A series of violent shootings have dominated the headlines this summer. Tragically, another shooting occurred this week in Old Bridge, New Jersey when a disgruntled employee killed two of his coworkers in a Pathmark supermarket, where he worked. Wearing camouflage and armed with a pistol and an AK47, the ex-marine entered the supermarket after-hours, firing on the entire store before committing suicide. Preceding this event, shootings have erupted in New York City, Colorado, Missouri, and Wisconsin.
Unsurprisingly, the torrent of violence has reignited America’s perennial debate about gun rights. Those critical of US gun laws have pointed to these shootings as evidence that we need more restrictive gun laws. Time’s columnist Joe Klein made this argument in a recent editorial called “How the Gun Won.” Reflecting on the last three decades of gun policy, Klein blamed the absence of tougher gun laws largely on the NRA, whose strength grew from about 2.5 million in the 1980s to over 4 million members today.
The NRA is well funded and one of the most powerful lobbyist groups in the country – it has certainly influenced elections and intimidated politicians on both sides. Interestingly, according to Klein, the NRA’s views on gun control are not as main-stream as people think, including its own members. He cites polling by Frank Luntz that suggests a majority of gun owners in the US support sterner background checks and more gun safety courses despite official NRA positions to the contrary.
Perhaps the most important question Klein raises is why the escalation in violent shootings from people carrying lethal weaponry has not moved the debate decisively in the direction of tougher gun laws. In fact, the Republican Party platform advanced at this week’s Convention is “perhaps the most gun-friendly platform that any party had ever adopted,” said NRA president David Keene. How could this be the case, especially with shootings leading the news and big city Mayors (Bloomberg) openly critical of gun laws?
Don’t advocates of tougher gun laws have a point? If Colorado shooter James Holmes was carrying a handgun instead of a semi-automatic assault rifle wouldn’t fewer people have been killed or wounded (he shot 70 and killed 12)? Is it completely unreasonable to ask people for background checks before they purchase weapons? Further, shouldn’t these shootings at least compel the NRA and other gun supporters to relax some of their rhetoric? Maybe.
Understanding why tougher laws are required may seem at times easier to understand, but there are always two sides to any debate. The starting point for most proponents of gun rights is the second amendment. Though many deprecate the second amendment as an archaic law dating back to a more primitive time, the right to bear arms remains one of the cornerstones of American national culture. Why?
The answer can be found in the American zest for freedom. Freedom does not simply mean the right to do and say as you please as long as it does not infringe on someone else’s freedom to do the same. It also means the right and the capacity to defend yourself and your property. Any State that monopolizes control of violence by stripping the rights of citizens to defend themselves and their property has taken away their freedom.
Does that mean that every American needs an assault rifle to be free? Of course not. But it does mean that Americans are right to be suspicious of putting their personal protection and security solely in the hands of the State, a common sentiment characteristic of free English Speaking peoples since the days of Oliver Cromwell. For this reason, American states have local militias and empower law enforcement to deputize private citizens.
But freedom does come at a price. Just as we tolerate buffoonery in the public square in the name of free speech, expression, and religion, allowing people to own firearms similarly enables crazies to lawfully acquire lethal firearms (Holmes had no criminal record). Although there are limits that should be placed on gun ownership, gun laws should air on the side of freedom, because the alternative is far worse.
As Alexis de Tocqueville said in the 19th century: “what good is it to me to have an authority always ready…to brush away all dangers from my path if such an authority… is also the absolute master of my freedom.” More simply put, safety in despotism is not preferable to insecurity in freedom. Fortunately, America is a country that has a good measure of both freedom and safety, and overall the second amendment strengthens our safety while preserving our freedom.
Cameron Macgregor is a graduate student at George Mason University and a former naval officer. He is writing his first book.