Let’s Talk About Guns

13 Jan

I’m guessing most of you don’t own a gun. The national rate is only 31%.  New York is half that. Many of our most vocal readers are liberals and Democrats, and while I have no data to back my assertion, I still feel relatively confident that the lefty New Yorker gun ownership rate is lower still.

You almost certainly don’t own a real gun. A rusting shotgun from your grandfather, half forgotten and stuffed in a corner in the basement, doesn’t count. A real gun is one cleaned, prepared, ready, with ammunition nearby, ready to kill people. Just in case.

If this sounds scary, offensive, paranoid, dangerous, or irresponsible, this article is for you. This is not an article about the tragedy in Tucson. It is also not an apologetic for any particular past rhetoric or ads from politicians, depicting guns and appealing to the people that treasure them. It is certainly not about Sarah Palin, constant victim and vocabulary enthusiast. This is an article about a cultural clash, a varied view of America and its history and potential future, brought to the surface by the heated political debate following the shooting of Rep Giffords. Consider me your safe bridge – let me translate and explain.

Within minutes of the shooting in Tucson, the right was asked to defend or atone for a political vocabulary that includes references to firearms and cross-hairs, explain carrying guns at political rallies, and renounce the need to ever resort to “Second Amendment remedies.” That last one particularly stung. To a certain segment of the population, that consider themselves not conspiracy theorists but historians, the voiced recognition that Second Amendment remedies exist resonated like a clear bell. The right dug in its heels. This violence was a horrific event, but not a reason to give up a fundamental right. In deed, THE fundamental right. Inadvertently, a sub-culture is now being exposed, and the basest motivations for prizing gun ownership above all else are coming to light.

Do not confuse this sub-culture with the Tea Party. They are not synonymous, though certainly the Second Amendment crowd leans right and sympathizes on some issues and there is overlap. But health care is a sideshow to their main event now requiring defense. They also do not align well with political parties – I would guess more un-affiliated members than Republicans, though few Democrats. Most of all they are not new – a wide-eyed suburban kid from Buffalo, I first encountered such folk in rural Wisconsin and South Dakota 15 years ago, where they made up a majority of my local acquaintances (“Have you bought yourself a good rifle yet, Brian?”). They were hardly new then – modern gun control started after Prohibition. Get out of New York, even rural New York, and spend a little time in Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Utah or Florida. You’ll meet plenty of decent individuals, unaffiliated with movement or party, who “cling to their guns,” in the condescending unknowing parlance of President Obama.

But why? Let me start by dispelling two myths. The gun control debate, for those who hold that issue to be their prime, is not about hunting. Hunting is a superficial nod by politicians seeking votes (see: Kerry, John). Killing ducks and geese hardly requires Bill of Rights treatment. This is also not about crime, or preventing crime by having more armed citizens. Though much public conversation about guns centers on crime (or even confusingly equates the two issues), such debates are defense actions by Second Amendment types against Liberal gun-controllers.  

No, this is about one issue, not oft stated: that it is the fundamental right (indeed, the most fundamental of rights) of all free persons to violently overthrow their government if required. Guns are the only way to ensure that right. Therefore, the gun is both the symbol and key requirement of lasting and true freedom.

Though rarely spoken, this is not a fringe idea in theory, and an undercurrent of much of American history and culture. It is an inconvenient truth for American peace lovers that our country’s birth and baptism by war left a mark, not just culturally, but in the Constitution. For supporters of the “right to revolution,” it is notable that the right to bear arms is Number Two in the Bill of Rights, after only speech, and before many other fundamentals, like search and seizure. The gun is as basic as Mom and baseball and apple pie, and present throughout American mythology: the cowboy, the settler, Davy Crockett and the Founding Fathers.

