Barack Obama was fortunate
that the Newtown massacre occurred in December rather than, say,
in September, since the reaction to it by his liberal supporters
might easily have alienated enough voters to lose his election.
Once again, liberal leaders
have responded to a problem by demonizing large numbers of citizens
whose support they need for all sorts of other issues. If you
own a gun, oppose abortion or take the Bible literally, you are
beyond redemption even if you are a registered Democrat, have
just been fired, can't afford your health bills or are facing
This isn't politics, it's
religion. And it's not even evangelical religion seeking to convert,
but rather just narcissistic self-righteousness. As long as one
believes the right thing, that's all that matters. The Maybes,
Don't Knows and Can't Figure It Outs aren't worth the bother.
In real politics you try
to win over the other folks. Today's liberals just make them
Of course, liberals are
not alone in this. Much as popular music has reduced itself to
the most simplistic chords, rhythms, dynamics, and melodies,
so we seem to have developed a sort of three chord politics in
which performers rely on exaggerated moves, screams, exploding
smoke and flashing lights to replace what was once a tune. Rachel
Maddow and Sean Hannity play to their fans and to hell with those
not present and cheering in the audience.
The problem with this,
for liberals, is that, according to Gallup, only about 21% of
Americans call themselves such and, of these, only six percent
describe themselves as very liberal. Perhaps most stunning is
that only 28% of those under 30 call themselves liberal, just
12 points more than among those 65 and older.
This is the modern America
that liberals helped to build as they deserted the economics
based policies of the New Deal and Great Society. This drift
allowed for the creation of a bipolar subset known as Reagan
Democrats. In fact, neither party was helping the working class
but Reagan at least pretended that he was.
As liberals became more
of an elite demographic rather than a political movement, their
contempt for the lower end of their former base grew. Increasingly,
their view of liberty also became more the one that has its roots
in Puritanism. As Albion's
[Historian David Hackett
Fisher in his examination of the differences between early American
settlers] calls the New England idea "ordered liberty"
(freedom to determine the course of one's own society), at worst
exemplified in the stifling, moralistic conformism that we still
associate with the word "Puritan", at best in the strong
town-based democracies (and suspicion of anything but local power)
still evident in parts of northern New England. The Virginia
idea was that of "hegemonic liberty" (freedom to rule
and not be ruled), at worst exemplified in the hierarchical "slaveocracy"
that valued freedom for those at the top but not for poor white
trash or black slaves, at best in the aristocratic excellence
of men such as George Washington. The Quaker idea was that of
"reciprocal liberty" (freedom for me and for thou),
at worst exemplified in the pacifistic pursuit of commerce without
regard for nation or principle, at best in a quite modern-sounding
respect for all human beings to pursue their own fulfillment.
The frontier idea was that of "natural liberty" (a
freedom without restraints of law or custom), at worst exemplified
in the violent and often-emotionalistic chaos of life beyond
the reach of civilized norms, at best in eternal vigilance with
regard to the sovereignty of the individual.
To understand what is going
on in the current debate, it helps to see how the conflict is
between the puritanism of the gun control advocates and the natural
liberty of the gun advocates.
In easing the strains between
these views of liberty, it is the approach of reciprocal liberty
- I can't have my liberty unless you have yours - that offers
the most hope of resolving the most conflict.
As the product of a Quaker
education, I have little problem with reciprocal liberty, but
have also learned how increasingly alien it is to many Americans
on both the left and right. The liberals want guns abolished
as fiercely as the conservatives want abortion done away with
and so forth.
And, of course, you do
this through laws. In an article in Huffington Post, Amanda Terkel
spells out a revealing liberal assumption:
As 2012 comes to a close,
the 112th Congress is set to go down in American history as the
most unproductive session since the 1940s. . . .The 104th Congress
(1995-1996) currently holds the ignominious distinction of being
the least productive session of Congress
Just 333 bills
became law during that two-year period, meaning the 112th Congress
needs to send nearly 100 more bills to Obama's desk in the next
few days if it wants to avoid going down in history.
The idea that progress
is measured by the number of laws passed not only ignores the
conflict between good and bad laws, but puritanically assumes
that the quality of life is caused by regulation rather than
what we fund, create, value and encourage.
Consider that Harpers recently noted that Congress created an
average of 56 new federal crimes a year. If that had been true
over the past century, it would mean there would be over 5,000
things we can't do today that were perfectly legal in 1912.
Or consider that in the
back of my car is a plastic mail box I have to return to the
post office that states in large print that any misuse of this
box could result in a $1000 fine or three months in prison. The
box is probably worth less than five bucks.
The liberal and conservative
puritan approach is also not a healthy one in a diverse land
that claims to honor freedom.
This doesn't mean that
there isn't a difference in the sort of issues that come up.
