The tragedy in South Caroline, the result of the vile acts of a murdering racist, finds the political class once again dreaming of new “gun safety reforms” — which we can safely decode as new ways to trample on the individual’s right to possess a firearm. As President Obama put it, “If Congress had passed some common sense gun safety reforms after Newtown … we might still have some more Americans with us.” Could Obama really believe that further restrictions on legal gun ownership would stop the small segment of the population that has no regard for the law or for human life?
A particularly unsubstantiated narrative on the right to own a firearm has, for some time, assumed a central place in the talking points of the mainstream left, which we might also accurately name the counterfeit, fake, or sensitivity left. Rather than mere name-calling, the point is to distinguish this group from those who are concerned with the preservation of genuine liberal values, among them, liberty, a government that is subject to the rule of law, and a robust system of justice that refrains from denying an individual her rights without legitimate due process. Of these attributives, perhaps “sensitivity” requires some explanation. The sensitivity left is that portion of progressives for whom feelings or emotional responses to a particular event, perceived to have political significance, take precedence over principles that we might have regarded as important to traditional liberalism. The word sensitivity, furthermore, is useful in demonstrating that we need not — indeed should not — impugn the sincerity of the opponents of liberty on issues such as gun control. Imputing evil intent to our philosophical adversaries distracts from the question at hand, that is, whether a given policy proposal actually advances a desired goal. Gun control advocates, I believe, want a safer country, with fewer shooting deaths and less violent crime. Whether the sensitivity left believes it or not, gun rights advocates just happen to want the same things. It is the question of how those ends are best served on which we disagree.
We ought to be clear about at least one thing, though — gun control laws are decidedly not passed in the service of liberal values; they are a direct attack on and reaction against those values, another progressive effort to coercively order society from the top down, rooted firmly in the idea that experts in government should dictate to an unenlightened populace what is in its interest. Philosophically, liberalism was an attempt (successful or not) to connect the legitimacy of a government to the consent of those it governs, to subject government to the rule of law, and to thereafter allow each individual the widest possible freedom within his own sphere of autonomy. Progressivism represents a wholesale repudiation and modification of that set of values. It posits a government that is the vehicle of scientific advancement, an administrative state that elites can use to shape society into some ideal. As Peter Burfeind describes it, writing in The Federalist, “This kingdom would emerge through collective political action guided by scientific experts and engineers, an organic whole moving as one, no different than the bats or bees.” The similarities to Europe’s ideological twin, fascism, are well documented, as indeed are the mutual admiration and affinity between progressives and fascists.
Understanding the history is important in general, but especially insofar as it discredits the absurd notion that anyone with liberal or tolerant social values should support gun control. The opposite is true. Despite the feeble attempts of progressives to rewrite history, to reconcile gun control and the principles of a free society, it remains a fact that the twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes uniformly denied ordinary citizens the right to bear arms. Even if it is true, which is not at all clear, the oft-repeated argument that the Nazis marginally relaxed the controls enacted by what is today called the Weimar Republic does not accomplish the monumental feat imagined by today’s progressives. It merely highlights the extraordinary dangers of all gun control measures and the historic role that the illiberal Weimar Republic played in preparing the ground for Nazi totalitarianism. And, in the first place, it defies reason to claim, as law professor Bernard E. Harcourt does, that the “Nazi gun laws of 1938 reflect a liberalization of the gun control measures that had been enacted by the Weimar Republic.” For Harcourt, laws that selectively targeted the possession and manufacture of firearms by Jews represent an overall “liberalization,” to say nothing of the fact that the laws were applied in such a way as to allow the confiscation of firearms from anyone perceived to be a political enemy of the Nazi cause. We cannot properly regard as liberalization the completely arbitrary, discriminatory application of any law, regardless of what it says on its face. This kind of lawless carte blanche is (or should be) anathema to anyone with liberal values. Furthermore, all gun control laws carve out special exceptions, privileging certain classes of individuals favored by the political class. The focal point of libertarian arguments against gun control is that these distinctions are not well founded, that the state has no right to arbitrarily and autocratically decide who is allowed to exercise fundamental rights.
Compulsory disarmament of the sort explained away by progressives is, of course, a condition precedent of the rise of totalitarian state power. It also happens to be a common condition of surrender following war, for to strip the vanquished of all weaponry is to leave them impotent, unable to rise again, subject to the conquering, occupying power. The abuses of the United States government have proceeded to such a degree that it is now no exaggeration to say that it sees the American people as just such a defeated enemy, never to be trusted with arms. Just as the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany demonstrates, gun laws are always the product of politics and political considerations, not the unblemished decrees of wise and morally pure authorities, above any thought of the interests at play. Historian Terry Golway tells the story of how one of Tammany Hall’s political henchmen, Big Tim Sullivan, authored one of American history’s first gun laws in 1911, not to protect public safety or reduce crime, but in order to plant guns on criminals who denied Hall his protection money. And Big Tim’s law is still on the books in New York. Americans at the time were perhaps not as credulous in the face of government overreach as are today’s naïve gun control champions. Contemporary observers such as journalist M.A. Werner understood that the law would prevent shopkeepers and other law-abiding “citizens from protecting themselves from thieves.”
It is not really the right to bear arms that progressives fear; their position on this particular right is merely an implication of their more general position on all political and economic rights: Your rights are whatever special experts in positions of power say they are. The libertarian desires full freedom, unlimited and undiluted, not because she is antisocial or averse to community safety, but because she knows these goals to be fundamentally incompatible with coercion and with centralized power. Guns will be distributed through American society regardless of any new law or regulation that politicians put into place. Libertarians contend that the distribution ought to be as decentralized as possible, cautioning against a society that concentrates firearms only in dangerous criminals, police and military personnel, and political favorites. The progressives’ attack on traditional liberal principles virtually announces an open season for potential criminals and totalitarians. We are at our safest and most peaceful as a country when access to guns for the most decent and upright citizens is at its most unobstructed.