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An essay in seven sections.
The Fundamental Political Principle
"That rifle on the wall of the labourer's cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there."
– George Orwell1
Let’s start with this: The citizen’s right to possess firearms is a fundamental political right. The political principle at stake is quite simple: to deny the state the monopoly of armed force. This should perhaps be stated in the obverse: to empower the citizenry, to distribute the power of armed force among the citizenry as a whole. The history of arguments and struggles over this principle, throughout the world, is long and clear. Instituted in the context of a revolutionary struggle based on the most democratic concepts of its day, the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is perhaps the clearest legal/constitutional expression of this principle, and as such, I think, is one of the most radical statutes in the world.
The question of gun rights is a political question, in the broad sense that it touches on the distribution of power in a polity. Thus, although it incorporates all these perfectly legitimate “sub-political” activities, it is not fundamentally about hunting, or collecting, or target practice; it is about empowering the citizen relative to the state. Denying the importance of, or even refusing to understand, this fundamental point of the Second Amendment right, and sneering at people who do, symptomizes a politics of paternalist statism – not (actually the opposite of) a politics of revolutionary liberation.
I’ll pause right here. For me, and for most supporters of gun rights, however inartfully they may put it, this is the core issue. To have an honest discussion of what’s at stake when we talk about “gun rights,” “gun control,” etc., everyone has to know, and acknowledge, his/her position on this fundamental political principle. Do you hold that the right to possess firearms is a fundamental political right?
If you do, then you are ascribing it a strong positive value, you will be predisposed to favor its extension to all citizens, you will consider whatever “regulations” you think are necessary (because some might be) with the greatest circumspection (because those “regulations” are limitations on a right, and rights, though never as absolute as we may like, are to be cherished), you will never seek, overtly or surreptitiously, to eliminate that right entirely – and your discourse will reflect all of that. If you understand gun ownership as a political right, then, for you, if there weren’t a second amendment, there should be.
If, on the other hand, you do not hold that the right to possess firearms is a fundamental political right, if you think it is some kind of luxury or peculiarity or special prerogative, then, of course, you really won’t give a damn about how restricted that non-right is, or whether it is ignored or eliminated altogether. If you reject, or don’t understand, gun ownership as a political right, then you probably think the Second Amendment should never have been.
It is my perception, based on public evidence, as well as countless conversations on the subject, that the latter position is that of most self-identified American liberals. However they may occasionally, tactically, craft their discourse to pretend, for an audience that does value the right of citizens to arm themselves, that they too value that right, most American liberals just do not. They do not even understand why it should be considered a right at all, in the sense elaborated above. They would love to restrict it as much as possible, and they would just as soon be done with the American constitutional guarantee of that right, the Second Amendment, which they see as some kind of embarrassing anachronism.
I think we should have this discussion honestly. If the latter is your position, say it. If you want to eliminate the Second Amendment right, mount a forthright political campaign to do so. Do not pussy-foot around with “I am not against the Second Amendment. I do not want to take your hunting rifles and your shotguns, and your antique muskets,” when you really don’t like the Second Amendment at all, would love to see it repealed, and wouldn’t mind if everybody was forced to turn in every weapon that they owned.
‘Cause, guess what: You’re not fooling anybody. When your discourse reeks with intellectual and moral disdain for gun-rights and gun-rights advocates, when it never endorses, and indeed at best studiously avoids, the issue of gun ownership as a fundamental political right, it shows. And it certainly shows when you say outright that you’d love to confiscate all guns, no matter how you try to waffle on that later. Despite what’s implied in the ever-present disdain, gun rights advocates are not, ipso facto
, stupid (or violent, or crazy), and certainly not too stupid to see where you’re heading. So let’s stop gaslighting gun-rights supporters as paranoid when they state what they see:
Dianne Feinstein, who had a concealed carry permit when she felt a ”sense of helplessness,” saying: “If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them…. Mr. and Mrs. American turn ‘em all in. I would have done it.”
