We have to change how we talk about guns.
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
The Libertarian position on the 2nd Amendment is best summed up as follows:
There is a rich tradition in Libertarianism centered around an understanding that the best check against a tyrannical government is a well armed citizenry. By extension Libertarians are staunchly pro-2nd Amendment.
This idea isn't new, and it's about as American as it gets...
"What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms." - Thomas Jefferson
The authors of the bill of rights believed that without the 2nd Amendment government would walk all over the other rights found within the constitution. It's a pillar that holds up everything else. You start with speech, you start with peaceful protest, but in a situation where true tyranny is present and non-violent methods are exhausted then violent resistance becomes the only viable option.
Quick tangent out of the gate...
I know I'll lose a lot of people at violence being an option at all, so I want to quickly frame the idea with some real world examples and ask that you stick with me for a little bit longer here.
Most like to believe that modern society is absolutely beyond the need for violence, but that's being disproven in real time.
Hong Kong's citizens own approx. 3.6 guns per 100 people. For contrast America's number is ~120 guns per 100 people.
Hong Kong's peaceful protests are currently being crushed by China in a case study of historical tyranny. China is effectively being met with zero physical resistance. The only way Hong Kong could have defended itself is via its own armed citizenry, but they don't have that. They're well and truly screwed as demonstrators are being arrested by the thousands.
A second example to bring it closer to home. Progressives, how close did Trump come to authoritarianism? If he got there and shut down future elections proclaiming himself "President for Life" you know what you'd probably want to have on hand?...a gun.
As I think through issues related to the 2nd Amendment I try not to lose sight of how close to the edge we are. "It can't happen here," is nothing more than famous last words.
Over the centuries since the creation of the Bill of Rights the American public's attitude on the 2nd Amendment has softened. A recent poll found that around 64% of Americans are in favor of stricter gun laws, and around 1 in 5 Americans (20%) want the 2nd Amendment outright repealed.
2A advocates, we're losing this argument, and it's because we're really, really bad at talking about it.
Pro-2A people often fall into fringe arguments and lose site of the founding principle of the 2nd Amendment laid out above. For this reason I believe the greatest threat to the 2nd Amendment is its advocates' inability to properly message the defense of it.
Let me illustrate with a hypothetical conversation...
Your AR 'hobby' is putting people's lives in danger.
I understand being able to defend yourself, but you live in a regular neighborhood. You can defend your home with a shotgun, you can defend yourself outside the home with a handgun, there is no need for you to have something like an AR. Other countries don't allow them, and they don't have the problems we do with mass shootings.
If the founding fathers understood the mayhem an individual could inflict with a modern weapon they would have written the 2nd amendment differently. I see no logical reason for weapons of war to be available to the general public.
I just want my kids to be safe.
Why do you hate the constitution you gun grabbing commie? You better get right with God before you come for me.
Now in this purposefully lopsided, hyperbolic example it's easy to see how someone could side with the anti-gun person. Therein lies our problem, whether it's accurate or not this is how a significant and growing number of Americans perceive this debate.
Increasingly people view 2A advocates as hobbyists, a special interest group, callous individuals who place their delusional fantasies and recreational activity above the lives of their fellow citizens.
We need to change that trend, and I think we can simply by changing the way we speak about the subject. Here's how I think we get there...
STOP WITH THE CHEAP BRAVADO
The idea that pro-2A people are unhinged is reinforced by the threats generated in response to anti-gun positions. The overused "f*ck around and find out" or "from my cold dead hand" come to mind but there's a whole bunch more fun bumper sticker lines meant to convey the idea that "if you mess with my guns I am going to shoot you with one."
You're just not helping with this stuff.
Nobody is coming for your guns at scale yet, but keep talking like this and they will, and when they do you're not going to be with your militia buddies in a sweet ghillie suit in the woods. You're going to be alone in a bedroom hiding behind a mattress as a flash bang comes through the window, all while the channel 6 news chopper films it. Most importantly, the majority of Americans are going to think, "good, they got that psycho."
