Debbie brought up guns and politics the other day. I am one of her friends who likes guns that she mentioned in her disclaimer. Wanting to periodically talk about guns was one of the reasons I started my own blog at fukshot because guns aren’t really a good subject fit for Body Impolitic most of the time. Now that the subject has been raised, I’d like to throw out a few thoughts that don’t usually get much play in public discourse. I have an unusual perspective because in US politics advocacy for gun rights has become the province of the “right” and gun control has become the province of the “left.” This is interesting situation in that the right of gun ownership is considered completely separate from all other civil liberties. I’m going to talk a little about how and why I think the political discourse has come to function that way. My general perspective is left of left.
I will be more superficial here than is my usual style, but there is just too much to say otherwise.
The current regime of “right”/”left” alignment around gun rights/control came in to existence in the early 1970s. In 1974, the National Council to Control Handguns was founded. This organization would later become Handgun Control, Inc. and even more recently the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. This organization took up arguments against gun ownership based in a desire to make the world a safer place, a desire that rang true with the concerns of liberalism at the time. Nearly simultaneously, the National Rifle Association had a leadership coup. Control of the NRA has rested in the hands of pseudo-libertarian conservatives prone to racial dogwhistling ever since.
Only a few years earlier, in the late 1960s, conservative Republicans in the California assembly were restricting the carrying of firearms in laws directed specifically at the Black Panthers, while the NRA was having serious discussions about sponsoring some reasonable restrictions on gun ownership so as to avoid more draconian restrictions. Hardly a world we would recognize today.
The National Firearms Act, the law that restricts ownership of full-automatic weapons and of artillery, was passed in 1934, partially as an attempt to disarm organized crime, which had built power during prohibition (didn’t work) and also to disarm a potential leftist revolution during the Great Depression (did work, in conjunction with the New Deal).
In the roughly 35 years since the right-left flip of this civil liberty in US politics, gun issues have taken on an interesting political significance. On both pro and anti sides, guns have become a rallying cry and political shorthand for all sorts of things, but mostly the rural/urban split in US society and the accompanying class and racial divides. None of these divides is completely straightforward between right and left, but the gun issue is incredibly useful political shorthand for a variety of fears and resentments and prejudices we have about each other. It is the right’s convincing argument to many that liberals want to make everyone live a certain way through government control. It is the left’s favorite classist/regionalist dogwhistle for a (mostly) imagined hatemongering hillbilly who must be stopped.
When an asshat like Tom Coburn says things about professional elitists and cowards and works something about his liking for guns into the statement, he is making statements about which “side” he is on in a way that defines the “sides” and plays simultaneously on many prejudices and tendencies. He is throwing out a net to catch potential sympathies from a wide variety of people who feel (justifiably or not) wronged by the current system and to endear himself to those people despite the fact that he can or will do very little to make things better for the people he appeals to. (For a sentence there, I could have been talking about my own response to 2008 Obama speeches.)
My personal relationship with guns is just that, personal. I’d like to say here that my interest in guns is not primarily as weapons, but that I acknowledge the weapon aspect as the most important for public discussion and public policy. I’d like to throw out a few anti-gun-restriction ideas that I expect many readers here may have not heard. (The difference between anti-gun-restriction and pro-gun is as important as the difference between pro-choice and pro-abortion.)
I am a trans woman. Because of that, I can reasonably expect the police to be as likely a danger to me in most of the United States as a source of protection from violence. The idea that the police should have the monopoly on the power to exert deadly force for my protection is completely ludicrous to me.
The scarcity model of gun control does not work for crime prevention, but does work to disarm social movements. If a person intends to murder or intimidate people as a means of support, a gun is of much greater value to that person than the cost increase caused by illegality. Most gun control legislation in recent history has been designed to induce price increases or difficulty of purchase, while having no impact on the operation of the illicit market. That has a greater impact on broad social movements, especially those by the poor. I am in favor of increased enforcement of most existing gun laws.
I may sound a bit teabaggy here, but gun ownership is a civil liberty as important as freedom of the press and the separation of church and state. Refer again to the Black Panthers and specifically their armed observation of police activities as a means of preventing police abuse of the general public. It really worked.
Most of all, more than any of these other arguments, there is one that I never hear spoken: If the “left” in US politics were to treat gun ownership as equal with other civil liberties, it would break loose large portions of the populist base of the Republican party. It would take the sliver of truth out of most “nanny state” arguments made by the right. It would un-do a good portion of Lee Atwater’s successful crusade to entice people to vote against their own interests.
Finally, there is a truth about gun politics that I must point out. Most people who are vehemently opposed to the rights of people to own guns know little about guns and subscribe to fictions about guns that seem completely absurd to those who have guns in their lives. It has become a truism in contemporary politics that people who actually know gays are less likely to hate gays. I’d like to propose that the same social phenomenon is at play in gun politics. I’d like to offer up the comments section of this post as a place where I might dispel some misconceptions about guns and existing gun laws by answering questions.