Not to mention Andrew Cuomo’s
more recent: “Confiscation could be an option. Mandatory sale to the state could be an option.”
Of course, you could counter that nobody should believe a word of anything these politicians say, anyway. How persuasive is this performance by pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands Joe?
Those who understand gun ownership as a fundamental political right correctly perceive, and are right to resist, the intended threat of its incremental elimination in gun-control laws that will have little to no practical effect, other than to demand more acts of compliance and submission to the armed authority of the state. And those who do want to take that right away must be –and they are, aren’t they? – willing to use the armed force of the state to enforce the rescission of that right on the fifty million or so Americans who own guns and never have or will do anything murderous or illegal with them. That’ll institute a peaceful new society.
Guns, Gun Rights, and Liberal “Pacifism”
I am not talking about guns but gun rights. This is not about whether anybody likes or dislikes guns, and certainly nobody should fetishize them. It is unfortunate that, as with many debates in this country, the gun-rights debate is cast in the media as a clash between two extremely silly camps – those who fetishize guns positively, and those who fetishize them negatively. For there to be a serious political debate, both of these attitudes really have to be recognized, and dropped, by those who inhabit them. I don’t own a gun. I’m not defending my gun. I’m defending my right.
I think there should be fewer guns. I think we should have a more pacific society, one in which violence isn’t as alluring as apple pie
, and we don’t have street parties to celebrate assassinations. I definitely
think that the cultural representation of armed violence as a quick, effective, and attractive solution for all kinds of personal and social problems, which is ubiquitous in America, is ridiculous and pernicious. The answer to that is to do a lot of determined political and cultural work, not to pass a law and call in the armed police, the courts, and the penal system to enforce it on people who have done nothing wrong
Guns are neither magic talismans against tyranny nor anathematic objects that cause crime and violence. Guns – certainly the personal firearms that are in question – carry a limited but real measure of inherent power, and therefore danger, that everyone should respect. (Indeed it is because
they are powerful and dangerous that they are the nexus of an important political right.) But guns are not agents of history. They are not, per se,
going to free a polity from oppression or
generate unrestrained social violence. Within an insurgent political movement, they can at certain moments be useful, even crucial, for the former outcome; and, within a context of social decay brought on by other factors, they can seriously exacerbate the latter. Their overall positive or negative effect is only determined by the political and social context in which they are used, and the character of the agents who use them.
American liberals can all too easily recognize and disparage the positive fetishism regarding guns, but can be blind to their own negative fetishism. Underlying this noli me tangere
negative fetishism are confusions and contradictions regarding what I’ll call the casual “imaginary pacifism” that crops up repeatedly as a constituent of American liberal ideology. I am not here referring to the kind of consistent and absolute, usually religious-based, pacifism that we traditionally associate, rightly or wrongly, with figures like Martin Luther King, Mohandas Ghandi, and the Amish – the kind of pacifism that would, under all circumstances, “turn the other cheek” and abjure the use of armed force to defend one’s self (or anybody else), let alone to advance or defend a political movement. Such a consistent, rigorous, pacifism is an honorable position, and those who hold and live it deserve respect.
They are, however, few and far between, and most American liberals are not among them. The vast majority of American liberals – like persons of all other groups – while they want to live peaceful lives, free of violence, for themselves and everyone else in the world, support the use of armed force in defense of themselves, their loved ones, and some political agenda or another. While they actually hold a position that accepts legitimate uses of armed force, a lot of American liberals like to imagine that they are living in some kind of sympathetic identity with their edited, angelic versions of King and Gandhi, and they are shocked, shocked, and react with utter revulsion, at the discourse of people who proclaim upfront that they are not.
