"Everyday 137 Americans are killed by this device. There are some 100 million of them in private hands. Virtually anyone—ex-cons, the emotionally unstable, alcoholics—can buy a used one in any neighborhood in the country. This carnage must stop. The 'freedoms' of our anachronistic American individualism must give way to the larger communal claim to sanity and safety." So saying, Sen. Edward Kennedy introduced his bill to ban private automobiles.
This speech, of course, is fiction. But the core of its argument has been heard across the length and breadth of America in the aftermath of the attempt on President Reagan's life. "It's time to ban handguns," editorialized Time magazine. Echoing this call were the New Republic, the Nation, and all right-thinking liberals everywhere. CBS's 60 Minutes even devoted its entire April 5 program to the gun control issue, with Mr. Nice Guy Morley Safer stepping outside his role as moderator to take the side of gun control.
In considering this issue it is vital not to get bogged down in irrelevancies, as both sides are prone to do. It is probably true, as the gun controllers maintain, that widespread availability of handguns makes it easier for people to kill other people, whether by premeditation (as in assassinations) or in the heat of passion. A handgun is concealable; it is anonymous; it can be used at a distance; and the act is over in a second—all advantages over knives and axes. That ease of use probably does mean that the number of killings is higher than if handguns were banned—even if that ban were far from completely effective, as proponents concede would be the case.
There are several other matters that are simply not worth arguing about. It is absurd to make an issue out of banning Saturday Night Specials. Banning only cheap handguns is the rankest form of discrimination against the poor—the very people who are most often the victims of crime and most in need of self-defense. Those against handguns should have the courage to state their real objective: a total ban on and confiscation of existing handguns.
It is irrelevant, too, for either side to talk about hunting and target shooting as rationales for gun ownership, as the National Rifle Association tends to do. Admit it: the purpose of handguns is to kill people—that's the whole point of self-defense, and self-defense is what handgun ownership is all about.
Finally, it is absurd for gun controllers to claim that the Second Amendment does not provide a constitutional protection for handgun ownership. "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," reads the amendment. Contrary to the gun controllers' claims this language does not mean that only the National Guard or other government bodies may possess firearms. The "militia" referred to by the Founding Fathers meant every able-bodied male in the community—the volunteer defenders of the home front. The essential political truth of the Second Amendment is that the ultimate guardian of the citizens' liberties against tyranny, the bedrock of "the security of a free state," is an armed populace—a point of which the people of Poland, for example, are painfully aware.
What amazes me about the gun control debate is how much liberty the advocates of a handgun ban are willing to give up to purchase increased safety. "A certain percentage of citizens who engage in action A can be expected to harm others," they're saying. "Therefore, everyone must be prevented from engaging in A." This is precisely the same reasoning that lies behind such crime-control proposals as stop-and-frisk laws, preventive detention, and warrantless searches. (Or our imaginary proposal to ban private automobiles.) Yet most gun controllers, as good liberals, are—properly—aghast at such proposals. One wag of my acquaintance has even suggested that, since black males between the ages of 17 and 24 commit such a high percentage of all crimes, the way to cut crime is to lock them all up until they turn 25. You're outraged—but exactly the same logic is at work in the argument to ban handguns. It is very difficult to accept the seriousness of liberals' concern for civil liberties when it tends always, in less obvious cases, to stop short of being extended to people who evidently have not committed any crime. And it doesn't take long for people to see the strangeness of persistently defending the civil liberties of accused criminals while systematically overlooking the same issues in the case of citizens who are under no suspicion of having harmed anyone.
A ban on handguns is wrong because it violates not merely the Second Amendment but also the basic civil right to the presumption of innocence. This liberal standard of justice prohibits punitive, penalizing, and liberty-restricting actions toward those who are innocent of violating others' rights. Since the purchase and ownership of a handgun is not a violent, rights-violating action, it should be accorded the same legal protection as are other peaceable voluntary pursuits. Arguments over relative homicide rates, enforceability, or anything else are simply beside the point.
Are we, then, doomed to remain a violent society? According to Time, "the rest of the planet" is appalled and puzzled by American lawlessness, which the magazine attributes to wide-spread gun ownership. That is nothing but sophistry. Britain and Japan, with strict gun control, do indeed have much lower homicide rates than we do. But what of Switzerland, where every able-bodied male keeps a weapon at home—a pistol, rifle, or submachine gun—as part of his militia responsibilities, and where the homicide rate is even lower than in Britain or Japan? Clearly, violence is a function of many factors, only one of which is the availability of guns.
Two hundred years ago Benjamin Franklin wrote the following: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." For many people, the attempt on the president's life was a dramatic indication of the declining level of safety in our society. Why that's happening is one matter. How we respond to it will show what we deserve.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Straight Thinking about Guns".