The gun symbolizes freedom, and ensures it literally, but it communicates other American shibboleths as well. It denotes independence and personal responsibility. More than that, the willingness to shoulder the most basic of personal responsibilities: keeping one and one’s family safe and secure, no matter the hazy umbrella of security government may provide. The courts are a delayed redress of grievances, and police cannot stop every crime. The gun provides me the power to defend my family and overthrow my government, should either eventuality comes to pass. Any freedom where I am beholden to the government for defense and safety is no true freedom, as I am dependent on others.   

Such ideas are harmless until violently acted upon, individually or as a group. The DHS warning of a rise in militia activity has parallels to the 1990’s incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas. The potential increase in such activity (and to re-emphasize, there is no evidence of Loughner’s link to this philosophy) have left the Second Amendment true believers in a quandary. The idea that the People should be able to rise up in revolution is more attractive in theory than reality. Who decides when government has grown oppressive enough to warrant an overthrow? America will not overnight be transformed into the world of “V for Vendetta,” requiring obvious uprising. Signs are regularly sought – a health care mandate here, Nanny State regulations there. I don’t think long TSA lines and warrantless wiretaps are enough to justify revolution. Others disagree. The independent gun-clingers wait and watch, consciously considering as potentially possible what most Americans dismiss as ancient history. “If something happens to this country,” they say, “what are all these people going to do?”

Jacob Weisberg, in Slate, accurately sums up the current situation, where vote seeking politicians have adopted the idealistic Second Amendment true believer message to attract votes:

It was in criticizing writers on his own side for their naivete about communism that George Orwell wrote, “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” Today it is the right that amuses itself with violent chat and proclaims an injured innocence when its flammable words blow up.

Politicians of a previous generation more quietly indicated they were of like mind with Second Amendment supporters, without the cross-hair graphics and open displays of weaponry. That we might return there.

22 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Guns”

  1. Tom Dolina January 13, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    No jokes here Brian; just a comment to say that I enjoyed reading your article. Ironic that national gun ownership levels are low, just like voter turnout is generally low. Both are powerful weapons that require great responsibility and care.

  2. Alan Bedenko January 13, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    The right of the people to overthrow the government is largely related to the need to overthrow a despotic government, and that the determination of what constitutes despotism shouldn’t be arrived at lightly. 

    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    I’m going to eschew discussing the “well-regulated militia” portion of the 2nd amendment because the SCOTUS all but tossed it aside in DC v. Heller.  But Heller did hold that the individual right to bear arms is largely associated with lawful purposes such as self-defense; not for vigilanteism or murdering congresspeople or fomenting violent revolution. Heller also held that the 2nd amendment is limited to current versions of weapons commonly available at the time of the Constitution’s drafting.  So, you CAN have a rifle or handgun; you canNOT have a Patriot missile.

    So, governments cannot outright ban, or constructively ban, the individual possession of a common firearm for the purposes of self-defense.  That’s fine.  The tricky bit comes when you sniff around the periphery of these arguments and start discussing why people, e.g., might need 30 bullets in one clip to stop a couple or burglars, or an assailant.   

    As long as our government remains one that governs with the consent of the people; that is, we have a representative democratically elected pluralist republic, arguments about violent revolution are hollow and unpersuasive.  

    With that said, I liked your piece very much. 

  3. Leo Wilson January 13, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    The right to bear arms and the right to vote are our guarantors that we can measure what is leadership with the consent of the people.

    This is a good article with things to consider in it. Thanks.

  4. Chris Smith January 13, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    I think it’s absolutely reasonable and totally within the scope of reality defined by the founders that everyone should have unfettered access to a .50 cal Barret sniper rifle. It can travel through a school (Thanks, Danny Vermin for the inspiration) at a distance of 1000 yards. There is very little room for argument with gun advocates when they argue that regular civilians ought have access to guns like this.


    I want me one of them there self defense tools.

    Also, this statement, “The gun symbolizes freedom, and ensures it literally” is dubious. You really feel that a group of people armed with rifles and handguns are a guarantee against “tyranny”? Really?