(They are even more shocked to be confronted with the idea that maybe King and Gandhi were not exactly the kind of “pacifists” they imagine them to have been. For King: “Violence exercised merely in self-defense, all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi.”2
This kind of pretend pacifism is most repugnant when it issues from the mouth of the commander-in-chief of the world’s most elaborate killing apparatus, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,“ as King put it. Nothing is more –“hypocritical” is hardly a sufficient word – than seeing an American president lecturing political movements throughout the world on the need for “non-violence,” as if he were some kind of pacifist, using pseudo-pacifism as a ground for being
But this kind of presumption is annoying wherever it saturates liberal discourse – which is kind of everywhere. Take, for example, this gem:
: “As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind,” followed a few sentences later by: “We should never forget the brave work of those professionals in the military and intelligence communities … who fought bravely even as they sometimes
crossed moral lines, .., for the defense of this nation” [emphasis in original]. Zero Dark Thirty
, you see, is a pacifist
document. (Or at least the document of
a pacifist.) That a person of obvious intelligence and cultural sophistication can utter such contradictory nonsense, without recognizing it as such, is a symptom of how deeply this presumptive imaginary “pacifism” I am evoking is ingrained in American liberal ideology.
This position seeps down through the “sub-political” issues of self-defense and personal responsibility. Not-really-pacifist “pacifist” liberals, I find, often get wrapped up in a recurring ideological process of shedding and assigning guilt. I
wouldn’t touch a gun. I’ll just call my paid servant the policeman to come and shoot my assailant for me. My
hands stay clean of gunshot residue and other stains; he
wields the horrid gun and the moral responsibility, and quandary, of using deadly force – which I’ll endlessly analyze with my colleagues over dinner. And if it really was my ass that was saved, we’ll all congratulate ourselves for maintaining our “pacifist” guiltlessness, while romanticizing the guy who did the dirty work for us. Katherine Bigelow speaks for many, who actually think there is some kind of extra moral virtue in this way of living in the world. I find a more cogent description in the Sartrian term “bad faith.”
For myself, since I neither am nor pretend to be a pacifist, if I were in some mortal danger that called for the self-defensive use of deadly force, I would rather take on myself the responsibility for using that force – moral quandary, dirty hands and all – than shift it onto someone from a quasi-professional caste created to be my absolving wet workers.
If we are going to hold police and other armed agents of the state responsible for using armed force appropriately – and we should – then we should be willing to assume the same responsibility for which we hold them. What we should not do is essentially absolve them of responsibility because they're doing the dirty work we would neeeever do ourselves, work from which we have distanced ourselves morally and intellectually, work that we consider for us
but not ours.
In my vision of a liberated society, first of all, the number of persons who, functioning like our police and/or armed forces, might have to spend more time than most prepared for confrontation would be reduced to a minimum; secondly, they really would be defensive and protective; and, finally, importantly, they would function, and be felt, as extensions of the responsibilities that all citizens share and embrace, not as a separate moral species, specially bred for violence, to be called from their fortified compound to vacuum up problems and guilt. That our society is not like that is symptomatized both by how its police and armed forces are organized in relation to the whole of society, and by how they are segregated in the “pacifist” mind as both feared and indispensable – moral Morlocks to the moral Eloi of the liberal elite.
As one trenchant feminist promoter
of gun rights summarized it: “Police forces were established to augment
citizen self-protection, not to displace
the citizens' right of self-protection” And, I would add, to share
, not displace
, citizens’ individual and collective responsibilities and quandaries in all of that.
Gun Rights and The Prohibition Impulse
It often seems to me that guns are to liberals what drugs are to conservatives. Liberals respond to to the real damage that guns do as factors that exacerbate (but do not cause) destructive behaviors is the same way conservatives have responded to the real damage that drugs do in exacerbating destructive behaviors – with the impulse for prohibition, enforced by the law and its armed agents, the police. Quick, pass a law! Call the cops!
