For his book Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America, author Dan Savage took a trip to a gun range — and discovered, to his surprise, that he actually enjoyed shooting. I was not surprised at all when I read that, for I had a similar and unexpected experience of my own. Studying this issue, I realized something important: prior to the invention of video games, few activities offered the instant feedback and gratification of firearms.
A new shooter will experience parasympathetic nervous response, a rush of adrenaline, and a grin-inducing satisfaction. Shooters feel a thrill, and while they seldom name it, that thrill is called power. A gun is a leveling object, turning a petite woman into the equal of a massive man. Firepower empowers. Gun politics, on the other hand, boil down to the substitution of firepower for political empowerment.
Of course, everyone is talking about America’s latest shooting spree, and asking why sensible gun control laws are not in the offing. In my opinion, the answer is in the word “control.” To someone whose sense of the American franchise is written in the right to keep and bear arms, this one word is very frightening. The entire enterprise of “gun rights” hypes this fear of lost empowerment; “gun control” is exactly the wrong phrase to convince anyone.
A better word — one that is written into the Second Amendment — is “regulation.” Contrary to popular belief, the founders wanted “a well-regulated militia” because it was “necessary to the security of a free state;” only later did the Amendment come to be seen in the light of an individual right to firearm ownership. In its wording, the Amendment is clearly about national defense, not self-defense. In fact, the very first “mandate” in American history required every male citizen to
provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; (emp mine) and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. That the commissioned Officers shall severally be armed with a sword or hanger, and espontoon; and that from and after five years from the passing of this Act, all muskets from arming the militia as is herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound; and every citizen so enrolled, and providing himself with the arms, ammunition and accoutrements, required as aforesaid, shall hold the same exempted from all suits, distresses, executions or sales, for debt or for the payment of taxes. (Emphases mine)
Get that? In 1792, you could own a gun instead of paying taxes — as long as you had ammunition that fit the bore. That specificity points to just how ineffective this form of national defense was. By 1814, when the US Army suffered “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” at Bladensburg, Maryland, the problem with the Minuteman mythos had been revealed in stark relief. Yet it took until 1903 for the United States to finally regularize state militia units, and the process was incomplete until 1916.
Even today, with large standing professionalized armed forces, the ideal of individualized national defense remains a powerful one in the American mind. It shows up in the militia movement as an expression of group identity. Television shows like Falling Skies and movies like Red Dawn “inform” us that “Real Americans” can defend themselves and their country with small arms. This myth is common from fringe to center, which is why “gun control” resonates so easily with xenophobia: “they” want “us” disarmed, and therefore disempowered.
The key to effective gun legislation, then, is to make it about a well-regulated militia — and have it speak to the gun culture in its own language. See this item about the Aurora, Colorado spree shooter:
Holmes, 24, emailed an application to join the Lead Valley Range in Byers on June 25 in which he said he was not a user of illegal drugs or a convicted felon, said owner Glenn Rotkovich.
But when Rotkovich called to invite him to a mandatory orientation the following week, he said he heard Holmes’ voice mail greeting that was “bizarre — guttural, freakish at best.”
It identified the number as belonging to “James,” so Rotkovich said he left a message.
He left two other messages but eventually told his staff to watch out for Holmes at the July 1 orientation and not to accept him into the club, Rotkovich said.
Polls show that a supermajority of NRA members are in favor of sensible gun laws that keep violent or insane people from, say, having a carry permit. Ultimately, the tragic death of Trayvon Martin happened because George Zimmerman could obtain a carry permit with zero training, indoctrination, or rules of engagement. Run by the states, our current concealed carry system is the very definition of an unregulated militia.
Mr. Rotkovich represents the gun culture practicing effective self-regulation, and there is plenty of Constitutional precedent for effective federal regulation. Frustrated ATF agents are unable to stop someone from buying one hundred AK-47s, only to resell them in the parking lot, because the founders’ “regulation” has been turned into a scary image of “control.” That is not entirely the fault of the NRA, either.
With gun politics so polarized, is it even possible to find middle ground between Rotkovich and Congress? Again, I offer no answers here, except to say that advocates need a new cognitive approach. The traditional reactionary postures don’t work to anyone’s advantage except the fearmongers.
Dan Savage had a great time shooting, and then he had a great time talking to shooters about the regulation of their sport. More policy advocates need to spend time engaged in that kind of discussion — so that the gun culture feels empowered in its own regulation.