  5. BobbyCat January 13, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    A few points. I’m a long-time shooter who owns and carries lots of ‘real guns’.

    Sharron Angle’s “2nd Amendment remedies” had nothing to do with 2nd Amendment rights. She made a thinly veiled threat that she and her supporters are packing so ya better not mess with us. Her supporter got the message. They winked back.

    It’s the same message that Rep.Giffrods campaign opponent was sending when he published his photo in Marine garb posing with his M4 rifle and then had campaign rallies where his supporters could fire an AR15. I’ve been a gun guy forever. I get it. I know what it means when people show up at political events openly carrying guns. They are trying to intimidate others, plain and simple. They want to strike fear in people around them, and it works. They are sending a message, don’t fuck ewith us or there will be consequences.
    I know that many people are afraid of guns -afraid to touch them, even afraid to look at them. Gun phobia is a common , especially among women. So some irresponsible gun owners know that showing up carrying a legal gun will push those fear buttons. Some lame-brains thrive on causing fear in others. But 99% of gun owners are responsible and would never think about intimidating others.

    Point 2. The 2nd Amendment is cherished by most gun owners because they want to have a gun for hunting, target shooting and especially for self defense. The ability to overthrow a tyrannical government is an old rationale that the founders thought was important – because they had to do it – but I don’t know anybody who thinks about that today. But I know lots of gun owners – perhaps most rural and suburban Americans- who sleep well knowing that their home is safe from invasion because they keep a 12 gauge in the hall closet. People don’t obsess about it, don’t think about it much, they simply take it for granted that they are safe in their homes.

    Some individuals carry handgun for the same reason – a feeling of safety. I remember hearing the Buffalo Chief of Detectives testify at a public (gun) hearing that he never went anywhere in Buffalo without a sidearm, even when running errands.

    Point 3. A ban on high capacity magazines would be futile.

    * If you banned them today, all the existing magazines would remain legal and available.

    * Bad guys don’t like them because they are very difficult to conceal and concealment is important on the street. The only advantage is for home protection, but even then, high-cap magazines are difficult to concel, even in the house.

    *It takes about 2 seconds for an experience shooter to change the standard magazines on a Glock 19. If you doubt that, google the name “hickok45” and watch videos of an experinced Glock hooter.

    * Carrying two guns avoid the problem of reloading altogether. Many policemen carry a backup piece.

    * I think a determined terrorist would be able to find a high capacity magazine, law or no law.

    Finally, the rush to ban high capacity magazines is a (well meaning) mistake. The same kind of knee-jerk reaction occurred after the shoe bomber. We spend billions in response to a one-time terrorist.

    Nobody with a history of mental problems should be carrying guns. This nut case in Arizona should have been evaluated and flagged as a risk somewhere in his life.

    Many commentators including Professor Ewing have made the case that incendiary rhetoric can push the mentally ill over the edge. For that, talk to the usual suspects and tell them to tone it down.

  6. Ethan January 13, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    yeah, there is a lot of meat here, and Alan and Chris beat me to some of my thoughts, so that’s a time-saver (thanks, guys!).  It is nicely written though, and I don’t know precisely which of those thoughts or beliefs you are presenting as yours vs. those of the “2nd Amendment crowd”, as you put them… 

    I’d add to what’s been said that the very idea that we need to Constitutionally confer the “right” to rise-up against a tyrannical authoritarian dictatorship is prima facie ridiculous.  The Colonists themselves had no such enshrined right, they just, you know… did it.  That’s how it works.  But that aside, guns are not even close to “the only way” to “ensure that right.” That they sometimes work that way or have worked that way in the past means nothing.  iirc, massive, organized civil disobedience seems to have considerable merit, too (or maybe all that Gandhi stuff is total bullshit.  Oh hey: what’s Monday?)

