Could a more expansive view of liberty and pro-life advocacy countenance more gun control restrictions than conservatives are traditionally willing to concede?
Satirical news site The Onion has taken to republishing the same weary article each time that a mass shooting incident rips a deadly path through schools and communities, extinguishing innocent lives while politicians and activists strike poses rather than forging an overdue compromise addressing gun violence.
The article has already appeared numerous times in 2018, most recently today in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in which ten people were killed and ten more injured at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas.
“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens“, reads the headline:
In the hours following a violent rampage in Florida in which a lone attacker killed 17 individuals and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Wednesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said Indiana resident Harold Turner, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this individual from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what they really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”
The increasingly regular reposting of the article only serves to underline its point.
One cannot help but agree with The Onion’s sense of frustration. Nobody can realistically expect any feasible political or policy action to snuff out gun violence of any kind (mass shooting or otherwise) within a short timeframe such as that between the recent Parkland school shooting in Florida and yesterday’s carnage in Santa Fe, Texas. But within a functional democratic country, leaders should at least be able to point toward concrete signs of planning and action. As things stand, there are no such encouraging signs.
Many Democrats would rather engage in silly performative stunts like loaded televised town-hall meetings or congressional sit-ins – the latter particularly risible, with legislators behaving like immature students, effectively petitioning themselves to do their own jobs – than even consider conservative proposals for reducing mass shootings, like the hiring of more armed security officers. Meanwhile, Republicans tend to put far too much faith in last-line-of-defence security measures and consistently thwart the kind of upstream policy solutions which might better tackle mental illness before it manifests in violence, under the banner of their disingenuous commitment to “fiscal responsibility”.
Meanwhile, in this time of pronounced political tribalism, both sides see themselves as victims. The thoughts and prayers for victims of mass shooting incidents are no doubt all very sincere, but it usually takes only a matter of hours for the public discourse to revert to a screaming match as both sides try to label themselves as vicarious victims and their opponents as oppressors. Many conservatives spent the entire Obama presidency hysterically convincing themselves that the government was coming for their guns, making themselves even more partisan in the process, while Democratic and allied leftist organisations increasingly use rhetoric better suited for describing malevolent terrorists to denounce conservatives who simply want to tackle gun crime in a different way. The governor of Connecticut and others have likened the National Rifle Association to a terrorist organisation, for example.
The net result of all this public posturing and cowardly refusal of politicians of both sides to lead (rather than follow) their most strident activists is another deadly school shooting – and the depressing re-emergence of that Onion news article – reliably taking place every couple of months.
To my mind, the fundamental question – as I previously laid out following the Parkland shooting – is this: to what extent should American society allow the defence of an increasingly abstract principle (the right for the citizenry to heavily arm themselves as a safeguard against government tyranny) to take priority over defending very real and non-abstract innocent citizens, often children, from being killed in mass casualty shooting events.
The longstanding political gridlock in America has thus far allowed the abstract defence of liberty to win a total victory by default. But at some point we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to accept this outcome in perpetuity – not least because lax gun controls repeatedly fail to safeguard against government incursions on individual liberty. An armed citizenry did not give the federal government a moment’s pause for thought as Washington D.C. created a vast and largely unaccountable system of domestic surveillance or abused the Constitution to seize ever more power for the centre, let alone successfully dissuaded government from pursuing such illiberal policies. Neither have states with loose gun restrictions successfully prevented their police forces from becoming ever-more militarised and aggressive. So given that loose gun controls have not prevented vast and likely irrevocable encroachments on individual liberty thus far, is conservative faith in a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment misplaced?
One can certainly argue that a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment still serves as a final insurance policy, but its efficacy is weakened to the point of uselessness by previous concessions to authoritarian government, many of them (including the more draconian provisions of the PATRIOT Act) enthusiastically cheered on by the very same people who cite suspicion of the federal government as sufficient reason to scupper any measures limiting civilian ownership of higher powered weaponry. Putting one’s thumbs on both sides of the scale like this – tolerating an intrusive government while citing the danger of big government as a justification for thwarting gun control – begins to look suspiciously like hypocrisy.