has become a virtually automatic reaction of conservatives and liberals alike, according to their various tastes; it’s “the same inability to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand coupled with a perpetual, short-sighted faith in the inherent justness of well-meaning legislation.” (Mike King)
The prohibition impulse is as problematic for guns as it is for drugs (and alcohol), which are ten times more deadly than guns (see chart below), and at least as damaging to families. Indeed, because they can change states of mind, drugs can be said to cause,
and not just exacerbate, destructive behaviors. Let’s not forget that the prohibition impulse for alcohol and drugs was driven by sincere reformist concern about the widespread damage these substances did, especially to children of society’s poorest families. The alcohol prohibition movement was driven by (mainly middle-class) women, and the punishing disparity in crack cocaine sentencing was originally championed by African-American legislators, for these reasons.3
Neither worked out so well. Both provide cogent examples of how the law can be worse than the crime.
(I won’t get into the academic arguments that gun control does not reduce crime, which come from self-described “member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, … Democrats 2000, …Common Cause, [and] other politically liberal organizations,…lifelong registered Democrat, [and] contributor to liberal Democratic candidates,” Gary Kleck
, as well as conservative John Lott
Liberals have to recognize that, when you ban guns, you are not just eliminating a right, you are creating a criminal offense
– in fact a whole set of new crimes. How many months or years will you have to be confined by the armed guards of the state for having a rifle with a pistol grip or a 10-round magazine? How many of those fifty million gun owners are you going to lock up, after raiding their homes? You better have stiff sentences, right? Every prosecutor running for office will tell you so.
One has to be kind of obtuse not to understand that a War on Guns, no matter how liberally inspired, will end up like all other such campaigns. It will create crime
and pre-crime, and ”take the level of police statism, lawlessness and general social pathology up a notch in the same way Prohibition and the Drug War have done. [It will] expand the volume of organized crime, … to empower criminal gangs fighting over control over the black market, … lead to further erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure, further militarization of local police via SWAT teams, and further expansion of the squalid empire of civil forfeiture, perjured jailhouse snitch testimony, entrapment, planted evidence, and plea deal blackmail.” (Kevin Carson
Speaking of the War on Drugs: Is there any greater source of “gun violence” in America? “ Most of the nonsuicide gun deaths
in this country happen in densely populated, lower-income urban environments, [where] gangs and poverty are the proximate causes of the violence.“ You know, the Drug War Theater, where “addressing the incentives that lead young people in our inner cities to gravitate toward crime—incentives like the ability to gain money and status by trafficking in drugs when few other opportunities are available—would do more to begin to address the gun violence endemic in America than any of the well-intentioned but likely ineffectual ‘gun control’ laws that could be passed.”5
Liberals all know and talk all the time about the horrors of the War on Drugs. Is there peep one in any of the gun control proposals from liberal politicians or pundits about ending this disastrous crusade, arguably the greatest single source of gun violence in America? Silly me for asking.
Gun Rights and the American State
What the modern American capitalist state has done is invert
the relative valorization of a standing army vs. an armed people that was held by a long tradition of radical democrats, and by many, if not most, "Founding Fathers."6
This skews the minds of everyone in society, and is no progressive achievement.
In the current gun rights debate, one does not have to think too hard to catch the tiny little fact that anti-gun-rights liberals, besides not really being pacifists, are not really proposing to eliminate guns at all
. Is there one liberal gun-control proposal being put forward that makes the teensiest move toward diminishing the use of guns, including military
assault weapons, by the police? Is there one that addresses, in the weensiest way, the continuing, massive militarization
of the police that has been taking place in this country?
Is there one that will take away one gun, one bullet, one armed personnel carrier, one drone, or one dollar from the bloated internal security apparatus (let’s not even mention the foreign war machine) of the American nouveau police state? From its corporate militia comrades
No. What all liberal gun-control proposals seek to do, and all they seek to do, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the right of ordinary citizens to possess firearms. These proposals treat the armed power of the state with, at best, benign indifference. They ignore, or dismiss as of no importance, the way these policies will further weaken the power of the citizen relative to the state. There is a definite ideology underlying all this: That the state – the American capitalist state we live in – should
have a monopoly of armed force; that this state is a benign, neutral arbiter which will use its armed force in support of and not against its citizens, to mediate conflicts fairly and promote just outcomes in ways that the citizens themselves cannot be trusted to do.