    (And at this point the logic of the argument I am presenting links up with Alan’s & Chris’ I think. Even if you discount non-violent but successful techniques… the other problem is that technology and industrialization, two things unforeseeable by the drafters of the oh-so-holy-and-forever-applicable 2nd Amendment, have radically changed what “arms” amount to. I mean, it’s really hard to imagine a bunch or gun-enthusiasts successfully resisting Government military might with a bunch of what?  AR15s and shit?  Seen Red Dawn a few times too many?  “real guns”?  Please.  Real guns are artillery, tanks, missiles (and now drones!) etc.)

    As separate line of questioning your thesis would center on the line “Such ideas are harmless until violently acted upon, individually or as a group.”  I do think that thoughts, though undeniably unpoliceable, can nonetheless be harmful- both to individuals and to societies.  Some cultural beliefs and traditions, in the evolution of such memes, don’t survive.  Some cultures fail.  Rome drifted into an ever more violent culture, and how’d that work out for them?  For that matter, where are the Goths and the Huns that replaced them? Modern Europe, reflecting on some of the lessons of WW2, is trying to find a way to get by without tyranny _or_ shittons of guns, but all the “2-nd amendment crow” can do when they see that presented as a model is wail and cry, like children, about their “freedoms” and the evils of socialism and communalism of any form (not collectivism; that is not elective; I’m talking about electively trying to find ways to tie governments together such that wars AND autocracy are impossible).  My hope is that humanity is ever moving away from violence as as the best alternative rather than back towards it.  That does seem to be the general trend, but our murder rate and incarceration rate certainly are outliers on that distribution, longitudinally as well as cross-sectionally.

    Look, I played with guns as a kid, toy guns… and then, when I was older, I shot .22s; one of the most rewarding targets I ever shot was a Rubick’s cube.  Still older (and in Arizona, I might add), I learned to field-strip and shoot an AK-47, shot loads and loads of clay pigeons and other impromptu targets with all manner of shotguns, and owned (still in storage there, actually) a cool, antique (1950s) British sniper rifle. I’m not scared of guns, and I have enjoyed firing them, and I certainly understand the allure of the power they bestow.  But, I’m not “into” them, and I see the 2nd Amendment as an anachronism, and I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be all the same vis-a-vis “defending against tyranny” if we all have ’em or we don’t.  The “2nd Amendment” crowd needs to think a little more clearly about it than “guns make me feel powerful and free!”

  7. Chris Sasiadek January 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    Brian thank you for writing the point that is often glossed over: that the right to bear arms is intended to give the people the ability to rebel. I hold that we all, as humans in general and Americans in particular have the duty to oppose tyranny. That said, I want to emphasize an important line in the Declaration of Independence:

    “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes;”

    Anyone who thinks that the United States today is in a condition at all similar to 1775, is, for lack of a better word, a fuckwit. Those people who play with Revolutionary rhetoric, like “Second Amendment remedies” are playing with fire. The fact that they are so eager to badmouth my county and the American way of life, frankly, disgusts me. America needs more prudence.

  8. Dan January 13, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    I suppose it does stand to reason that Ethan would beat me to my point: while I think that the right to overthrow the government if it gets tyrannical is a good one, do you seriously think that there’s a well regulated militia possible of doing so? The best one could hope for, and even that is well outside the realm of possibility I’d say, is to be allowed to keep your section of the countryside to yourself.

    I’m not opposed to the idea of the right of a successful violent revolution, but neither am I opposed to the concept of flying cars ala the Jetsons, which seems equally likely at this point.

  9. Gabe January 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    Brian, that was a good read. I think you explained the “2nd amendment culture” pretty well. A lot of truths in the comments as well. Ethan hit the nail on the head describing the, “guns make me feel powerful and free!” sentiment.

    The gun mania is a strong aesthetic manifestation of sentimental idealism; In short, a false sense of security in a complex, high-tech world that not enough people have any coherent understanding of.