Public sentiment matters. Ask a Black person who lived/lives through the War on Drugs, there wont be enough people standing with you to defend your rights as long as you're perceived to be a threat. The rest of the country will applaud as they break through your door.
So, the first thing that needs to be accepted is that yes, public perception matters. Any time we talk about the 2nd Amendment the arguments have to remain reasoned and principled or else they work against the cause.
EMPATHIZE WITH THE AVERAGE ANTI-GUN ADVOCATE...FOR REAL
Start to understand your opposition.
The average person does not want to reduce the number and lethality of guns in circulation because they want to clear a path for government tyranny, they just want to feel safe, and they disagree with you on the best way to get there.
I have 3 children, all Elementary age at the time I'm writing this. A year or so ago the kids did an active shooter drill at school.
My middle daughter came home pretty excited that she had found, "THE PERFECT hiding place. It's my favorite hiding place, I don't think anyone would ever find me there to shoot me." She has a favorite hiding place for not getting shot at her school.
I think I speak for all parents when I say, f*ck this noise.
I, as a parent, want to do anything in my power to make that reality go away for her. I want her to feel safe at her school without having to think about how not to get shot.
I want her to feel safe in other places too. I don't want to have to teach her "run, hide, fight." I don't want to have to teach her to make note of exits when she enters a building/room.
She can't carry, she's a child. I have to rely on the school's resource officer? You remember Scot Peterson, the Parkland deputy that stood outside while kids were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? The good guy with a gun turned out to be a deer in the headlights, you never know how a person is going to react, even one that's trained for it.
A logical person could come to the conclusion that the only way to prevent at least some of these instances is to remove as many high powered firearms from circulation as possible. Make it harder for someone with bad intentions to get their hands on an AR.
We have a tendency as 2nd Amendment advocates to see only the end game however. "They want to take away guns." We gloss over the motivation completely. The reality is, the majority of those found on both sides of this debate have the exact same motivation.
The reason you want to carry, the reason you want to defend your home with whatever firearm you choose, is because you don't want to die at the end of a gun barrel. They don't want to die, or have their children die, at the end of a gun barrel either.
That's the motivation. They just have a difference in opinion on how we all get to that desired outcome. Don't demonize, empathize, it'll get you further.
STOP GETTING STUCK IN ARGUMENTS THAT GO NOWHERE
This also highlights a key problem. Specific to this sub-section of the gun debate (mass/school shootings) there is truth and fallacy on both sides of the argument.
It is true that reducing the number of weapons in circulation and making more lethal weapons harder to get would reduce the frequency and body count of mass shootings. Common sense says that is a true statement, it's mathematically true.
But it's also true that some seeking to commit mass murder will slip through the cracks and get their hands on these weapons regardless of how illegal they are. You can never stop mass shootings completely using this tactic, and some would argue that what you sacrifice isn't worth the incremental benefit.
On the flip side it's undeniably true that a good person carrying a firearm can end these event's before they cause mass casualties. The quickest way to stop a shooter is to start shooting back. That's also common sense.
But good guys with guns aren't going to be there the vast majority of the time. Even when they are, as much as they've hyped themselves up, the average citizen isn't mentally prepared to draw and fire back accurately.
There are 100 different angles you can come at this debate from, justifications on your own opinion, holes to poke in the opposition, my point is, nobody is winning this argument. You can go round and round with someone indefinitely here, and it never gets anyone anywhere.
So, stop doing it. This isn't why the 2nd Amendment was created in the first place, stop trying to force it into this context. Stop having fringe arguments about the 2nd Amendment. It was created for a reason, stick to that reason.
You can't write off these events, they must be acknowledged as the real and tragic problem they are, but if this is the only focus in a discussion on the 2nd Amendment you're off the rails.
A PRINCIPLED ARGUMENT WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
What's the alternative way to talk about this? I'd propose a principled stance that doesn't brush aside any of the consequences that need to be fully accepted.
The 2nd Amendment was created to serve as a check against government overreach into the rights of an American citizen, full stop. It is meant as a deterrent in its best form, a last resort when absolutely necessary.
