The reductio ad absurdum of gun control
Domestic disarmament on display
The longstanding gun control advocate and Communitarian thinker Amitai Etzionai has advocated recently at the Huntington Post (HP) in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, child massacre what many might consider to be the ultimate in gun control folly. Etzioni’s latest venture in gun control follows in the footsteps of his agenda laid out in 1991 for a “Domestic Disarmament” entailing a virtually absolute ban on private handgun ownership. Yet the arguments made by Etzioni and others for such gun control measures have not become any more convincing with the passage of time.
Calling on individual Americans to “not wait for our elected officials” like President Barack Obama to take effective action against future shooting sprees, Etzioni demands that Americans “should do our share.” They should namely “mark” their dwellings with “gun free” signs. “Parents,” moreover, “should notify their friends that they would be reluctant to send their child over for a play date unless the home was safe from guns.” Not only should individuals turn their guns into plowshares at the scrap heap, but “[r]esidential communities should pass rules that ban bringing guns onto their premises, clearly marking them as gun free.” “Anyone who puts up such signs will become an ambassador for gun control,” Etzioni envisions, “because they are sure to be challenged by gun advocates to explain their anti-gun positions.”
Citizens contemplating domestic self-defense will be quick to note the perhaps literally fatal flaws in Etzioni’s reasoning. People publicly advertising their “gun free” status might very well not become an “ambassador for gun control”, but rather an ambassador for future criminal predators seeing in such signs veritable targets. In contrast to the Passover blood smeared on Jewish doorposts to ward off the killer angel during the Old Testament’s tenth plague upon Egypt, Etzioni’s signs would have precisely the opposite effect in attracting danger. Before taking Etzioni’s advice, homeowners should ponder the relative deterrent effects of dwellings with or without such “gun free” signs upon criminals, along with dwellings explicitly announcing a homeowner’s armed status. Inconsiderate residents might even consider placing signs in front of their dwellings declaring “This dwelling has a gun; the one next door is gun free.”
For entire communities to go publicly “gun free” would only magnify these concerns of unilateral disarmament in the face of invariably armed criminals. Indeed, Dave Kopel writing in the Wall Street Journal on December 17, 2012, a day before Etzioni in the HP, notes that many mass shootings such as at Newtown “unfortunately take place in pretend ‘gun-free zones,’ such as schools, movie theaters and shopping malls.” Here law-abiding citizens may not have guns but no measures such as metal detectors and guards keep out the guns of criminals. Thus these places “are magnets for evildoers who know they will be able to murder at will with little threat of being fired upon.”
Precisely in opposition to Etzioni’s views, the Atlanta, Georgia, suburb of Kennesaw passed a law in 1982 mandating gun ownership for all residents, although exceptions for those too poor to purchase a weapon or with moral objections make the law largely symbolic. Nonetheless, an estimated 50% of households here own guns in this low crime neighborhood.
One wonders whether Etzioni would extend his proposal beyond dwellings to individuals. Should they wear “gun free” t-shirts or pins during their daily routines? What effect would such attire have upon individual assaults like muggings? Such measures would seem to contradict the public support for concealed-carry permits enabling unobtrusive daily handgun possession, a possibility now available at least in some form in all but two states.
Etzioni’s “Case for Domestic Disarmament” prepared by him and my high school acquaintance Steven Helland (from whom I then rented a room in an apartment in Washington, DC) in the early 1990s, meanwhile, makes for interesting reading today. Deploring gun violence, the manifesto demands that the “danger that our cities can be turned into Beiruts or a Dubrovniks must be averted.” Yet surging gun sales in recent years alongside continuing drops in crime rates continue to show no direct relationship between decreased gun possession and decreased crime. Gun ownership could even reduce crime, as John Lott notably argued along with others like Thomas Sowell.
The collated survey results suggesting strong public support for gun control also seem dated in light of Time’s August 6, 2012, cover story “How Guns Won.” Joe Klein writes that public gun control support has dropped in the midst of surging National Rifle Association (NRA) membership and the aforementioned drop in crime. The vaguely defined “assault weapons” ban in force under President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, failed to show any appreciable effect.
In his HP piece, Etzioni seems also to have stepped back from the constitutional Second Amendment arguments proffered by him and his associates in the 1990s. In 2012, Etzioni merely declares that “no right is absolute”, including the “right to free speech, considered the strongest of them all,” such that a person may not endanger life by shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Thus limitations on the Second Amendment should allow for background checks for the criminal and insane and, once again, an “assault weapons” ban.
In his 1991 agenda, though, Etzioni, backed by the extended legal analysis of Linda Abdel-Malek, determined that the “Second Amendment, behind which the NRA hides, is subject to a variety of interpretations, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, for over a hundred years, that it does not prevent laws that bar guns.” Etzioni emphasized that he joined “those who read the Second Amendment the way it was written, as a communitarian clause, calling for community militias, not individual gun slingers.” Yet the United States Supreme Court voted 5-4 in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision precisely that the “Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”
However much moderation Etzioni has undergone on gun control over the years, a summer 1991 editorial in his now discontinued communitarian journal The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities expresses a clear disdain for individual gun ownership. Therein Etzioni dismisses “vanilla-pale measures” such as a ban on “assault rifles”, gun registration, purchase waiting periods, and background checks. Such halfhearted measures Etzioni deemed impossible of truly rallying a public weary of gun violence.
Rather, necessary is “domestic disarmament”, the “policy of practically all other Western democracies, from Canada to Britain to Germany, from France to Scandinavia.” This policy “entails the removal of arms from private hands and, ultimately, from much of the police force.” “Once,” Etzioni declared with the usual gun control justification, “guns are hard to obtain and the very possession and sale of them are offenses, the level of violent crime will fall significantly.” Presumably then the “Communitarian perspective” expressed online amidst the domestic disarmament writings will dominate society, such that “citizens” will exercise their “responsibility to resolve their differences peacefully and by non-violent means, and if this cannot be achieved to turn to courts and legitimate authorities not to guns.” Whether criminals will obligingly give up their guns and respect this “Communitarian perspective”, Etzioni does not say.
In Etzioni’s vision, certain gun ownership exceptions might escape his scorn. Gun collectors could keep their collections if rendered inoperative (cement in the barrel is my favorite technique). Hunters might be allowed (if one feels this “sport” must be tolerated) to use long guns that cannot be concealed, without sights or powerful bullets, making the event much more “sporting.” Finally, super-patriots, who still believe they need their right to bear arms to protect us from the Commies, might be deputized and invited to participate in the National Guard, as long as the weapons with which they are trained are kept in state controlled armories. All this is acceptable, as long as all other guns and bullets are removed from private hands.
For a variety of reasons, it is doubtful that many Americans will take up Etzioni’s call to be ambassadors of his gun control visions of whatever severity. Americans worried about randomly encountering an Islamist terrorist attack like the victims of 9/11, for example, have good reason to possess guns, despite Etzioni’s past dismissal of “super-patriots” scared of “Commies.” Etzioni’s ambassadors confronted with the facts on gun control by gun ownership advocates might actually exchange their “gun free” signs for a gun. Americans concerned with keeping their firearms for multiple uses, though, would do well to keep in mind just how deep-seated the opposition to such gun ownership from individuals like Etzioni can be.