    One of the biggest products of modern civilization is a general feeling of mass powerlessness among the people. This is due to the immense degree of centralization (both economic and political) that has taken place since the industrial revolution and is still an ongoing process. Decisions taking place in state houses, halls of congress and distant corporate boardrooms instantly affect the lives of millions of people. The majority of people in America, for the comfortable daily lives they’re accustomed to, depend on complex transport and utility infrastructure, mass quantities of food shipped “just in time” from thousands of miles somewhere else, fuels sucked from the ground halfway across the globe and other things that require behemoth institutions for economical, efficient operation.

    “Anyone who thinks that the United States today is in a condition at all similar to 1775, is, for lack of a better word, a fuckwit”

    …indeed. Around that time, most people lived on the land, produced their own food, crafted their own goods and rarely traveled more than 20 miles from their own home. People really don’t consider this much. Our world today (at least for people living in the wealthy nations) is NOTHING like pre-industrial times. Daily living required intense human attention; there were new lands to explore and exploit and plenty of work to go around for for everyone. Modernity is a web of abstractions, the past was all about simplicities and the basics of living. Today, a single piece of farm machinery can do that work that once required hundreds of field laborers. A mostly-automated factory can crank out what once required battalions of industrial workers. Our culture, political institutions, and resource allocation schemes have not been able to evolve and keep up with the barrage of technological advances we’ve developed. Therefore, it’s not hard too see why so many people romanticize the past. Most of our ideologies and belief systems are pre-industrial to the core. Unfortunately people choose to pay homage to anachronistic “second amendment solutions” instead of use our democratic tools to demand that modern methods are properly utilized to provide a better life for everyone and advance humanity.

  10. Brian Castner January 13, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    I got 9 mostly thoughtful comments in a row, and no trolling and baiting. That might be a new record.

    I apologize for not responding individually to you, but many of you cover the same ground. So, let me say this. I sympathize with much of the Second Amendment crowd’s philosophy, but am hardly a true believer. I was trying to articulate their feelings, as clearly as I can and as best I know them, not state my own. Personally, I would say the idea that the gun ensures freedom and symbolizes it, which several of you questioned, is true so far as it stands. It is certainly not the only ensurer of freedom (voting and civil disobedience first), but it is the last safety check valve when all others have failed. In the mind of many who think rationally about what a revolution might look like, they don’t see a little band of guys in camo in northern Michigan overthrowing the government. They see 30 million armed average citizens overthrowing the government. Whether this would be successful is a different matter. Remember, this is an idea, not a plan. And Dan – most 2A types like this in South Dakota, for instance, could care less what happens to NY. Revolution for them lets them keep their ranches to themselves – let the city dwellers starve, I can feed myself and my family here.

    BobbyCat is also right that plenty of gun owners don’t dig the hostile rhetoric or open displays of fire arms – open guns are meant to intimidate, concealed guns are for personal protection. But this isn’t about that – this is about the ultimate, last, fundamental right.

    Last item – needing the right to guns in the Constitution – don’t you have the right to revolt without it? Sure you always have the right to overthrow a despotic government. But without guns, do you have the ability? This was not an idle question pre-Revolution, where guns were seized to reduce the chance of rebellion. I say if the chance of success is small now, with 81 million armed Americans, then the chance is zero without guns. That being said, 10,000 muj with aging AK-47’s are keeping all our drones and tanks and artillery at bay in Afghanistan, and the US police establishment couldn’t find Eric Rudolph in the Appalachians for 5 years. So maybe it is possible.

  11. STEEL January 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    The irony of the gun right crazies er I mean advocates, is how easily they are willing to give up other constitutional rights – almost as if the rest of the constitution is just a bothersome add on to the 2nd amendment.

  12. Leo Wilson January 13, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    One thing that I remind people of all the time is that, while individual citizens are guaranteed the right to bear arms in the constitution, nothing in the entire document says that the government is. I suggest that Great Britain was successful in banning firearms mostly because their police used sticks for centuries ahead of asking the citizens in a referendum if they’d surrender their arms.