All the liberal gun-control proposals do, and I would suggest the anti-gun-rights position in general must, rest on this premise. For reasons set forth below, I think it’s wrong-headed, and I do not see how one can deny that it is elitist and authoritarian.
This ideology is most likely to exude from those whose lived experience is that the armed power of the state does
overwhelmingly act on their behalf, that the police are
their friends – people who are secure in their implicit understanding that they have nothing to fear, personally or politically, from the armed agents of the state, and that when they call those agents to help them, they will come and help them, and not beat them down or shoot them on sight, “by accident.”
At many levels, this ideology promotes the phony notion of what the American capitalist state is, an ideology that we should be helping to extirpate from people’s minds, not helping to perpetuate in the name of ensuring their safety. Under the guise of nonviolent pacifism, this ideology only occludes the violence of the armed state that underlies all of our lives in capitalist society. The state we live in is not a neutral class-agnostic arbiter. It is the instantiation of a relation of forces between classes, which “uses social crises to reinforce a range of social relationships and control certain populations.”7
In our case, it exists to guarantee, by armed force locked and loaded in advance and on call 24-7, the absolute hegemony of the corporations and the banksters (the ruling class/the1%/your-euphemism-for-avoiding-marxist-language-here) over the working people and dispossessed (the 99% and such). We should dispense with any of the comforting illusions about this. This state of postwar Euro-American felicity – the liberal, democratic capitalist welfare/social-democratic state – has reverted to its core class function.
Indeed, we have just seen
that the armed police forces of the state, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, “are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity[,] functioning as a de facto intelligence and enforcement arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.” At this point, it is blindingly obvious that, as Etienne Balibar
so cogently put it over thirty years ago, the modern capitalist state, ours included, “isexpressly organized as the State of pre-emptive counter-revolution.”
It might help to understand Balibar’s conclusion in terms of a rough Kuhnian distinction between “normal” and “revolutionary” politics.8
In the normal political paradigm, which endures over a relatively long period of stability, everybody plays by the same legal and constitutional rules, everyone’s rights are respected equally, and disputes are settled in transparently fair and equal political and legal processes, with minimal and similarly fair and transparent uses of armed force. In the revolutionary situation, which predominates in relatively brief and compressed periods of upheaval, the point is to completely replace one paradigm with another. In this situation, established and insurgent factions seek each to overcome the other. Each seeks to increase its own hegemony and powers while reducing the other’s autonomous rights and powers. Disputes, clearly understood as aspects of the one big conflict over which social and political paradigm will rule, are settled by the frankly unequal application of force – whether the force of money, law, political pressure, or arms.
The curious thing is that we are not in “revolutionary” politics, since (unfortunately) there is no serious political force threatening or seeking to overthrow the political paradigm of the capitalist state. But we are not exactly in a “normal” paradigm either, since the deep instability, unfairness, and precarity of the capitalist state are just too visible. We are, as Balibar suggests, in pre-emptively counter-revolutionary
politics, where the capitalist state, on behalf of the tiny minority faction (I call it a class) it empowers, is preparing in advance to repel the fundamental, paradigm-changing, challenges it anticipates. It is doing this by the increasing, and increasingly aggressive and obvious, unequal application of money, laws, political power, and armed force.
In other words, it’s a “revolutionary” political period without the revolutionary politics. With only
the counter-revolutionary politics. It’s a period where the paradigm is being radically changed, not by an insurgent, but by the establishment faction. In the midst of this, too many American liberals are clinging to a nostalgic, wish-fulfillment dream society where, if they can just, over the next few election cycles, get the right mix of noblesse-oblige
economics and equal-opportunity imperialist identity-politics, everything will be peachy keen once again. (Isn’t it great to watch Barack and Hillary order Seal Team Six into action! If only we can reform the filibuster
.) Welcome to the world of unchallenged counter-revolution.
