On May 23, in a packed Charlotte convention center, Charlton Heston rose to address the crowd that had just elected him to an unprecedented third term as President of the National Rifle Association. With characteristic drama, the actor/activist held a colonial-era musket above his head, looked solemnly around the room, and intoned "from my cold, dead hands." Then, above the thundering applause, he vowed to pour all his energy into the demolition of Al Gore in November, and to stop what NRA Vice President Wayne Lapierre called the Democratic Party's "slow burn of the Second Amendment."
As rhetoric goes, it was tough to beat. But it also obscured an odd truth about the debate over gun control: even as it becomes more heated, the Second Amendment has less and less to do with it. To be sure, the NRA frequently invokes the amendment in speech, because it never hurts to say the Constitution is on your side, but outside the realm of public relations pro-gun advocates make little use of it. The NRA hasn't used the Second Amendment to challenge a gun law in years; all the legal challenges to the Brady Bill, for instance, were actually made on Tenth Amendment grounds (namely, that as a National Handgun Control Act it illegally federalized powers reserved for the states).
Nor do gun control advocates resort often to the Second Amendment to make their case. If pressed, most will point to 1939's U.S. vs. Miller as indisputable evidence of the government's right to regulate firearms, but Miller is unlikely to go down in the annals of jurisprudence as an example of decisive victory in constitutional law. By the time his case reached the Supreme Court, defendant Miller--convicted of illegally transporting sawed off shotguns--had been murdered, and his codefendant had disappeared, no doubt for fear of a similar fate. Thus the court made its "landmark" interpretation of the Second Amendment without the benefit of even hearing a pro-gun argument.
Despite the mounds of legal scholarship assembled by both sides, the Second Amendment remains one of the most infuriatingly oblique passages in the Bill of Rights, if not the entire Constitution, and its true meaning is likely to be forever obscured. The way it is written commands confusion: its punctuation is irregular, its clauses arranged in a manner so unconventional as to make it impossible to tell which, if any, are dependent on the others. This ambiguity makes it a useless foundation on which to build policy, so policy makers have largely removed it from their consideration. Academics trade volleys over it in scholarly journals, but in the legislatures and power corridors it is a sound bite and nothing more.
This becomes significant when one realizes that both sides rarely invoke history, as one might expect in a constitutional argument. The again, if one is familiar with the history of each side, this becomes somewhat understandable. The NRA's history does it no favors. Dismayed by the abysmal marksmanship of American soldiers in the Civil War, Colonel William Church and General George Windgate formed the Association in 1871 as an adjunct to the National Guard--the very militia it now insists the Second Amendment has nothing to do with. And the roots of gun control are no less embarrassing, since it originated not in a desire for peaceful communities, but in a desire to perpetuate Reconstruction racism.
Modern gun control began with Tennessee's notorious "Army and Navy" law, wherein the state prohibited all handguns save high quality Army and Navy issue pistols. Ex-Confederate soldiers, of course, already had these weapons, but poor black freedmen were unable to afford them. This ostensibly neutral law, widely copied by other southern states during Reconstruction, thus ensured that blacks would be unarmed in the face of Jim Crow, and kept the slave system alive in all but name.
This, in fact, is one of the two grounds on which the NRA today fights "common-sense" handgun laws (the other being that existing laws are not adequately enforced, a specious argument whose flaws are too numerous to detail here.) Gun apologists have pointed out that laws which seek to limit or ban so-called "junk guns," like the $70 Saturday Night Special, are tantamount to selective disarmament of the poor. Since the poor are disproportionately more likely to be victims of crime, and also often receive inadequate police protection, gun control is little more than peace of mind for the rich at the cost of jeopardizing the lower class.
"The people most likely to be deterred from acquiring a handgun by exceptionally high prices," the National Institute of Justice noted in 1985, "or by the non-availability of certain kinds of handguns, are not felons intent on arming themselves...(who can, if all else fails, steal a handgun), but rather poor people who have decided they need a handgun to protect themselves from the felons..."
