GUN CONTROL

People have a hard time being rational about this issue because the most frequently expressed viewpoints lead the argument not closer to, but farther away from resolution. So let's start off by discarding the most popular irrational and divisive arguments.

Irrational arguments number one and two (springing from literal readings of the second amendment) are that the founding fathers intended that private ownership of guns be limited to the necessities of militia only or that the words "shall not be infringed" means "shall not be infringed in any way at all." That's how it was written into the B. of R. "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

Those two polar interpretations are the basis of the whole controversy. It's the old tug-of-war between freedom and safety.

Lucky for us we don't have to rely on those two-dozen or so words to tell us what the founding fathers meant by that or what they were thinking about when they strung them together. Those guys wrote about their social and political views long before and long after the Bill of Rights was composed, and they were just as divided on the issue as we are today. Some of the framers of the Constitution distrusted the volatile and emotional rabble (which incidentally they themselves had roused to win their revolution for them) and would have been perfectly happy to gather up the guns from those less educated than themselves. The other side of the aisle was pretty sure that people in positions of authority would eventually become tyrants if they thought they could get away with it, and they thought the best insurance against that happening was an armed populace.

As it turned out, firearm prohibition would have left frontier communities defenseless against Indians, the weak central government at the time didn't have the resources to protect citizens or firmly establish law in the newly-formed states, so to a great degree, the citizens had to protect themselves and their own property. That meant that they had to be allowed to keep deadly force in their homes and the government had to trust them to use it responsibly. Hunting was also a significant source of food for the population. So gun control wasn't at all practical in the eighteenth century U.S. The Hamiltonians simply had to cave in, but refused to approve the amendment until the "well-regulated militia" phrase was put in. The Jeffersonians didn't like it, but they had to okay the "militia" part or there wouldn't be anything at all in the Bill of Rights about the right to bear arms. The Jeffersonians won by default, but the Hamiltoninas ensured that the controversy would remain for later generations to deal with.

The issue is this: To what degree will U.S. citizens be allowed to keep deadly force? Arguments about hunting firearms, collections and sporting arms are a distracting sideshow irrelevant to the issue. Resolve the deadly force issue and the sporting arms issue resolves itself. All we really know from the second amendment is that the founding fathers thought the issue was important enough to go into the constitution and that they could not resolve it themselves after exhaustive debate.

Another distracting argument holds that the founding fathers did not foresee developments like machine guns, exploding bullets, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; and if they had known that there would one day have been such a thing as an AK-47, they would have banned firearms from the outset.

Crap.

Surely they did foresee such developments. Many of these guys were military men, inventors, historians, scientists, polyglots, smart guys and such wise. They would have known that science and military engineering were forever trying to increase the rate of fire of weapons. In their own lifetimes they had seen firearms develop from fragile, inaccurate, unreliable (and just barely dangerous) matchlocks into flintlocks and Kentucky rifles which could kill at ranges of hundreds of yards. They would have understood from history that weapons would become deadlier and deadlier, just as bronze swords were replaced by iron and then by steel. The founding fathers surely assumed the development of deadlier firearms just as you and I can guess that two centuries from now somebody might try to rob a convenience store with a laser pistol.

Another argument that doesn't work holds that we don't need to hunt for our food any more, so we don't need guns. It's true, but it's irrelevant to and distracting from the central argument. By that reasoning, citizens should only have things which they need for survival. Stupid. Next.

I'm not persuaded by statistics showing that people are more likely to shoot themselves than an intruder. Those studies can't really take into account the number of people who were not shot because they fled after hearing the sound "shlak-klak" behind the door they were kicking. Further, arguments from a public safety/accidental shooting standpoint won't persuade many people. Even if it's true it's condescending. What you've said with those studies is that you think American citizens are too stupid and irresponsible to own guns and you (yourself being intelligent and benevolent and having the moral imperative to do so) should gather up all the dangerous toys to keep Jethro from hurting himself. This argument could be used to attempt to outlaw anything that can be abused.

"When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Well, duuh! It's an argument about semantics. If tomatoes were outlawed, only outlaws would have tomatoes. You might as well say, "If there were no laws there would be no crime." The gun people are trying to make the point that somebody who is willing to commit murder isn't going to be deterred by lesser laws regarding the ownership of firearms.

"Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Again, true, although guns make it easier. It's like arguing that pianos don't make music, musicians make music. It's only a productive argument in that it emphasizes that gun ownership requires a serious and solemn sense of responsibility on the part of the owner. Although it is a logically sound argument for outlawing people.

All these arguments lead us away from resolution and toward one of the opposing viewpoints, one of which would allow citizens to build nukes in the basement and the other which would outlaw anything that might accidentally put somebody's eye out. And since all the public arguments lead us to one extreme or the other, reasonable viewpoints are left out of the debate while the radicals and reactionaries go on "Hardball," where arguments are decided on the basis of which advocate is the more shrill.

I don't think we'll resolve this issue by dialectic. Two polar opposite views slugging it out in the public arena are not likely to produce a rational or useful synthesis in this case. We'd end up with insane laws stipulating that private citizens may own mortars but not sling shots.

So is it more dangerous for U. S. citizens to have guns or for U. S. citizens not to have guns? I'll admit the Hamiltonians, some of whom wanted to establish an American Monarchy, were justified in their distrust of commoners. Don't forget, half of all people are of below average intelligence. Having recently led a revolution themselves they were aware that those who are easily led are also easily misled, and surely the excesses of the rabble during the French Revolution were in the minds of those who argued in favor of the "well-regulated militia" phrase.

I'll also admit that the Jeffersonians were justifiably distrustful of government. What government has ever failed to behave tyrannically at some point or other? Even the U.S. rounded up loyal citizens with Japanese names and put them into camps in the 1940's, and who needs another lecture on the Mexican War or the Trail of Tears?

So the Jeffersonians saw gun ownership as some protection against the tendency of government to wax tyrannical. The Hamiltonians saw universal gun ownership as an undesirable source of chaos.

Gun control in whatever country has never been more than superficially an issue of crime or public safety. From the elimination of firearms in feudal Japan right up to the present day, an armed populace is a potential threat to the established order--a revolution waiting to happen.

And that's really it. Sorry I don't have a really good answer like I pretend to have on tax questions. Do you want to be more safe or more free? You might not be the best person to protect your property and family. The gun control advocates might be right. Maybe you can't be trusted with deadly force. But the right to keep a gun in your home to protect your family and your property is a right that very few people in the world have. It's an extraordinary gesture of trust and assent between the government and the governed. Before we give up such a powerful right, let's be sure we're not doing it out of panic; because once you give up that right, you're never getting it back.

RTJ--3/4/00

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Miscellaneous thought: Gun control advocates scoff at sinister interpretations by gun owners of proposals that all gun ownership be outlawed. They declare gun owners to be unreasonably suspicious of government to the point of paranoia. If, however, someone were to propose that Jews (or any other group) not be allowed to possess weapons, there is no question that such a measure would be considered a prelude to some kind of unpopular restriction. In fact, given the history of the relationships between Jews and various governments over the last FEW THOUSAND YEARS, I have a hard time understanding any Jew wanting to give up the right to own a gun.

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Miscellaneous thought: Last week a 12-year-old kid stole a stolen gun and killed another 12-year-old. President Clinton went on TV to urge the passage of a law that would require childproof safety locks on guns. So I guess when the guy at the crack house steals his next gun, in order to comply with the law he'll have to steal a child safety lock at the same time.

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Miscellaneous thought: In the past year I've been to one gun show and one dog show. The people at the gun show were relaxed, friendly and polite. The people at the dog show were a little edgy.


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