Well, the first counter-revolutionary act of every government is to collect the guns, and a necessary element of pre-emptive counter-revolution in the American polity is the disarming of the people. Nobody on the left, nobody interested in the radically democratic transformation of our society, should be interested in helping with that.
Yet all liberal gun-control schemes remain blithely indifferent, when not aggressively dismissive, of these concerns. Somehow, a lot of people have come to imagine that depreciating versus valuing citizens’ gun rights is a left-right dichotomy Only in the ridiculous political discourse of the United States, where Barack Obama is a “marxist" (or any kind of “leftist” at all) can citizens' right to gun ownership be considered a purely right-wing demand. The notion that an armed populace should have a measure of power of resistance to the heavily armed power of the state is, if anything, a populist
principle, and has always been part of the revolutionary democratic traditions of the left. The notion that disarming the people in a capitalist state – and one in severe socio-economic crisis, at that – would be some kind of victory for progressive, democratic forces, something that might help move us toward an emancipatory transformation of society, derives from no position on the political left. As one commentator
puts it: “I can’t imagine why anyone would expect the state’s gun control policies to display any less of a class character than other areas of policy. Regardless of the ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ rhetoric used to defend gun control, you can safely bet it will come down harder on the cottagers than on the gentry, harder on the workers than on the Pinkertons, and harder on the Black Panthers than on murdering cops.
There’s no way around it: The net effect of eliminating the right of citizens to possess firearms will be to increase the power of the armed capitalist state. It will not be a more pacifistic, but a more authoritarian society, one in which the whole panoply of armed police we’ve already come to accept as part of the social landscape will be even more ubiquitous, while citizens’ compliance and submission will be more thoroughly assured. As Patrick Higgins
puts it: “The formula for gun control seems pretty obvious to me. Less guns for the people who are most likely to need them, more guns for cops and soldiers and those sympathetic to them.” If you’re good with that, then go for it. I am not.
As Higgins implies, cops and soldiers will not
be the only ones left holding guns. My friends have kids in an elite New York City private school. A few years back, during seventh-grade bar/bat mitzvah
season – which, in these social circles, is like a months-long Hollywood after-party for thirteen-year olds – their son was invited to his classmate’s party. Not the bar mitzvah
where the parents flew a bunch of parents and kids to Paris for their son’s coming of age. No, the bat mitzvah
held in Rockefeller Center. Ceremony in the Rainbow Room. Party in the skating rink. Closed to the public. On a Saturday night. When my friend went to pick his son up to bring him home, he was stopped at the perimeter of the promenade, just inside the ring of limos, by armed guards with those really fully automatic weapons, who would not let him in because he didn’t have an invitation. He had to wait outside for his son to come out. Thank goodness for cell phones, which, of course, every thirteen-year-old has.
Here’s the thing, and everybody knows it
: Whatever strictest possible gun-control regime is instituted by favored liberal politicians, the family who threw that party will still have all the guns that it wants at its disposal. Donald Trump will still have his carry permit. Goldman Sachs will have all the weapons it wants for its private army, which will still be working as an allied brigade of the supposedly public branch of the ruling class’s armed forces, and which its PR people will make sure are never crudely referred to as a “militia.” And don’t worry, Joe, no one will be taking your
Beretta. Forty-nine million nine-hundred thousand ninety-nine hundred or so Americans who have never done a wrong thing will be disarmed by force, but every one of this class will have all the guns s/he wants at his or her disposal. There will be a system of waivers, fees and private security armies for anyone in the .01%. Keeping in mind the incredible growing socio-economic inequality in this country – which, of course, the push for strict gun control has nothing to do with – the American social landscape is going to be populated with more, not fewer, gun-toting characters like these, who will have less, not more, accountability, and among whom there are no imaginary Gandhis:
It’s too bad that we Americans, with liberals much too complicit in this, have accepted – along with the growth of obscene social inequality – the incremental loss of many of our fundamental rights – from privacy (warrantless surveillance) to the right of judicial due process before being summarily executed by our elected king. If some fifty million or so gun owners want to stand up militantly for one fundamental right at this point, good for them. If, in the ridiculous American political context, a lot of them self-identify as right-wing, well, bad on them, and let’s by all means tell them they should be standing up for a lot of other rights, including their own right to a decent socio-economic life.
