of my brother-in-law's guns, I would argue for strict handgun bans by saying I would give up that enjoyable experience to bring back just one innocent child killed by a handgun someone irresponsibly left sitting on their coffee table. That was a pretty effective (emotionally manipulative) argument, but it rang more and more hollow in my own ears as I grew older. Taking guns away from people responsible enough to follow the law doesn’t bring back the dead, and it might not prevent future tragedies. Certainly every accidental death caused by firearms is a tragedy, but would I give up my right to own a gun if it meant I couldn't protect my own son's life? And do I have the right to make that choice for anyone else? Even a world with no guns at all wouldn't entirely alleviate this concern. Sure, I'm no ninja super-hero myself, but do I get to tell a five-foot tall, 100 lb. mom that she has to defend her children from a much larger armed assailant without a gun? (My wife is one of these five-foot tall, 100 lb. moms. I wouldn't dare tell her what she couldn't do in defense of our son.) Plus, can we please admit that the notion of an America without guns is painfully naive? As a liberal, I'm horrified by the notion some hold that we should round up 15 million illegal immigrants and deport them on cattle cars. To me, the idea of police breaking into and searching every house in America in search of guns that haven't been voluntarily turned over is equally repellent, and even more impractical. There will be guns. And let’s remember that a word without guns wouldn't necessarily be a safer one. This guy in Colorado may have killed a dozen innocent people with his guns, but Timothy McVeigh did a lot worse with a van and garbage cans full of fertilizer. The terrorists who killed all those people in the Tokyo subway system lived in a country that's a model for handgun control. And the 9/11 terrorists used box cutters.

(Now, if I’m being totally honest about my motivations, I should also confess that, despite my ridicule of the paranoia of the right, I also harbor concerns some would dismiss as paranoia. Though I maintain my commitment to a kind of open-minded skepticism, I find supernatural apocalyptic scenarios exceedingly unlikely. I’m not concerned with the Rapture, the return of Quetzalcoatl, or the misreading of a Mayan calendar, but I do worry that our civilization is more tenuous than we like to admit. Possible man-made causes, like Peak Oil, a series of severe natural disasters precipitated by global warming, or even massive currency devaluation caused by a shaky international monetary system could potentially lead to circumstances that would make government overreach look like the better alternative. In that chaos, I’d like to know how to use a gun safely and effectively to protect my family. To me, this seems just as sensible as having a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit, but I know that even speculating about the fall of our civilization would cause some people to dismiss me as a kook. Oh, and then there’s always the potential Zombie Apocalypse…)

So, if we acknowledge the reality that we can't get rid of all the guns we already have, we could adopt a complete laissez faire attitude toward guns. I think that might be the position of the NRA, or at least of many of its members, but it's not mine. If the rationale for gun ownership is based on this free-for-all attitude, and is inspired by the Founders' idea that people need guns to defend themselves from their own government, then people should be able to have any weapon accessible to the military. That's madness. I may be comfortable with my neighbors owning guns, but I don't trust any of them with nuclear weapons, least of all the kind of neighbor paranoid enough to get into an arms race with his own government.

Since we can't get rid of guns and shouldn't take away a person's ability to defend him or herself in a world with guns, but also can't allow anyone to have any weapon they want, we need to find a balanced approach that preserves ownership rights for those we find to be most likely to handle the responsibility, while keeping guns out of the hands of people likely to misuse them. We also need to be reasonable about what guns we allow people to purchase legally. This tragedy in Colorado doesn't shed much light in the latter question. The guns he had were not only legal, but should be legal within such a balanced framework. Glocks are self-defense weapons, the most popular choice of police departments. The AR-15 is certainly a military grade weapon, but semi-automatics are practical for home defense, too; you wouldn't want to have to rack a round between each shot if you were being attacked. Lastly, the pump action shotgun, in my opinion, is the best weapon for home defense because it has the added feature of producing a universally recognizable sound that can ward off an intruder before a single shot is fired. As someone who hopes to never fire a gun in the direction of another human being, I find that very attractive, and I would expect that those favoring gun regulation would, too. Unfortunately, this particular act could have been carried out if the man had carried in a coat and belt full of loaded six-shot revolvers from the late 1800s. Though this instance doesn't tell us much about what guns to outlaw, it certainly tells us that we need to beef up our mental health services. I don't know anything about this assailant yet, but I can perform a layman's diagnosis and assert that he was ill. Now, I have heard concerns from more ardent gun-rights supporters who are even leery of limiting the rights of the mentally ill. Their rationale is that a corrupt government could use the pretext of mental illness to systematically take away gun owner's rights. I find this unpersuasive. Any government that had the ability to systematically separate massive numbers of people from their guns without the consent of the majority wouldn't need any pretext at all. Conversely, a government still beholden to its people couldn't successfully convince them that all gun owners were diagnosably mentally ill without broadening the definition of severe mental illness so much that it would be meaningless. Consequently, I have no problem limiting the right to bear arms to prevent the severely mentally ill from purchasing guns, much as we prevent felons from doing so. I know our purchasing systems are porous, and unlike some on the more extreme fringe, I don't have a problem with background checks, waiting periods, and other measures that keep guns out of the hands of criminals or (potentially) the ill.

