Gun violence has an odd effect on American culture, with the media sensationalizing tragedy while simultaneously decrying the violence, and politicians seeking to game the crisis to their advantage. Since the Clinton era, there has been a general political truce in place between the two parties, even though the left and right positions are relatively well known. The following is an examination of the conservative stance on gun rights, balanced with the three tensions of ideology, politics, and pragmatism.
Conservative Principles and Guns
Of the six secular conservative principles, the most applicable to gun rights are limited government, individual responsibility, and the value of human life. In terms of individual responsibility, conservatives expect Americans to generally look out for their own interests with minimal intrusion from government. This naturally leads to a right to self defense. Conservatives also value human life, so any position on gun control should maximize lives saved.
More important than both of these principles to conservatives is the principle of limited government. To conservatives, this principle is important as a limiting principle and in defining the proper role of government. The foundation of this principle, of course, is the U.S. Constitution, which outlines the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights.
While the left generally interprets the second amendment as a right to hunt or the right to bear arms as part of a sanctioned militia, conservatives interpret it to mean the right to own personal weapons, a right to self defense, and the ability to resist a tyrannical government. The founders did not include this amendment to allow hunters to hunt; it was a clearly defined right to allow Americans to defend themselves against others and their government.
The Three Tensions and Guns
If you’re not already familiar, the three tensions are a concept I developed to explain political decision making outside of pure ideology. The Ideologue makes decisions based on an ideological framework, often ignoring the political consequences or more pragmatic solutions. The Politico generally makes decisions that appeal to targeted constituency groups, while carefully managing the perception of voter and other opinion makers. The Pragmatist makes decisions based on realistic solutions with a focus on getting things done.
The first section above covers the ideological view point of conservatives, so let’s proceed with the remaining two tensions, pragmatism and politics. The pragmatic arguments around gun control are logical and common-sensical from both perspectives. Gun control advocates argue that the presence of more guns on American streets will naturally lead to more violent crime. Gun freedom advocates argue that widespread gun ownership reduces crime because fewer people will be defenseless against criminals. Both seem logical, but these two positions are mutually exclusive, so who is right?
More Guns = More Violence
Let’s look at the logic of the first argument: more guns lead to more violence, so let’s ban guns. This seems like a rational proposal because if no one has a gun, no one can commit gun violence. The goal is to take guns from criminals and law abiding citizens, which will lead to a more peaceful city, state, or country. The key question for a proposal like this is, how will we take the guns from the criminals since they are not inclined to obey any law? And if we succeed in banning guns, will we get the results we desire?
Unfortunately, putting on our pragmatist hat, the data do not back up this position. In cities and countries that have banned guns, crime has not fallen in any statistically significant way, and in many cases crime has increased. Many nations have higher gun murder rates than the U.S., including countries like Russia and Brazil with homicide rates more than four times higher than the U.S. and having much stricter gun control laws. Chicago and Washington D.C. have demonstrated that strict gun laws in the U.S. do not lead to decreased gun violence.
More Guns = Less Violence
The logic of the second argument is also fairly easy to understand: since criminals are more likely to target helpless victims, if more people own guns, there will be fewer people for criminals to target and gun crime will go down. It turns out this position can be supported by real world data. John Lott has plotted gun ownership and homicide rates across many nations, showing that “higher gun ownership means fewer deaths.” Apparently, a well-armed populace is a constant deterrent to criminals.
It’s also important to note that mass killings in the modern era almost always occur in “gun free zones” like schools and shopping malls. Since 1950, with only one exception, all public shootings with more than three deaths have occurred in locations where people were not allowed to carry guns. This is unsurprising given very few killers are interested in being shot at, so they choose locations where they are sure to find defenseless victims. It appears that gun control simply disarms law-abiding Americans and gun free zones create easy targets for criminals.
Gun freedom advocates are content with the current status quo, with most Americans allowed to purchase and own guns and the Supreme Court siding with the second amendment to overturn some citywide bans. Gun control advocates, on the other hand, are not happy with the status quo and seek to gain political advantage by exploiting tragedies like the Dark Knight shooting in Colorado and the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut. This is where the political tension comes into play, pushing ahead on ideology and ignoring pragmatism.
President Obama, has signed 23 executive orders that are intended to prevent future gun violence, even though he explicitly acknowledges none of his orders would have prevented the Sandy Hook shooting. Which brings us to the political tactics used by gun control advocates: protecting the children.
The president did not sign 23 executive orders following the Dark Knight shooting, but when an elementary school is shot up by a mentally ill individual, Obama decides to take action, surrounded by children. Does the presence of children make his argument any more logical or his executive orders any more effective? No, but they provide him with political cover to justify any action if it might save a single life.
Gun freedom advocates engage in their own political maneuvers, although they generally work in the background. By some counts, more than half of all currently elected Senators and Congressmen are backed by the National Rifle Association, both Democrat and Republican. But these advocates are not known to try and capitalize on mass shootings and the killing of children to advance their political objectives.
The truce between gun freedom and gun control advocates has broken as a result of recent highly-publicized public shootings. But mass shootings are not more common today than they were in earlier decades, so there is no more reason now to impose new rules on gun ownership. In the case of gun control, conservatives have ideology and pragmatism on their side. The only thing gun control advocates have left is politicizing tragedy.