That sort of argument makes a gun control proponent squirm. The NRA, guilty countless times in the past of ridiculous exaggeration, isn't far off the mark here. Why should a suburban man with his chrome-plated Colt be able to defend home and family, while a black woman in a high-crime area is denied similar security?
The answer, for gun control groups, is to argue that denying someone a gun is not a disservice because guns contribute to, rather than deter, crime. The NRA, naturally, says otherwise, and herein we find the new parameters of the debate on guns. It isn't legal, it isn't constitutional, it's coldly pragmatic: does carrying a piece harm you or help you? It is a question divorced from history and philosophy, and asks only for a verdict on the act of being armed, rather than on the ideology that underpins it. And it is how the NRA will win.
The website of Handgun Control, Inc., the nation's most influential gun control group, is rife evidence that handguns are a major contributing factor to violence in the United States. A visitor to the site can access a plethora of studies--or at least their executive summaries--done by HCI's research division, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, all of which purport to prove a link between handguns and crime.
The statistics seem overwhelming. Between 1987 and 1994, the frequency of non-handgun murders declined 11 percent, but handgun homicides increased 52 percent. From 1992-98, the national crime rate fell 25 percent; in states with concealed weapons restrictions it fell 30. In states without, it fell only 15. The Violence Policy Center, another powerful antigun group, released a study in 1999 showing that handgun licensees in Texas had been arrested at a rate of twice per day in the three years since the state's concealed weapons laws were relaxed.
But numbers are like puppets: if you know how to use them, you can make them say anything. The antigun lobby discovered this when John Lott, an Olin Fellow at the University of Chicago's School of Law and Economics, performed his own analysis of concealed weapons and crime. The study (later published as the controversial book More Guns, Less Crime) demonstrated, amid acres of statistics and academic jargon, that crime rates diminished significantly in places where the populace was allowed to carry concealed weapons. Lott even went so far as to suggest that an armed citizenry reduced the incidence of mass public shootings, because the demented individuals who carried them out developed a fear of being shot themselves. Of all his conclusions, this one demonstrated most clearly what was lacking in such an appeal pragmatism; after the Jonesboro schoolyard massacre, Lott, true to his economic model, advocated the arming of teachers.
Lott was savaged in the media when the study was released, and not always fairly. Both HCI and the Violence Policy Center spurned his offers to read and comment on the paper prior to its release, then turned around and denounced it on the day it came out. Indeed, one of the most interesting chapters of More Guns, Less Crime details Lott's efforts, in the best spirit of academic discourse, to speak with his anti-gun detractors. Most of them, when he called and identified himself, simply hung up.
This may have been because to gun control proponents, the best remedy for Lott's study was Lott himself. A staunch conservative, proponent of Chicago's laissez-faire economics, and purveyor of some extremely reactionary views about the environment, he was easy fodder for the media even before he suggested that teachers carry weapons. Urged on by the anti-gun spin machine, the court of public opinion tried and convicted him with ease.
Then came Gary Kleck; liberal Democrat, member of both Amnesty International and the ACLU, respected criminologist at Florida State University, and a member of neither the NRA nor Handgun Control. In 1988, Kleck wrote an article in the journal Social Problems, summarizing what was arguably the most comprehensive study ever done on guns and crime in America. The study had relied on information gathered from more than twenty prior analyses, but mostly on a survey commissioned by the antigun National Alliance Against Violence.
For Kleck, the results were surprising. For gun control advocates, they were devastating. Kleck found that guns are used for defensive purposes over 2 million times a year--more than twice the rate at which criminals misuse them. Eighty percent of these defensive uses involved concealed handguns, and a disproportionate amount of them involved minorities.
Kleck's conclusion, however, was not so ardently pro-gun as Lott's. What he determined (and later wrote in his massive book Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America), was that handguns have no effect on crime, because defensive use and criminal misuse essentially cancel each other out. For example: the presence of guns naturally increases the rate of gun homicide, but does not effect the overall homicide rate, because the presence of guns in defensive hands can stop an equal or greater amount of knife, gun or vehicular homicides. The result is that guns cannibalize other forms of crime: more people may die by pistols if pistols are legal, but more people don't necessarily die.
