When the Cost of Liberty Is the Occasional Massacre
The gun was legal.
Under state law, the young man who killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, was entitled to his guns. He bought his AR-platform rifles legally for his 18th birthday. He had no criminal record. He was, until the moment he shot his grandmother, a law-abiding citizen, the kind of person we are supposed to trust with high-powered firearms.
But this gets to the fundamental problem with the conservative idea that the only people with guns we have to worry about are the “bad guys.” It’s the idea that, as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas put it last year, after a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo.: “You go after violent criminals, you go after felons, you go after fugitives, you go after those with serious mental illness, you stop them from getting guns. And when they try to illegally buy a firearm from you, lock them up and put them in jail.”
To the conservatives who posit a sharp distinction between “good guys with guns” and “bad guys with guns,” law-abidingness is an inherent trait of a class of individuals. It is an ontological category; some people have it, others don’t. Any form of gun control is verboten in this worldview because it could interfere with the ability of a “good guy” — of a “law-abiding citizen” — to obtain that to which he is entitled.
This is not how the world works. People are law-abiding until the moment they are not. They are “good guys” with guns until their circumstances and their choices make them “bad guys” with guns. And from the perspective of the person who sells guns and ammunition, there’s no way to know whether a law-abiding customer will, at some point, become a criminal.
The most vociferous supporters of permissive gun laws seem to believe that an armed society will be, for the most part, self-regulating. That we will be able to keep weapons out of the hands of the wrong people and insofar as we can’t, a law-abiding citizen will be there, with a gun, to stop the bad guys, whenever and wherever they appear.
But people don’t exist on such a strict binary. And when we allow for the unlimited proliferation of weapons, we guarantee that when the switch flips, people will die.
If that is the cost of freedom — if our liberty demands the occasional massacre — then conservatives ought to make that case.
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was on the recent CPAC event in Hungary and the anti-Americanism of the populist right.
Of course, with its endemic corruption, repression of sexual minorities, de facto state control of media, constitutional manipulation and an electoral system designed to give supermajorities to the ruling party whether the votes are there or not, there is little that is democratic about Orban’s democracy. For American conservatives, however, the degradation of Hungarian democracy is a feature, not a bug, of Orban’s rule.
My Friday column used an analogy to the “slave power” thesis to think about the influence of the gun lobby in American politics.
Rather than suppress the “mischiefs of faction,” our system empowers them. Few Americans want the most permissive gun laws on offer. But those who do have captured the Republican Party and used its institutional advantages to both stop gun control and elevate an expansive and idiosyncratic view of gun rights to the level of constitutional law.
Also, the most recent episode of my podcast with John Ganz tackled the 1992 action thriller “Under Siege.”
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