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Gun Control: Keeping the Elephants Away

The foundational argument of many guns rights advocates misses the point.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

There’s an old joke in which a man passes another on the street corner every day. The second man always leans in a doorway, snapping his fingers endlessly. When, finally, curiosity gets the better of the first man, he asks the snapper, “What’s with all this snapping? What are you doing?”

The second man says, “I’m keeping the elephants away.”

Says the first, “Oh, come on! There aren’t any wild elephants on this whole continent!”

“I’m doing a good job, ain’t I?”, says the second man, and keeps on snapping.

It’s a story I think of often these days, mostly as I watch the blow-up of gun control commentary on Facebook. It’s been interesting to watch the arguments unspool, and to observe, over and over, that they lead to the same endpoint. Almost every time, gun control advocates offer arguments that boil down to, “It’s time to restrict access to guns whose purpose is to kill efficiently.”

Gun rights advocates, some more quickly than others, revert to a couple of arguments. Either 1) but you don’t restrict baseball bats or fertilizer, and they kill, too, or 2) my right to own any gun I want is the only thing between all of us and tyranny.

The first is an easily dismissed false equivalency. Fertilizer and the like have a primary use that’s non-lethal. An AR-15 rifle is designed to kill, and kill quickly and efficiently.

The second argument is where the elephants come in. No matter how you interpret the second amendment, it is, unfortunately, an unclearly written passage: “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.” If only they’d employed a better editor.

It clearly says that one’s right to bear arms exists because we need a “well regulated militia.” Whether that right is therefore contingent upon service in a militia is not made explicitly clear (though the Supreme Court, in 2008, said it’s not). The “guns and tyranny” argument crowd usually points to the militia bit as proof that our founders wanted the people armed to protect against tyranny.

Many is the gun owner whose collection includes a military-style weapon in preparation for an invasion by totalitarian forces with the nebulous goal of taking away rights, hence all that “over my dead body” business. Unfortunately, protecting against tyrannical invasion is just like keeping away the elephants. Whether you think there’s an invasion in our future or not, the taking away of rights, an all-too-real phenomenon, has not been a military operation.

Those elephants just don’t live around here. And even AR-15s have not prevented the continuing revocation of constitutional rights in the United States. You can’t shoot the suspension of habeas corpus.

The well-armed citizens of the far right didn’t even unlock a trigger when George W. Bush suspended habeas corpus, or when he imprisoned American citizen Jose Padilla without charge. They never chambered a round in response to Obama’s assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen whose constitutionally guaranteed right to due process was blown into a million shards by a drone.

Even if the NRA membership entire had taken up arms, who could they have shot? Republicans and Democrats have, almost unanimously, stood by and watched the erosion of foundational liberties. The disappearance of those liberties means we already have, right now, a government that claims tyrannical powers. These problems are institutional, issues of zeitgeist and politics, not of American soldiers setting out to subjugate their fellow Americans at the behest of a power-mad leader, something as unlikely as waking to find elephants eating your tomatoes.

There are plenty of hypocritical notions afoot in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, not the least of which is our selective grief—the same culture that’s witnessed the removal of rights without a whimper also endorses by its silence the drone delivery of high body counts of children on our behalf.

There is plenty of oversimplification on both sides in our current gun rights conversations. Restricting certain guns and/or certain types of ammo will have some effect, however small it may be in a country already full of such weaponry. Mental health and cultural issues have to enter the conversation, too.

But the ultimate “defense against tyranny” redoubt of many gun rights advocates is a thorough canard. If they want to fight against tyranny—and those of us who’ve long crowed about civil liberties could use the help—they need different tools. Their guns have not and will not stop political acquiescence to fundamentally wrong abandonment of rights. The elephants may be far away, but there is another creature who, if you pay attention, is already standing in their corner: a dog that just won’t hunt.•

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