The logic is difficult to swallow, and to the scientifically uninitiated the methodology is baffling, but suffice it to say the anti-gun lobby has no answer for Gary Kleck. Point Blank won the Hindelang Award for outstanding book in criminology. The late Marvin Wolfgang, a dean of American crime science who called himself "as strong a gun control advocate as can be found in the world of criminology" was unable to find fault in Kleck's study, and actually praised it for its thoroughness. The NRA crowed in triumph. The debate was over.
Except that everyone had been arguing about the wrong thing.
What has happened in the debate over gun control has been a shift in emphasis from the right to bear arms (a legal and philosophical question) to the need to bear arms (a pragmatic question). On the latter question, the NRA has won, and sadly, the distinction between the two questions has been lost. We can, conceivably, be satisfied with a society that has the right to bear arms. We cannot, however, be satisfied with a society where guns are needed, for the simple reason that a society whose individuals need armament is by definition not a society at all.
Humans live together in societies for a number of reasons, but chief among them is mutual support and protection. If at any time a segment of society feels deprived of support and protection, then that is a problem, and the remedy must necessarily reinforce a belief in society.
In the case of gun control, the problem is fear. People, and in particular the poor, are not buying handguns because they are fervent federalists who believe in the Second Amendment; they are buying handguns because they're afraid. Afraid that crime will come and the police won't help. Afraid that in today's America, any man not a soldier is likely soon to be a victim.
There are portions of America that our society has failed. It is incontrovertible that the poor are more likely to be victims of crime. It is likewise irrefutable that poor neighborhoods don't benefit from the sort of police presence that affluent communities enjoy. But it is counterintuitive to solve this problem by arming the poor. Guns are a symptom of fear, not its solution. In the short run, John Lott may be right: more guns, less crime. But what does it say about our society if our chosen method of promoting peace is an escalation of the potential for violence? If our main deterrent to crime is the knowledge that every strange face may wield the power to blow our brains out? The arming of America compounds fear with fear, and adds to, rather than ameliorates, the alienation and desperation that leads people to buy guns in the first place. Giving the poor weapons, telling them that the only law is the law they create, reasserts a doctrine of destructive individualism in a segment of society already horribly fragmented by suspicion and distrust. On its face, the proliferation of handguns may carry a message of strength and security. But underneath, the larger message is unmistakable: you're on your own.
The worst thing that can be said about the NRA is not that it agitates for gun rights, but that it agitates for gun necessity. The NRA prospers through antisocial conditions--distrust of government, of police, of others. In some cases, this distrust is justified. But in these cases the problem should be addressed at its source, not exacerbated by throwing guns into the mix. Will an uncaring nation really look more kindly on a slum if its residents are suddenly armed? Of course not. The middle class will only become more repelled, the police more suspicious, and the poor more alienated.
The NRA, in propounding the advantages of an armed society, likes to use the example of Switzerland, a country where every household has an assault rifle and yet there is almost no violent crime. But the Swiss have rifles for compulsory militia service, not personal protection. The weapons are for defense of country rather than defense of self. Handgun proliferation in America has no such uniting principal. It emphasizes the security of the individual. Societies, unfortunately, are comprised of more than the sum of their individual members; a million armed citizens doesn't make a secure nation, just as a thousand armed nations makes not for a secure world.
Perhaps we could learn more if we considered that Switzerland also happens to be a nation without poverty, where barely a quarter of the nation's spending power separates the richest and poorest ten percent of the citizenry. America's need to bear arms might be a result of the vast chasms our economy has torn in our populace, where one percent of our citizens controls almost half of our wealth. The bottom portion of America is afraid of its future--or lack thereof--and the top portion is afraid of the bottom. Guns provide a shortsighted illusion of safety even as they push us further into the small compartments we call America. They accelerate a cycle of distrust that could indeed reduce crime, but at what cost? The right to bear arms may very well be fundamentally American. So too, however, is the freedom from fear. Why must we choose one or the other? Making society safe by tearing it apart seems not a fair trade at all.