There is real value to this. The 2nd Amendment is the guardrail that keeps us on the road. The 2nd Amendment is the bumper that keeps the bowling ball out of the gutter (I bowl with kids a lot). The 2nd Amendment is ultimately what gives the American citizenry its real power.
And there is a real cost to it, as there is with all things of value. The cost to the 2nd Amendment is that we live in a country where we're always at risk of an individual causing massive trauma in very short amount of time. That is the collective price we pay to live free from absolute government tyranny.
I am a 2nd Amendment advocate, knowing full well that my little girl has a favorite hiding spot at school. That is not an easy statement for me to make.
I believe the risk of a tyrannically government emerging in the absence of a well armed citizenry is a greater threat to her life than the chances she is killed in a school shooting (something that I do not take lightly).
I believe that the best way for me to protect the life of my little girl over the long term is to protect Americans' right to own firearms.
This is the only defensible justification for 2nd Amendment advocacy, because it draws from the actual principle that the Amendment was written for. This is exclusively how we should talk about this subject.
That doesn't mean this concept doesn't carry additional baggage...
YOU CANT FIGHT CITY HALL... LITERALLY
If it ever actually came down to a fight against the US government we'd get totally owned. That does not invalidate the premise however, let me explain.
I've got a family member in the National Guard, and I asked him one day if it ever came to it would American citizens be able to fend off a wide scale attack from the US Military. The answer is a resounding no. The tech, training, communication, air superiority, etc., etc., etc. would be overwhelming.
For a good analogy look no further than the American Civil War. The North was a unified force while the South was essentially a patchwork of state militias. The North was able to coordinate supply lines across a much larger geography, coordinate attacks better, communicate better with a stronger chain of command, it made their victory a forgone conclusion.
In the event the citizens of the US have to go toe-to-toe with the US Military, even if the weaponry was equal which it very much isn't, this concept alone would sink us. It would be very easy to isolate pockets of resistance and stamp them out one by one.
The reason the 2nd Amendment is a deterrent even though there is a clear mismatch in fighting capabilities between the US Military and US Citizens is simple; if we've got guns you actually have to shoot us.
If a militia group is held up in a building unarmed, you can move in and arrest them without a firefight. If that militia group is armed you're going to have to drone-strike that building. An American will have to pull that trigger and blow up a group of fellow American citizens.
Going back to the example of the current unrest in Hong Kong, the international response looks a lot different if instead of bloodless arrests the Chinese military was engaging in firefights with the citizens of Hong Kong across the city. Does that change the appetite for foreign intervention which has been wholly lacking to this point? What do images of bloody battles being streamed on social media do for its ability to trend #1? I think the narrative and response changes dramatically.
And, how many instances does a member of the US Military disobey the order to pull the trigger deeming it unlawful? Likely far more often than they'd be inclined to if the order was to simply arrest someone. How many more defections would you see if bullets were being exchanged?
There is enough uncertainty in the scenario of open warfare against US Citizens in mass that even the worst tyrant would have to re-think it. Enough defection among the Military's ranks that don't agree to shooting their own citizens, enough foreign sanctions/aid to the resistance, and your authoritarian reign comes to an end.
The 2nd Amendment makes absolute government tyranny a messy enough proposition that it serves well as a deterrent.
NO, THIS ISN'T SOLVED BY YOU GETTING A NUKE
In response to the imbalance illustrated above there are some who believe the answer is civilian access to anything the Military has in order to level the playing field as much as possible. That we'd avoid even having to rely on military defections or foreign aid if we simply had the same hardware.
To put it simply, that idea is divorced from any reality a person would actually want to live in.
There is an equilibrium here. Why an AR and not a grenade? Or a tank? Because there's a point where detriment to everyday life tips the scales the other direction.
Would you want to stand in a room of "responsible, open-carry grenade owners?" Everyone with a live grenade strapped to their belt? No, that'd be insane. If someone trips over a spilled drink and lands wrong the whole building comes down.
There is a balance.
