The local papers over the weekend gave extensive coverage to the annual Saratoga Arms Fair, an event destined to draw a lot of attention, and a lot of it hostile, after last month's amoklauf in Newtown, CT. The national media paid a little attention as well. What we saw was gun owners on the defensive. As always, liberty itself in all its aspects was at stake, as far as some were concerned, in the debate over new gun controls. Liberty, we could learn from the pro-gun demonstrators, is never secure unless individuals can shoot rulers (or their agents) who overstep whatever bounds are laid down by the people. The debate on the street was political, not personal; the threat felt came not from criminals or madmen, but from government. Some resented the anti-gun demonstrators sentimental display of cut-out angels symbolizing the victims of Newtown. "I DONT HAVE ENOUGH ANGELS TO REPRESENT GENOCIDE BY TYRANNY," read an opposing sign. Another demonstrator attempted to clarify the point: "Guns didn't kill six million Jews, but their government did. Gun control made the Holocaust possible." One tires of reminding such people that there's no hope of citizen militias ever fighting governments on anything close to equal terms. It finally occurred to me that if these people truly were concerned about the threat of government tyranny enforced through violence, they would study the original intentions of the Founders more closely. Arming the citizenry is not in itself an effective remedy for government's potential for tyranny. In order for an armed citizenry to check government excesses, government must be stripped of its main coercive tool, its standing army. How many of our tyrannophobes actually advocate that, however? How many want to take primary responsibility for defending our borders (or national interests abroad) from attack? I suspect that many are quite happy to have their country's army the mightiest on earth, with the power to destroy humanity if necessary rather than submit to global tyranny. There may well be gun-rights extremists who see the contradiction, but most, I suspect, can't imagine doing without the very army that makes their dreams of heroic resistance ridiculous.
Another sign sported a quote attributed (controversially, of course) to Benjamin Franklin: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." Franklin appears to have thought much in terms of wolves and sheep. In better-verified quotes, he said, "Will the Wolves then protect the Sheep, if they can but persuade them to give up their Dogs?" and "If you make yourself a Sheep, the Wolves will eat you." Not dissimilar sentiments, but indulging in such proverbial rhetoric creates a conceptual trap. Second Amendment absolutists like to think in terms of sheep and wolves, but they have no business dividing humanity into these categories if by doing so they imply that these categories are innate or immutable. The gun apologists' faith is that an armed lamb remains a lamb; their antagonists' fear is that arms themselves turn some lambs into wolves. The metaphors obscure the complexity of humanity, as do appeals for blind faith in either the "good guy with a gun" or the absolute efficacy of gun control laws. No effective or useful power can be separated from a potential for abuse. Fear of guns and fear of government are not so unlike as the two sides in the gun debate may like to believe. That doesn't mean they're "morally equivalent," but it does suggest that sympathetic common ground may yet be possible, though it would require more sympathetic trust than either side seems capable of now.