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Gun Control: Keeping the Elephants Away

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

Comments (7)
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.•

Comments (7)
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The founding fathers absolutely intended the second amendment to be a safeguard against tyranny - no question. And I don't understand why you dismiss it since gun owners have not yet exercised that last resort (taking up arms against their gov't) against the civil liberties violations you site. Obviously it will take the gov't going much farther along that path to get to that point so I'm not sure why you'd want to give up that final, ultimate, civil right? Makes no sense. It really all boils down to an emotional response to specific tragedies. The fact is the laws currently being discussed would not have stopped Newtown. So what's the point? They say it's a "step in the right direction." What direction? All guns being banned.

And that's why the NRA and gun advocates have learned a valuable lesson from of all things smokers. At a certain point smokers were asked to move to their own section. They they were moved outside. They they were moved to specific designated areas outside. Then they couldn't do it outside in public places. Now there are rules about being able to do it in your own home.

So the point is we know the other side's goal is to disarm people. And that's why the NRA will not give an inch... you and your ilk believe the 2nd amendment is outdated and meant for a musket wielding militia. It's not and there's a reason why it's number 2. The first thing any tyrannical gov't does is disarm its citizens. To be clear, I don't believe that's the current intention of people... again it's well intentioned people acting on emotion. But that would be the final result.

It's the last line of defense. People also sometimes laugh and say there's no way we could defeat our gov't even if we wanted to. I think they're wrong. It's an important civil right we should take seriously. You think the erosion of civil liberties is bad now?

That said, Obama's kids go to a school guarded by about a dozen armed security officers. Good enough for the ruling class but not good enoug for us? Interesting. They probably travel around in SUVs like politicians. The ruling class seems to "need" these things. But we don't? Interesting.

Posted by k on 12.27.12 at 6:58

I recall another story about the Elephant in the room. The one everyone wants to ignore. It's what makes us all human. It's the reason we get up out of bed, go to a job, visit a friend or walk into a bar. It's the human intent. In a perfect world we could legislate intent all day and no one would ever have to worry about the "next guy" breaking into their apartment, blowing second hand smoke in their face and or leaving the lid up. While I'd like to think the majority of people in this world possess a sense of morality that fills the glass of intent at least half full. Some of us just don't think of their own intentions and personal responsibility in those terms. I think many people are afraid to assess themselves, their own contributions to the downfall of society and the big bad wolf(gun owners) is the easiest scapegoat of them all in times of tragedy where the actual use of a gun comes into play.

When a big topic like this comes up, I try to reduce it down to simplest terms. I thought to myself one day as I held a fork in my hand, I could easily skewer this plump pancake or that "way cool" hipster guy's neck in the booth behind me. I was hungry and enjoyed the syrupy taste of the silver dollars on my pallete. Intent.

Before we lock up all the guns that non gun owners say we shouldn't have. Before we legislate shape, size and color of inanimate objects and what we believe their purpose of existense is. Maybe we should look at ourselves, our own hands and what's going on in our own minds. When we stop painting therapy and mental health observations with the taboo brush, we will finally be able to get to the real bottom of the situation. Guns, box cutters, toothpaste, suspicious facial hair, religious text...never killed one person.

Posted by fonsecagraphics on 12.27.12 at 7:44

Can somebody tell me what the thesis statement of this article is? It seems to be "gun owners aren't allowed to claim Second Amendment rights because other civil liberties have eroded." Is that close?

Oh, and the straw men arguments. "Gun rights advocates" say these things. Sure they do. Know who else says stuff about guns? The Constitution and the Supreme Court, no matter how airily (and parenthetically) you dismiss their opinions.

Finally, what does this mean: "These problems are institutional, issues of zeitgeist and politics"? "Institutional" means it is elemental and immutable while "zeitgeist" implies something changable to the times.

Posted by C. Heston on 12.27.12 at 13:04

There's a story I heard (probably apocryphal) about a conservative-type guy in Los Angeles who was beset with frantic phone calls from liberal friends in the film industry begging him for a gun during the Rodney King riots.

In the early days of the Civil War, the South racked up victory after victory because they had troops who knew how to handle a gun. It took four years to ground down a rebellion on sheer numbers and industrial might.

When the Zombie Apocalypse comes, do you know who is going to survive? All those backward rednecks down South and the NRA nutcases. All the New Yorkers on the Upper East Side will be huddled in their walk-ups wondering when the government will come and save them. On the same note: you sir have the luxury of portraying gun owners as backwards, finger-snappers knowing full-well that men stand prepared to do rough justice to whomever would dare to take away your freedom.

Posted by C. Heston on 12.27.12 at 21:18

JH - You are clearly in a corner because your argument now appears to be that gun owners should have taken arms against thier gov't by now? So do you not only support guns but the act of using them against our current gov't? Or is it that if you haven't used your guns by now to stop our tyranical gov't, then there's no point so you should hand them in and lay down a welcome mat for dictatorship?

Heston's last post reminds me why I will likely buy a gun. We have been lulled into a false sense of cozy security in this country but human nature has not changed. I've got glimpses of it recently with extended power outages and it should become clear that the police cannot protect you. Whether it's a natural disaster or a future attack on our infrastructure, human nature emerges and the bigger and stronger prey on the smaller and weaker. Guns are the equalizer and can be used to protect home and family.

Posted by k on 12.28.12 at 6:35

CP - It's important that we use logic in the wake of this emotional tragedy. What is true and what we wish was true are often two very different things.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2003/jan/09/ukguns.ukcrime

"Gun crime in England and Wales increase by 35% last year and criminals used handguns in nearly 50% more offences, Home Office figures revealed today.

Firearms were used in 9,974 recorded crimes in the 12 months to last April, up from 7,362.

The figures also show the number of crimes involving handguns has more than doubled since the ban on the weapons imposed after the Dunblane massacre from 2,636 in 1997-1998 to 5,871 in the 12 months to April last year."

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1566715.stm

"Guns are deeply rooted within Swiss culture - but the gun crime rate is so low that statistics are not even kept."

JH - I'll leave you alone beyond this but your argument is just faulty: That guns have thus far not deterred the erosion of our civil liberties. It's a false premise. They won't be "used" until there is a very blatent and dire challenge to our freedom.

Posted by k on 12.28.12 at 11:44

"The number of homicide victims killed by firearms increased 32%, or 23 cases..." 23 deaths a year by guns. You guys in Connecticut had that number beat in ONE DAY, hot shot.

haha - Priceless. Only you would care about the raw numbers more than the percentage. Point stands. That's a significant opposite effect than what was intended with the laws. I'd love to live in your world where good vibes and fuzzy feelings trump empirical evidence. Oh wait - I do. It's called Bronco Bama's second term: The no political concequence years.

JH - You're making NO sense. You're arguing that gun owners should have declared war on gov't by now. But at the same time I know you don't actually want that. So which is it? In other news, if you haven't had to use a fire extinguisher by now you should just throw it away. It's clearly not needed. That's what smoke alarms and the fire department is for.

Posted by k on 12.28.12 at 15:04
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