18 April 2012
The right to keep and sell arms
Jill Lepore's New Yorker essay, "Battleground America," an update with historical perspective on the politics of gun rights, drops some telling clues that appear to add up to an explanation of what, or who, fuels the current debate. Lepore reminds us that the National Rifle Association supported gun-control laws fairly consistently through the 1960s. Today, she notes, 69% of NRA members support mandatory background checks for people who purchase firearms at gun shows. That's less than the 85% of non-NRA gun owners, but still a decisive majority. Nevertheless, Lepore writes that "the modern gun debate began" with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the attention paid to the ease with which Lee Harvey Oswald bought the murder weapon through a magazine ad. NRA leaders supported subsequent legislation restricting mail-order rifle sales, but things have gone downhill from there. It becomes clear as you read the whole article that the problem with gun control isn't so much the individual gun owner as it is the gun seller, particularly the under-regulated gun-show vendor. Forty percent of guns purchased in the U.S., Lepore writes, are purchased from gun-show vendors or "private exchanges" like classified ads in ways exempt from the regulations applied to retail gun stores. There are more guns in the country than ever, she reports, but the percentage of Americans who own guns is actually shrinking. More guns are concentrating in fewer hands. Are those people militants preparing for an uprising? Are they collectors? It's more likely that they're people who trade in guns in some way or another -- though the militants may expect to make their livings that way, too. While the NRA itself may be driven increasingly by ideology, that ideology itself is quite likely grounded in members' self-interest in gun commerce. Their main interest isn't in liberty or bloodlust, but in making a buck rather than shooting one. When they protest that when guns are illegal only criminals will have guns, what really bugs them is that they might be missing out on that trade. Keep that thought in mind. Don't listen to the high-flown rhetoric of self-defense, whether against criminals or tyrants. Don't stigmatize all gun owners as "gun nuts," either. Focus on the people who want to make money by making amoklaufs more likely. Are they the NRA? Maybe not exactly. Are they the enemy? Maybe more likely.