I have often worried that too many Democrats, and those on the political Left generally, too often make the error of devaluing legitimate uses of guns. They minimize, in particular, the possibility of using a gun in lawful self-defense against an aggressor who is reasonably believed to threaten deadly force, seeming to treat this as some kind of mythical creation of a gun-obsessed culture. Republicans and others on the political Right, by contrast, often err by focusing exclusively on lawful uses of guns without adequately acknowledging the threat of gun crime, and of the dangers to tolerable order that gun violence creates. They shift the focus to mass shootings and mental illness, but too often ignore day-to-day gun violence that typically goes without much national media attention, and typically has little connection to mental illness.
But some gun rights supporters also commit a deeper error: the error of absolutism. This narrow category treats any serious conversation about violence committed with guns, and the need to address it through public policy, as some kind of conspiratorial incursion upon lawful gun ownership, clinging instead to what appears to be absolute (or near absolute) opposition to gun regulation for fear that an inch of regulation will ultimately mean a yard of confiscation. Oh, they may tell you that “criminals” should not have guns. But it gets trickier when you ask: how do you know, ahead of time, who the criminals are?
On cue, and in light of President Obama’s push for more gun regulation, prominent Republicans and others on the Right have lately been tossing around one of their favorite talking points: that President Obama is on a mission to take away everyone’s guns. Ted Cruz posted a banner on his campaign website, “OBAMA WANTS YOUR GUNS.” Donald Trump told an audience that the President was preparing an executive order “to take your guns away.” Chris Christie on Morning Joe yesterday, when asked by Mike Barnicle whether the Obama Administration was intent on “coming after people’s guns,” said: “Yeah, sure, of course they are.” Governor Christie’s statement was especially disconcerting, as I do not normally think of him as championing this kind of stuff.
A plea to the candidates and others on the Right: please, stop saying this. There is zero evidence – zero – that the President has any interest whatsoever in adopting any policy that involves confiscating the guns of people who are legally entitled to possess them. Perhaps this isn’t quite birther-level stuff. But it is certainly not too far from that level of absurdity. It doesn’t make you look like a strong defender of “liberty,” and it certainly doesn’t make you conservative. It makes you look like a crackpot. So stop it.
I realize the “base” gets all fired up when they hear this. But lying to people just because it makes you more popular, and inflames their hatred of your opponent, is not the stuff of presidential leadership. And it is not part of any standard of good government that we should be modeling. Wanting to regulate guns, and to make it more difficult for potentially dangerous people to get them, is not the same thing as adopting a general policy to literally take guns from people who have a lawful right to possess them. And I have never seen any Republican give one example – not one – of an Obama Administration policy that does so. Barack Obama has been in office for seven years. Seven years. And yet, no confiscation, even with his extravagant understanding of presidential power and, at one point, solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Millions of people, seven years later, continue to enjoy lawful gun ownership. So please, stop it already.
How did people who call themselves “conservatives” end up here? Is the desire to satisfy a political constituency that believes in virtually absolute gun rights so strong that it produces this kind of intemperate demagoguery? What about a desire to satisfy a political constituency that believes in gun ownership for hunting and lawful self-defense but that also believes in sensible regulation of guns and gun ownership – do those folks matter? I suspect there are more of the latter than the former. But in Republican primaries, maybe they just don’t stand out. After all, in a Party that has been slouching toward ideological purity rather than the prudence and sober judgment of conservatism, the loudest and angriest person in the room seems to prevail.