The left should abandon ‘gun control’ and return to its radical roots
Americans famously have a problem with nuance and context — with any problem whose solution doesn’t present itself readily and without serious mental effort. Faced with tragedies like the one that stole the lives of 19 children and two teachers this week in Uvalde, Texas, the natural human response is to call for action. Politicians need to do something – anything – nuance and context be damned.
Vital historical and empirical considerations also tend to go by the wayside when we’re in the grip of grief. But in a world where it is surprisingly and increasingly easy to kill large numbers of people, mass shootings will never be a problem with the kind of easy solution Americans and our media demand.
In recent years, people have killed or injured large numbers by, for example, using homemade pressure cooker bombs and driving their cars into crowds of people. The use of improvised explosive devices like these pressure cooker bombs appears to be on the rise in the United States.
Perhaps more concerning still is the rise in extremely inexpensive, 3D-printed guns, “ghost guns” that can be assembled at home and almost always lack serial numbers. The frightening reality is that we are not in and cannot ever go back to a world in which words on paper can meaningfully inhibit a madman bent on killing large numbers of people.
Laws limiting one’s ability to acquire guns are blunt instruments that are ill-suited to addressing a mass shooting epidemic. The Uvalde shooter bought his guns legally and had neither a criminal record nor a diagnosed mental health condition. The Buffalo shooter likewise purchased his guns legally, and in New York, a state that already has some of the most stringent requirements in the country. Any new statute that would attempt to stop these purchases would have to be extremely overbroad, unjustifiably curtailing the rights of peaceful, law-abiding people with legitimate self-defense interests.
The political left is awakening to the inherently reactionary, socially retrograde nature of so-called gun control laws, which in practice control the guns of marginalized minority groups, Black Americans in particular. In a country that infamously has more than one firearm for every person, laws limiting gun ownership can only put late-comers (who will overwhelmingly be on the left) and already at-risk groups in an unfairly vulnerable position. Many leftists responded to the palpable fear of the Trump years – and the increasingly clear reality that they couldn’t safely rely on the police – by embracing their right to defend themselves and, with it, their right to take up arms.
As I’ve argued in greater detail elsewhere, it ought to worry all principled egalitarians that more restrictive gun laws strike at the rights of ordinary citizens but leave the prerogatives of state actors, far and away the most dangerous and heavily-armed members of society, totally untouched. We have serious and well-documented problems with police violence in this country. If we take addressing those problems seriously, and we accept that incentive structures shape human behavior, then we should look askance at policy proposals that create this kind of inequality of rights. Indeed, such inequality is fundamentally incompatible with anything resembling a free society.
Ordinary municipal police forces in America regularly have – and use, in all kinds of indiscriminate and excessive ways – military equipment and weapons, including armored vehicles, grenades and military-grade guns and body armor. The people they brutalize and murder at such extraordinary rates are the same people who lose when restrictions on gun ownership are tightened. A free and democratic society cannot expect its citizens to give up their right to self-defense in a context such as the one created by the ongoing American policing and criminal justice crisis.
If they’re no longer overtly racist and discriminatory in their stated intent, America’s gun laws are nonetheless certainly racist and discriminatory in their real-world impact. In Illinois, for example, “[a] shocking 83% of the people prosecuted and convicted of Class 2 felonies” for gun possession are Black. Similarly, in New York, although less than one in five state residents is Black, Black New Yorkers represented nearly four out of five “of the state’s felony gun possession cases” in 2020. (White New Yorkers, by contrast, were 70 percent of the population, but only 7 percent of these cases.)
This is probably not surprising to Americans who know a little bit about the racist history of gun control in our country, yet this context seems to be totally absent from the well-worn mainstream debate about gun control, whose easy-to-remember steps are repeated every time there’s a tragic shooting (and there’s been more than one per week so far in 2022).
Abolitionist legal scholars such as Lysander Spooner saw the clear connection between the right to defend oneself and all other rights enjoyed by free people — that is, between firearms and the abolition of slavery. They knew what many on the left today have forgotten: Words on paper, even if they’re those of the Constitution, are unfortunately no match for weapons in a world of real (read: physical) power.
Throughout American history, Black leaders from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X understood the effective nullity of other legal guarantees without the right to bear arms; for his part, Douglass observed that “the work of the Abolitionists is not finished” until Black Americans could exercise that right.
Today’s left wants to forget the centrality of gun rights to Black Americans’ struggle for freedom merely because the cultural flavor and political alignment of the gun rights movement has changed over the past several decades. Were Americans more sensitive to context and to the empirical data on both police misconduct and gun-related convictions, liberals and progressives would likely have a very different perspective on so-called gun control legislation.
On the gun question, the left has been sold a bill of goods, taken in by centrist elites who will never be at serious risk of gun violence regardless of the laws. Ultimately, privileged groups will find ways to acquire the kinds of firearms they want, and they have guarantees of safety of a kind that the poor and marginalized in this country cannot hope to expect.
Whether we like it or not, people of color, the poor and working classes, the LGBTQA+ community and other vulnerable groups need gun rights much more than members of more privileged groups. They stand to lose the most if we react to tragedy with irrational and illiberal policies that don’t address the problem.
David S. D’Amato is an attorney, businessman and independent researcher. He is a policy adviser to the Heartland Institute and the Future of Freedom Foundation.
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