But even that relies on a certain trust in the government's commitment to the right to own guns. I think gun-rights advocates undermine their own case when they go too far, always presupposing the worst form of tyranny. If the right to bear arms is to be protected, it's most easily done by working within the system, with the government, to show the people that gun rights are designed to help law abiding citizens. All the "from my cold, dead hands" rhetoric presumes a government that wouldn't be cowed by a constitution anyway. As long as gun owners want to maintain a legally protected right, rather than having it obviated by an anti-gun majority, we should seek to promote, enforce, and maintain the kinds of regulations that keep guns out of the hands of the kinds of people who would turn the majority against gun ownership.

But that's political tactics and policy, not the underlying principle. Most fundamentally, we do have the right to bear arms (just ask President Obama, the first democratic president and former constitutional law scholar to assert that he interprets the second amendment to guarantee an individual's right) and furthermore, we should have that right. Beyond hunting and self-defense, a well-armed populace is a check on the government. Our government has been beholden enough to its white, male, land owning citizens, that it's easy enough for some of us to forget some of its excesses and injustices. But think of all the Americans who haven't been afforded the most basic rights. We have to acknowledge that those rights could be removed again. After all, Japanese Americans had their rights suspended during the internment. So, since we know it's possible, we should also acknowledge that the government is far less likely to do something like that again knowing so many of its citizens are armed. It's a raw check on government overreach, I'll admit. It has none of the beauty of crisp, fresh, free newsprint , none of the biting wit of satire, none of the nobility of an independent judiciary, none of the simplicity of the ballot box. It's not my favorite check on government power. It's not even the most efficient. But it is the last check.

If it's a right worth having, it's a right that needs defending. In just the last few years, we've seen what happens when people won't stand up for the right to habeas corpus; extraordinary renditions, parallel courts, torture. You might not like gun owners any more than you like people accused of being in Al Qaeda, but just as those people deserve to have their rights protected, gun owners deserve to have theirs protected, too. And for the same reason: Just as you could someday be falsely accused of a crime and be protected by those brave enough to stand up even for accused terrorists, you could someday find yourself in a position that causes you to second-guess your decision not to own a gun, and those supposed villains who defended the rights of this crazy guy in Colorado would instantly become the heroes who defended your rights, too.
Now, as for the NRA, I can't speak for them specifically. As much as I respect those who stand up for all our rights, I can't stomach the NRA’s complete submission to the Republican Party. I also don't understand their irrational antipathy towards President Obama. He's actually been very good to gun owners, not only asserting the individual right to bear arms, but opening up federal lands to hunters under their individual state laws. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure he opened up more previously restricted land to guns than any president ever. So why are they so devoted to getting rid of him? Partly it's the paranoid style of the American right which always assumes that, despite any evidence, the other shoe is about to drop and the communist plot will be revealed. Also, they hate this new UN restriction on the illegal international firearms trade, despite the fact that it explicitly allows for the import of any guns that meet the laws of the receiving country. Personally, I think that’s pretty weak, since some of the receiving countries would turn those guns over to terrorists immediately, but then we don’t look to the U.N. because of its track record of strong enforcement. There’s some concern among gun owners that the ban will create bottlenecks in the legal supply chain, but this presupposes that some of that chain depends on the illegal import and export of firearms, something that should be curtailed anyway. Beyond these fears, the ban plays into paranoia about some evil UN led “One World Government,” the kind of conspiracy theory I find ridiculous because politicians and bureaucrats, in my experience, just aren't smart enough or well organized enough to pull something like that off.

Despite my disdain for the NRA, I am a card carrying member of the Liberal Gun Club, and I'm glad there are people on both sides of the aisle protecting our right to bear arms. Tragedies like the one in Colorado, much like the events of 9/11, incline us to make reactionary decisions based on our horror and our fear of our own inability to explain the circumstances. Those who want to prevent violence would do well to take a deep breath and remember that such snap judgments all too often lead to even greater horrors. After all, we responded to thousands of deaths on 9/11 by killing or displacing a million people in Iraq. Since murder rates in this country have been consistently declining for decades, we can’t allow our outrage at this anomalous event in Colorado to motivate us to do anything, especially curtailing our most fundamental rights, without carefully weighing all the potential consequences. 

Addendum: Apparently my fellow liberals aren't the only ones who are inclined to be reactionary when it comes to guns. Here's a great take-down of one of Bill O'Reilly's uninformed rants: "Bill, You Ignorant Slut" by Robert Farago. 

Addendum II: And I'm not completely opposed to this proposal, either, though I don't think it would have had any bearing on the events in Colorado. "Regulate Guns Like Cars"