For example, whether someone has an abortion or marries a gay
is not only none of my business but doesn't affect me one way
Guns are different. Guns
kill quite a few people and while the right to own a gun is embedded
in our constitution that doesn't mean there isn't a need for
all to be involved in the problems that guns create.
At the same time, both
the data and the politics of the situation strongly suggest that
these issues could be resolved better in a spirit of civil discussion
rather than self-righteous puritanism or indifferent libertarianism.
Further, any discussion needs to be based on a clear understanding
that, while part of a social problem, guns are only one manifestation
of that problem. Thus making the guns and their owners the villains
makes no more sense than blaming climate change only on a few
easy to spot problems, such inefficient lighting and heating,
while ignoring the much larger factor of population growth.
that get downplayed
Here are a few items that deserve at least as much attention
- Noah Smith, writing in the Atlantic notes: "A 1994 Department
of Justice report suggested that between a third and a half of
U.S. homicides were drug-related, while a recent Center for Disease
Control study found that the rate varied between 5% and 25% (a
2002 Bureau of Justice report splits the difference). . . Ending
the drug war would involve reducing all of these incentives to
murder. Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead
of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering
the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive
to wage turf wars. Decriminalization would relieve pressure on
our prison system, allowing us to focus on keeping violent people
off the streets instead of pointlessly punishing drug users for
destroying their own health. And full legalization of recreational
marijuana -- which is already proceeding quickly among the states,
but is still foolishly opposed by the Obama administration --
is an obvious first step."
- According to the FBI,
37% of female victims (where the relationship was known) are
killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Obviously, a fantasized
elimination of 300 million guns might reduce that number, but
knives, bats, and strangulation would still be readily at hand.
Similarly 53% of victims in murders (where the relationship was
known) are killed by someone they knew and 25% of victims were
killed by family members. Even now, 32% of murders don't involve
guns, a number bound to increase if guns are less common.
- Our perfectly legal culture
of violence has grown dramatically in recent decades. For example,
thirty years ago baseball and football were virtually tied in
popularity. Today the much more violent football is far ahead.
Where before TV, the young read comic books and listened to radio
programs in which reality turned into fantasy, our advanced technology
in video games and movies has allowed fantasy to be turned into
extreme realism. Or consider childrens' books like the Hunger
Games in which one character says, "The real sport of the
Hunger Games is watching the tributes kill one another."
And later: "About a dozen or so tributes are hacking away
at one another at the horn. Several lie dead already on the ground.
. . .I can see the muscles ripple in Cato's arms as he sharply
jerks the boy's head to the side. It's that quick." The
choice to use a gun violently comes from someplace and such are
some of the places.
- Violence is a major priority
of our government policies including pointless wars, torture,
drone attacks, record expenditures for government violence, military
style police attacks on public demonstrations, mass solitary
confinement and incarceration of citizens for minor offenses
such as drug possession. Our governments celebrate violence as
a solution to problems. What do citizens learn from that?
- Our concern over violence
is dramatically affected by class. For example, over 200 children,
at some point under prior care by the Illinois Department of
Children and Family Services, were slain between 2000 and 2011.
That is almost precisely the equivalent in annual child deaths
as occurred one time in Newtown. As the Chicago
"their family histories [were] darkened by poverty, mental
illness, violence and drugs. They had something else in common,
too. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
had been warned about possible abuse and neglect, but the staff
assigned to protect them ultimately failed, according to state
officials and records obtained by the Tribune
rarely were made public, largely because of confidentiality laws.
Meanwhile, the median family income in Newtown is about $119,000,
more than double the national average. In Columbine, the family
median income is about 70% greater than the national average.
Columbine and Newtown shock us; Chicago gets ignored.
- Mental health services
have been been badly hit by the squeeze on public spending. For
example state funding for mental health outpatient facilities
has declined $1.6 billion since 2009. According to the Alliance
for Health Reform there are 11 million adults who lack adqueate
mental health services.
- For all the talk about
ending violence,experts in non-violence - mediators, alternative
court systems and so forth - get short shrift. Just as violence
is the product of formal and informal education, so its opposite
requires serious conscious attention to have an effect. How many
classes has your child had in dispute resolution and conflict
avoidance? It's a question we don't even ask.
So while guns clearly play
a role in violence, to perceive the solution overwhelmingly as
a matter of prohibition is naïve at best, deadly at worst.
A plan that
Then there is also the
problem that gun prohibiton - like other such attempts with alcohol
and drugs - often doesn't work. A few reasons:
- The legal system goes
under the table. Already some forty percent of guns are not purchased
from gun stores. This figure would soar with excessive prohibition.
- As the Economic Policy
Journal points out, "There are not many murders in the United
States that are committed with rifles or shotguns. Combined,
it is under 1,000 per year---more people are murdered with knives.