I'd argue that something like a semi-automatic AR falls into a goldilocks position. It's dangerous enough to be a legitimate threat to government forces if necessary, while not being so dangerous to everyday life that the country becomes Grand Theft Auto Online.
I think there are legitimate arguments around the edges of this concept. Where do bump stocks fall? Magazine capacity? Should you be able to purchase a fully automatic weapon?
For me personally it's all about incremental gain vs. incremental risk. For example, would legal, fully automatic firearms increase tyranny deterrence enough to justify the added danger it would bring to everyday life? I would argue no, they aren't going to turn the tide in the hypothetical resistance, but they would greatly increase the threat to normal life. I would vote to keep fully automatic weapons in the illegal bucket.
Purist Libertarians would argue that this is more fundamental than what I'm laying out above. That it's not about balance, it simply shouldn't be within the government's power to decide what weapons are legal or illegal, full stop. I understand where you're coming from here, and I respect the principled stance, but it's just not a practical position as I see it. That reality would be terrifying.
BUT OTHER COUNTRIES WITH STRICT GUN LAWS AREN'T FACING TYRANNY
I felt like I needed to cover this because it comes up, but it doesn't really fit anywhere, so enjoy the shoehorn.
The short response to this is that those situations are the exception not the norm.
If you're talking Europe + Australia, and you're the right color... and you're not poor... maybe? Pick any other continent and you're wrong, unarmed citizenries across the globe are constantly being crushed or abandoned by tyrannical governments.
People unable to defend themselves + government = oppression 9 times out of 10.
Look at what China is doing (haven't even talked about the labor camps happening RIGHT NOW with the Uyghurs). Putin's Russia? Africa over the last...forever. The Middle East, especially prior to the US invasion? Can women drive yet in our ally Saudi Arabia? South America where people are left to fend for themselves against cartels?
Tyranny is the norm, it's human nature, don't get complacent, it can happen. That we have almost twice the number of guns per capita vs. the next most heavily armed citizenry matters.
YOU CANT GET PICKY
Finally, there are some historical black eyes on the record of 2nd Amendment advocacy that can't be ignored, and need to be called out so that they aren't repeated. This stuff undermines the entire argument, and should be eradicated from 2nd Amendment advocacy.
In 1967 the State of California under then Governor Ronald Regan passed the Mulford Act. It was introduced by a Republican legislature, and had the full support of the NRA. The Mulford Act made carrying a loaded firearm illegal.
Why in the world would a Republican, Ronald Regan none the less, and the NRA advocate for stricter gun laws? Especially one this ridiculous?
The Black community was sick of getting abused by law enforcement and started to carry firearms to protect themselves. That's it, there was no secondary reason.
Here is a picture of Black people in 1967 peacefully protesting the law by open carrying in the California State Capitol building. Draw the parallel to calm open carry protests today and understand there's more that makes us the same than there is that divides us.
To recap, American Citizens took up arms to defend themselves against real, bloody government tyranny and in response the NRA supported a Republican introduced bill banning the carrying of loaded firearms so Black people could no longer defend themselves.
If your principles crumble as soon as the "wrong people" also enjoy their benefits then they weren't principles, they were excuses.
2nd Amendment principles aren't limited to particular groups of people. Would you have stood with these people in peaceful protest, or would you have remained silent?
Do you stand with the Black community today when instances occur like Philando Castile or Casey Goodson Jr.? Instances where legally owned guns are highlighted as the reason why their murders were justified.
The point here is, there is no quicker way to undermine your advocacy of the 2nd Amendment than to apply it to people selectively.
I feel like I covered a lot, yet still not enough, but I think this is a decent outline of how people can best engage when advocating for the 2nd Amendment:
- Do so without cheap bravado or threatening violence.
- Remain empathetic to the opposition's motives.
- Avoid fringe arguments that get you nowhere.
- Stick to the principles it was founded on.
- Don't side-step the negative consequences.
- Maintain a realistic understanding of its use (no Rambo fantasies).
- Ensure that it's applied equally to all.
As I see it this is how we turn around the national dialog on gun ownership. This is the way.
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