By Frank Blechman
I hear a lot of puzzlement these days among advocates for “reasonable” gun safety. “How is it,” they ask, “that 85-90% of Americans favor gun controls but the needle isn’t moving?”
This seems like a reasonable question. It’s one thing to have paralysis when the electorate is sharply divided or undecided about an issue. Yet when there is agreement, shouldn’t policymakers respond?
My own thoughts on this subject drift back 30-some years to the late 1980s. At that time, the cold war still raged and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons hung out in their bunkers waiting for the chance to sterilize the planet, ending all life on earth. Eighty-five to 90 percent of Americans thought this was a bad thing, yet policy didn’t move. Eventually President Ronald Reagan put his long-term bet on “Star Wars,” a plan to create an effective anti-ballistic-missile system. He didn’t bet on reducing the number of missiles until the very end of his term, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called his bluff at a summit in Iceland. Why didn’t policy move when the American people wanted it to change?
Eventually, I learned through polling data that there were two side to this coin. Americans overwhelmingly wanted peace, but they also wanted security. They were not at all interested in trading one for the other. Further, they viewed anyone too far in either the hawk or dove camp (that is, willing to make the trade rejected above) as “unreliable”, even untrustworthy.
In other words, those of us in the nuclear weapons FREEZE movement had absolutely succeeded in convincing the American people that we could not live with nuclear weapons. But, at the same time, we had utterly failed to make the case that we could live without them.
I have not seen comparable research today about the gun-safety movement. But the similarities are too strong to ignore. I think that advocates have persuaded most Americans that the wild proliferation of guns has not made us safer. Nonetheless, most Americans appear to be unconvinced that limiting or removing guns would leave us adequately protected. The two-sided coin rears its ugly head again.
What can we do to make most people feel safe enough without unlimited numbers of guns?
* Can we assure most people that the police will “be there” to protect us whenever and wherever we need them? I’m sure we cannot make this promise. Further, I am sure I do not want to live in a state where the police are everywhere all the time.
* Can we assure most people that we can identify all “bad apples” in society ahead of time, to restrict their ability to do harm? Several science-fiction books and movies have been built on the premise that the thought police can intercept the future. Most of those stories don’t end well. I favor expanded mental-health resources at every level, yet again, I wouldn’t want to live with an unlimited level of intrusiveness.
* Can we help most people understand that the real risk of random violence is much lower than the risk of violence from a known source? Yes, we can do this, but I am not hopeful that it would radically enable action on gun safety proposals. The emotional fear of random violence is much stronger than the reassurance of facts and statistics.
* Can we amend the second amendment to the US Constitution? In theory, this is certainly an option, but it would require more collective will and leadership than passing state or national laws, which have proven prohibitively difficult.
* Can we get there gradually? We have no evidence that a strategy in incremental regulation can work. Gains made in one generation have been washed away by the next.
* Can we expand responsibility for violence by increasing liability? Maybe. This, however, faces all the same resistance as other measures. And by itself, it doesn’t make anybody feel safer.
We need a longer term discussion that the US Constitution is not the Declaration of Independence, endowing individuals with either “inalienable” or God-given rights to keep and bear arms.
We need a longer term discussion that the US Constitution is not the Declaration of Independence, endowing individuals with either “inalienable” or God-given rights to keep and bear arms. It took the NRA 40 years to enshrine the idea of this individual right, and it may take us 40 years to undo it. The law has long held that most constitutional rights are not unlimited or absolute. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged that in his Heller opinion. “Free Speech” for example, does not give anyone the right to endanger others by “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” The late Judge Learned Hand famously noted that “your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose.”
We can demonize the NRA, but we will do far better by beating it hundreds if not thousands of times at the local, state, and federal levels. When the American people come to believe that the “right to bear arms” is a limited right, just like any other, we can begin the conversation about when and where those restrictions should apply.
Until then, we who support restrictions on gun ownership and use must acknowledge that “gun rights” advocates are not crazy, just more sensitive to and fearful for their personal security than we are. In the meantime, to be taken seriously, we need to acknowledge and discuss both sides of this debate: safety and security. Otherwise, we are just talking to ourselves.