FBI data shows that most murders are done with handguns. Random
killings are very rare, most are between people who know each
or rival gang members.
- DC offers a striking history
of how murders are independent of gun laws. From less 100 such
deaths a year in the 1960s, as the 1968 riots approached, annual
murders soared to nearly 300, without any new access to fire
arms. In the mid 1970s, after the murder rate had already dropped
back under 200, a strict gun law was imposed and for the next
few years nothing much happened one way or the other. Then Reagan
escalated the drug war and in about five years - despite the
new gun restrictions - murders climbed to nearly 500. As the
drug market became less anarchistic (many killings had involved
a conflict over turf), as the population of young men declined
and with better policing, over the next twenty years the murder
rate declined until it was close to the 1960s level. . More recently,
the rate has fallen even lower yet when the Washington Post offered
an explanation, strikingly absent was change in gun laws.
- Also missing from many
analyses of urban crime: the effects of gentrification. As gentrifier-in-chief
Richard Florida wrote recently: "My analysis found gun-related
homicides to be lower in metros with higher levels of human capital,
more knowledge-based economies, and greater concentrations of
high-tech industry. On the flip side, I found gun-related murders
to be higher in metros with higher poverty levels, higher levels
of inequality, more blue-collar working class economies
In other words, get the poor and minorities out of town.
- Culture play a huge role
in all of this, hence the far lower murder rates in high gun
owning New Hampshire compared to, say, Chicago. This is true
throughout the country as shown in this chart comparing states
with right to carry laws compared to other
What do we
do about it all?
To change things we have to turn our national values in a direction,
opposite to ones in which the abuse of guns is only a marker
not the cause,opposite to one that generically celebrates violence.
Until we make nonviolent resolution of problems - from the international
to the intramarital - a major priority, we're just kidding ourselves.
There are simply too many other ways to kill people even if you
don't have a gun.
We also need to avoid the very sort of simplistic categorizations
of others that makes such a change possible. A good place for
liberals to start is to take another look at gun owners.
While they rage against the NRA, it would be more helpful to
understand, for example, that, according to a recent Luntz poll,
74% of its members support criminal background checks before
the purchase of a gun.
Further, gun owners do
not fit the liberal stereotype, as John
Sides in the Washington Post recently reported:
In December, 2011, the
survey firm YouGov interviewed 45,000 Americans and asked whether
they or someone in their household owned a gun and whether they
were members of the NRA. About 22 percent of the sample reported
owning a gun, 13 percent said that someone else in their household
owned a gun, and 59 percent reported not owning a gun. The remaining
6 percent were not sure. Thus, about 35 percent of Americans
had a gun in their house-a number, incidentally, much lower than
in an October, 2011 Gallup poll [Gallup says 47% are owners]
but more in line with data from the General Social Survey.
About 7 percent of this
sample reported being an NRA member. Among gun owners, the number
was 24 percent. Among those who lived in a household with a gun,
it was 4 percent. Among those without a gun, it was 1 percent.
NRA members were also different
politically even from gun owners who weren't in the NRA. For
example, 70 percent of gun owners who were NRA members called
themselves "conservative" or "very conservative."
Only 44 percent of gun owners who weren't NRA members said that.
And while gun ownership has become increasingly confined to Republicans,
there are still big differences in terms of party identification
even among gun owners. The vast majority of NRA members (73 percent)
identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party. But among
gun owners who weren't in the NRA, only 49 percent were Republicans;
more than a third (35 percent) were actually Democrats.
Consider ...the standard
survey question asking whether gun laws should be more strict,
less strict, or unchanged. A majority, 54 percent, of those who
did not own a gun or belong to the NRA said "more strict."
... But while most NRA members (54 percent) wanted to make gun
laws less strict, only 25 percent of gun owners who were not
NRA members felt this way. The plurality of them (45 percent)
wanted no change; 25 percent even supported stricter laws.
Some measures attracted
nearly universal support (keeping guns from the mentally ill)
or opposition (banning the sale of handguns). Requiring a five-day
waiting period was also very popular. Even half of NRA members
What these poll results
show is that the coalitional politics of gun control is more
complex than you might think ...This is not a world with gun
owners on one side and those who do not own guns on the other.
Two of the policies most discussed in the wake of the Newtown
shootings-a ban on assault weapons and a limit on the size of
magazines-will attract support not only from those who don't
have a gun in their house but from those who do, especially if
the gun isn't theirs and also if the gun is theirs but they are
not NRA members.
Gun owners do not speak
with one voice about gun control...
What this means is that
if liberal political and media leaders would step outside of
their gated cultural communities they would find allies in more
ways than they presently can imagine. And perhaps could begin
to rebuild a politics that crosses cultural and economic boundaries
and thus can actually work.