At the same time, folks on the left should be ashamed if gun owners become the first to stand up militantly against the pre-emptively counter-revolutionary assault on our rights. Maybe self-identified liberals should do more than trash those folk for defending a right they think is important; maybe liberals should consider how they have continually undermined the building of a populist left, by steering discontent into conventional political support for their favored Lord High Executioners, and teaching – by example, exhortation, and outright collaboration – servility and compliance in the face of right after right, and social benefit after social benefit, being stolen by those same elected autocrats. The problem with militant right-wing populism is not that it’s militant or populist. And a large part of the reason there is not the militant left-wing populism there should be is that most liberals are neither left, nor militant, nor populist.
I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the urbane liberal revulsion to guns has to do with the picture in the urbane liberal’s mind of who has them – you know, the wrong sort of people, right-wing “wingnuts,” whose brains are addled by moonshine and Fox News. There is no question that a lot of people with ridiculous right-wing political and economic ideas are among the loudest defenders and proudest exercisers of the right to bear arms. But, you know, there’s this other empowering, infinitely more dangerous right, one that more than fifty million people use to authorize the truly nutty killing of hundreds of thousands of people, and a whole host of truly nutty actions that endanger us all. That’s the right to vote. I am horrified about how the great majority of voters – conservative and liberal, wingnut and Serious – use that right to authorize massively homicidal and criminal policies. Still, my understanding of the emancipatory democratic political tradition precludes any thought that, in the course of normal politics, depriving any of them – even those whose brains are addled by Jamba Juice and MSNBC – of that right would be an appropriate way for me to try to change the policies I abhor.
Rights empower. Power is dangerous. The right to vote is as dangerous a power as any. Those who have been deprived of it grasp it eagerly when they get it because for so long it’s been on display but out of reach, just like the master’s shiny new gun. Once everyone gets their hands on those rights/powers, they may use them – or, gee, think about them – in all kinds of ways I would find objectionable and damaging. They also will
find out that those rights/powers are not in themselves effective of their liberation. The task is not to deprive people of fundamental rights, but to persuade them to think about and use them in different and more effective ways. And one has to know that’s possible. It’s happened before, and will again.
Recent Objections and the Contentious History of Gun Rights in America
Recently, some progressives9
have argued that, all the rhetoric about arming the people to resist tyranny notwithstanding, the real intent of the authors of the Second Amendment was to preserve slavery, and that, therefore, those who cite the Second Amendment as supporting every citizen’s right to bear arms today are – well, ignorant wingnut enablers of slaveholding racism, I guess.
The logic escapes me here. Sure, the Second Amendment was ratified in a context where most of the framers — certainly those of the Southern plantocracy – assumed that the right it guaranteed was – like every other right instituted by the Constitution at time
– meant to be limited to free white males, who were the only fully-enfranchised citizens. But, really, Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, so there’s something wrong with us using his words to promote equal rights? As do the authors of every law, indeed every text, the framers wrote something whose significance and effect exceeds what they could have imagined. The text, the law, that the framers wrote now stands apart from and beyond their personal intentions. Perhaps it is because
they could not imagine the extension of a certain right that they wrote a text that does not exclude it. I’ll take that. We all do.
In this case however, we have clear evidence of subsequent law that was intended by its
framers to extend the right to bear arms not only beyond, but against, the purposes of slavery. One might have noticed that, through a series of excruciating struggles during the course of American history, including a Civil War, the full enfranchisement of citizenship with all its attendant rights, including the