By Tom Ehrich
Killings in Aurora, CO, immediately stirred unresolved issues about gun control in America. Just as quickly, the gun lobby shouted down those concerns. One Congressman said the answer was more guns, not fewer.
I have been observing these rituals for years. Like most of our political theater, true motivations and concerns get lost in the smoke.
The Second Amendment was about enabling widely scattered citizens to defend their communities by forming militias. People remembered how the British had tried to disarm colonialists and render them compliant.
People also needed weapons for hunting. In a great and gracious act, General Grant allowed Confederate soldiers surrendering at Appomattox to keep their rifles in order to feed their families.
The militia imperative, while reasonable in 1800, seems less pertinent today, as we have employed trained police forces to protect and serve. The Federal government, like its state and city counterparts, isn’t an invading force that needs to be resisted with weapons. We are a democracy. If we don’t like what the government is doing, we vote them out of office. If our votes don’t attain a majority, that isn’t a problem we can resolve with weapons.
For a time, the gun lobby focused on hunters and sportsmen. That made sense when the weapons in question were shotguns and target pistols. Assault rifles, however, aren’t about hunting or sport. Neither are machine pistols, oversized cartridges, so-called “cop killer” ammunition, Glocks or ceramic weapons capable of evading metal detectors. Those are about killing people.
Now the gun lobby focuses on fear, loathing and taking the law into one’s own hands. That’s about nothing more than using fear to maximize profits. It’s like the craven politicians who use fear to win votes.
I find it curious that the gun lobby has such power. Congressmen don’t hesitate to turn against the massive cadre of elderly by threatening Medicare, or against the majority (women) by dialing down women’s rights, or against families, drivers and workers by trashing infrastructure like schools, highways, and workplace rules, or against the pleading of their own police forces who know they will be the primary target for over-the-top weaponry.
The gun lobby’s sway is proof that money in politics can corrupt anyone. It’s also proof that we have some confused narratives circulating about. One confused narrative is that people must defend themselves, because government is incompetent. Another is that government can’t be trusted. Another is that freedom is, bottom line, about getting one’s way. Another is that America is strongest when citizens are armed and ready to kill.
None of those narratives can withstand scrutiny. But they persist, because they answer some deep-seated questions that we might be barely aware of asking. Like, what does it mean to be a man when male patriarchy ends? What does it mean to be white when non-white populations are growing? What does it mean to be an American when our basic institutions are profoundly corrupt and the outside world has stopped admiring us? What does it mean when a few live so large and the rest of us live so small?
These are the same questions that underlie our presidential politics — and our candidates are answering them no better than the gun lobby is answering them. They all demonstrate a failure of ideas and imagination.
Shouting and shooting don’t create better ideas, but they do fill a vacuum.