A new article by James Mumford for The American Conservative draws out another interesting hypocrisy in the conservative case against gun control – the conflict with conservatism’s pro-life position. In his piece, Mumford essentially argues that the right to life currently takes second place to defending the present interpretation of the Second Amendment:
Some time later I came across an online comment by a conservative chap talking about the sanctity of life. I was impressed. “So basically [it’s] a life vs. liberty debate. We already recognize in everyday life the fact that human life has more fundamental value than freedom.” Absolutely. I totally agreed. And the chap’s recognition of the essential trade-off was refreshingly realistic. What will it take to prevent another Newtown? Law-abiding gunowners, often in rural areas, sacrificing their freedom to own assault weapons because they realize that “human life has more fundamental value than freedom.” The chap must have been imagining the six-year olds at Sandy Hook cowering behind their teacher when Adam Lanza blasted into their classroom. The blogger was issuing a rallying call. We’ll do what it takes. We’ll give up what we have to. We’ll stop that from happening again.
But again, I’m so thick. I thought he was talking about a high-school massacre. In fact, he was talking about abortion!
[..] Presumably, those who own guns for self-defense wouldn’t accept the claim that they rank freedom over life. They would say the freedom to own guns is precisely a freedom to defend life, their own and other people’s. Yet are more lives saved than lost by people having such easy access to lethal weapons?
This is the rub. There is certainly a risk of government tyranny which must be mitigated against so far as possible, including through remedies such as the Second Amendment. But certain mitigations also come with a cost attached – in this case, a cost which is growing and growing, the ledger filled in with blood red ink. What price are we currently paying for each incremental degree of protection from tyranny? Is the insurance policy starting to cost more than is justified by the catastrophic event it is designed to cover? Should we not at least be open to having this discussion?
[..] no possible reading of the Second Amendment can possibly excuse the fundamental hypocrisy here. Just because you’re free to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Conservatives like me who care deeply about family values typically forego their freedom to sleep around.
Plus, a right is never absolute anyway. In 2008 Justice Scalia, writing the majority opinion in Heller, recognized that even the individual rights reading allows for a raft of gun-control measures—prohibitions on carrying weapons in public, extension of background checks, etc., etc. So there’s a lot for consistent pro-lifers to be campaigning for with as much vigor as they’re trying to defund Planned Parenthood.
Mass shootings by monsters armed with AR-15s, like the one in San Bernardino last December, constitute a fraction of gun violence in America. That’s the final argument I’ve heard bandied about a lot. But again it seems weird. For why should it matter that it’s a fraction of gun violence? Don’t fractions matter? Doesn’t a pro-lifer believe that “he who saves one life saves the world entire”?
This is by no means to argue for the repeal of the Second Amendment or the abolition of all gun rights. It is simply an argument for conservatives to take a more expansive view of the pro-life case than the current laser focus on their preferred pet issue of abortion, and to at least entertain the possibility that a new balance might be struck between safeguarding liberty – perhaps more proactively, rather than lazily relying on the nuclear option of armed insurrection – and defending life.
It may well be the case, following such a conversation, that conservatives decide that the balance between liberty and life is already correctly struck and that no changes are needed – though I find this to be increasingly implausible. But a conversation needs to take place, and conservatives increasingly need to be able to justify their stance given the fact that large-scale school massacres do not take place with this regularity anywhere else on Earth.
For conservatives to maintain the moral high ground, the principle worth defending at such a terrible, ongoing cost must be both incredibly valuable and consistently defended on all fronts over a long period of time. I do not believe that most mainstream conservatives can demonstrate this track record or appear willing to publicly make this argument, and to the extent that conservatives are unwilling to fully defend their own position on gun control, their position cannot command full public respect.
Update: Another thoughtful reflection on the pro-life / pro-gun (potential) dichotomy here, by an Evangelical preacher.
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