    I don’t see the British experience as a success – the last time I checked, which I admit is several years ago now, gun violence was on the increase by both criminals and the police.

  13. Gabe January 14, 2011 at 2:30 am #

    “They see 30 million armed average citizens overthrowing the government.”….. I can’t wait to get into the logistics of this seemingly-impossible feat. Perhaps an upcoming post..

  14. Ethan January 14, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    So, having demolished the argument for “I have a small-army’s worth of ‘real guns’ in my basement in case I have to defend myself from tyranny,” let’s turn to the second fallacy of the 2nd Amendment Crowd, namely, that a preponderance of guns reduces crime and creates an overall safer environment for society.  I’d urge one to start with this article, since Kristof puts it pretty succinctly: they don’t.  Rebuttals?

    (and yes, I do think the preposterousness of the first argument is evident; we can get into why American military might is insufficient to “defeat” the Taliban, but I think you must recognize that it is not an equivalency to some Second American Revolution scenario.)

  15. Ethan January 14, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    I don’t see the British experience as a success – the last time I checked, which I admit is several years ago now, gun violence was on the increase by both criminals and the police.

    It’s not a success?  Well, I am sure that depends on how you define it, but an increase in the rate of gun violence does not itself constitute a lack of success.  I would think per capita deaths by guns, categorized by type (homicide, suicide, accident, etc) is more relevant then the trend (towards higher v. lower cf. current) at any point in time.  Finding an unbiased source for such figures online, however, is sort of a maddening exercise…

    Regardless, of course rate of gun ownership is but one factor in that number.  One has to assess as well the interaction of that factor with regulations, with some cultural variables that are hard to operationalize, and a host of other things- price, type & availability of ammunition, for example.  Imagine a country where everyone one was issued a gun at birth, but as well, every gun was keyed to it’s owner via some kind of biometric sensor such that nobody else could fire it (this is a thought experiment, so add that as well, this process cannot be subverted in any way).  I would argue that as likely as not, that would be a place where 100% ownership didn’t correlate as well with homicide statistics, wouldn’t you?  Etc.  Like any issue, it is complex.  

    • Alan Bedenko January 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

      This is interesting.

  16. Leo Wilson January 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Again and again, people leave out a large statistic: gun violence perpetrated against the citizenry in the execution of official duties by public employees. This could be eliminated altogether with workplace rules, leaving the citizenry’s rights intact until they were convinced (as the British were) that they can surrender them in safety.

    If you want to measure success in the passage of legislation that bans private ownership of weaponry, I suggest again that the British model worked because their police used sticks for centuries before the people gave them up willingly.

    It’s a tough model. Are we up to the task?

  17. Leo Wilson January 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    Cincinnati might be a good place to begin disarming the police.

  18. Leo Wilson January 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    @Alan, that IS interesting. The bloggers seem to ask questions I would, which unfortunately have not been answered by the statistician. I’m going to monitor this article to see if Mr. Florida responds.

  19. Leo Wilson January 14, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    @Ethan, the first thing I noticed is that the numbers presented didn’t seem to mesh with Brian’s article.

    Someone is mistaken.

    Except the reference to the middle eastern country, I may have read this article a few hundred times before.

  20. BobbyCat January 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    The guy begins with an admission that his correlations are arbitrary and then draws conclusions. This paper would have earned him a big old “F” in school.

    Based on nothing beside my good looks, I can posit that those without education live in poorer neighborhoods, with more drinking, violence, a higher crime rate and more guns. Ghettos are dangerous. Duh.

    I wonder if there is a correlation between mass murders and the availability of mental health.

    I also wonder which house home-invaders would target, the home owner who is armed and dangerous or the one who is not. Duh.


  1. Armed Resistance is Futile « WNYMedia.net - January 17, 2011

    […] memory of the recent terrible tragedy in Arizona, the other day Brian gave us a pretty good idea of how the so-called “Second Amendment Solutions” crowd thinks. I […]

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