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January 19, 2006
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I am a fairly new convert to the left. I am a long-term supporter of what the right wing once claimed to stand for; balanced budgets, less intrusive government, isolationism. Instead, we get an 8 trillion dollar deficit, an enormous new security apparatus, and war and (badly failed) nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq now that the right wing holds a monopoly on power. My opinions have changed about "free trade" and privatisation, and I now accept the need for government to level the playing field.

But one thing I don't embrace is gun control. I am a hunter and also shoot in NRA "Service Rifle" competition. This is the form of competition that most closely matches the traditional military rifle qualification course, and allows me to keep a link to the Marine Corps I once served in. To me it is the most traditional sport we have today, in the sense of the ancient roots of sport itself, a demonstration of military prowess where no one gets hurt. So changing over to skeet shooting would not be a satisfactory replacement. It is also the sport most at risk of being legislated out of existence. You see, Service Rifle by its nature uses "assault weapons" to shoot at bulls eyes as far as 600 meters away.

My question is this: Why is gun control a liberal issue? This is an inconsistency. One would expect a movement that believes in unlimited executive power and militarized law enforcement would be the ones fighting for a disarmed populace, and one that fights for human rights would oppose disarmament. But since the New Deal, the opposite has been true.

Like it or not, individual possession of arms is a basic human right. That it is denied most people in other nations does not diminish that fact. Most nations abridge or deny other rights as well. But even the ACLU states "Except for lawful police and military purposes, the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected."

Gun Control is a wedge issue, and kept me in the Republican party for 35 years. Now that I am a Democrat (with the conviction of a convert!) I get in a lot of arguments that I'm helping to destroy an important civil right. My unionized workplace is probably more than 75% Republican, with religion and gun control being the primary reasons. I can't begin to defend the Democratic Party against that, but have to point out that the Republican package deal is not worth it (union busting, uncontrolled deficits, wholesale exportation of jobs overseas, etc)

Thank you for reading this, even though my views might be anathema to some factions.

In Solidarity,
William


Dear William,

Welcome to the left! It can be confusing territory, as you're finding. For one thing, there are lots of liberals over here on the left who are against banning firearms possession by private citizens. Auntie grew up in a hunting family and my father was a Marine, so I have been exposed to several perspectives on the issue. And while a good many liberals (and a good many conservatives of Auntie's acquaintance) do favor the regulation of firearm sale and possession, it is not necessarily a "liberal issue" (although the Republican Party has been extremely successful in labeling it so.)

I'm very frustrated by this issue (like most Americans, it would seem) but the root of my frustration isn't that I can't impose "my" agenda on the Democratic Party or on the nation. Instead, I'm frustrated almost to the screaming point by those who hold strong views for good reasons and who absolutely cannot listen to, or admit the validity of, other views held for equally good reasons by other people.

The side concerned with safety simply will not listen to the very reasonable concerns of law-abiding sportsmen and collectors, who in turn simply will not listen to the very reasonable concerns of people concerned about crime and violence, especially in our cities. Both sides utterly refuse to see shades of gray, to embrace compromise, or to sacrifice some part of their agenda to address the perfectly legitimate concerns of others. Really, it makes Auntie want to clonk some heads together, sometimes.

And it is not helpful to devolve the issue to one of "rights" and/or "Constitutional protections," either. The Constitution does not protect anyone's right to infringe on the rights of others, as I have to continually remind my Libertarian friends. All of the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights have some limitations - free speech may not be abused to slander, con, or corrupt others, freedom from search and seizure is confined to "unreasonable" instances thereof, etc. There is ample room for definition and disagreement in the second amendment, just as the definitions of "speedy trial," "impartial jury," "cruel and unusual punishment," and even "establishment of religion."

If your notion of "bearing arms," for instance, includes storing a few nuclear warheads in your garage, I think we can probably both agree that it's pretty iffy whether the second amendment protects that. There's a world of difference between someone keeping one or two hunting guns properly secured and someone keeping dozens of unsecured guns in the front hall closet in a densely-populated urban neighborhood. It's not at all unreasonable for Americans (especially those who live in cities and high-crime areas) to want some controls on the number and types of weapons accessible to their neighbors.

Neither is it unreasonable for responsible sportsmen and hobbyists to collect and use a wide variety of firearms for various recreational purposes.

And the attempts of both sides to impose their agendas on each other has resulted in a ludicrous patchwork of legislation littering the legal landscape and creating nightmares for law-abiding firearms collectors and law-enforcement personnel alike.

Each side cherishes the gravest suspicions of the other side - and each side's behavior does much to confirm those suspicions. The pro-regulation side suspects that the real agenda of the anti-regulation side is driven by insecure, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who need the comfort of a big, bad, "piece" close at hand to prove their machismo. The anti-regulation side suspects that the real, agenda of the pro-regulation side is to eliminate private ownership of firearms altogether, never allow the slaughter of another deer or duck, and probably forcibly convert everyone to vegetarianism in its most hideous macrobiotic form. And every time one side offers a compromise and the other side slaps it down, those suspicions are further confirmed.

For example, without getting into the definition of "assault weapons" (don't get me started on the disingenuousness of both sides on that issue!) let's stipulate that certain types of weapons pose a much greater threat to public safety if they fall into irresponsible or criminal hands. Yet as you point out, William, those weapons also have perfectly legitimate sporting uses (your "Service Rifle" competition, for instance.) Is there a way to make those weapons available to legitimate sportsmen training for, and competing in, such events, while making them highly inaccessible to potential misuse?

I can envision several ways, the easiest being to store those weapons in a special facility where the practices and competitions can also take place. The facility, and the storage, could be monitored closely by law enforcement, and the weapons released to their owners only for use on those premises. Yet that would interfere, to some extent, with a legitimate sportsman who owns such a weapon's ability to fully and privately enjoy the use of that weapon. Rather than discussing the valid issues on both sides, the most likely scenario would be for some well-intentioned pro-regulation group to propose such a compromise, and the affronted anti-regulation folks to loudly and indignantly refuse. You can bet that the pro-regulation folks will walk away (regardless of the outcome) with their suspicions about knuckle-dragging Neanderthals reinforced!

On the other side, take a news story about the gun collector whose collection was stolen from a highly-secured, specially-built facility in his vacation home by thieves who had to work for two solid days to circumvent the security. The pro-regulation folks who immediately speak up and demand even more stringent regulations on the number of guns that can be stored in one household and the types of security required, etc., do a fabulous job of reinforcing the anti-regulation folks' worst stereotypes and fears.

I don't think gun control is a left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican issue, William. There's lots more to it than that. Urban vs. rural, blue-collar vs. white-collar, even some factors of race and gender enter into it. Lots of people living in high-crime urban areas (those who are most likely to have sharp and immediate safety concerns that they don't want to address by turning their neighborhoods into a latter-day Dodge City with everyone having to have a six-shooter on their hip to feel safe) are Democrats. Lots of suburban and rural sportsmen are Republicans. But the opposite is also true.

Until we all start listening to each other, and concede that everyone will have to accept some compromise, things will only get worse. But as you point out, it's only one issue. And there are too many other important issues for us to allow this one to be the wedge that keeps us from re-building our democracy! Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!


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