Freedom-averse types are forever looking for confirmation of their fears that letting people live their lives and voluntarily interact with others unmolested is fraught with peril. In no other area is this more apparent than in the personal ownership and enjoyment of firearms. Advocates of tighter legal restrictions look on every crime committed with a gun and see in it a crystal-clear argument that anybody who didn't commit that crime should be disarmed. It doesn't seem to bother them that their proposed "remedies" would restrict human activity in a way that treads heavily on what many Americans, including the United States Supreme Court, consider to be individual rights closely tied to the country's founding philosophy. And never mind that those "remedies" are largely pointless, unenforceable, and guaranteed to spark mass defiance by tens of millions of gun owners.
"Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country in Europe," noted Noah Webster (the dictionary guy) in 1787. He argued that the proposed Constitution didn't need an explicit bill of rights because Americans were too gunned-up to let the government get away with much. As a Federalist, Webster supported the big-government faction of the day, against those more skeptical of concentrated political power. He lost the argument over the Bill of Rights, but his reference to an armed populace as a given fact of life—echoed by James Madison in The Federalist No. 46—permeates the thinking of those many modern Americans who see the right to bear arms as a natural individual right that checks the power of government.
Some pundits think that's just old-fashioned thinking. "Private citizens stand no chance of defeating the federal armed forces in a real conflict," sniffs Cornell University's Michael C. Dorf.
Well, it's true that B-52s would make short work of fife-tootling gun owners who conveniently crowded themselves onto a big red X painted in a parking lot someplace. But while some gun owners no doubt fantasize about playing the role of modern George Washingtons, a more appropriate inspiration might be Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's musing in Gulag Archipelago, "What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family?"
You don't have to defeat an entire government to protect your freedom—just the goons in the hallway outside your apartment.
Already steeped in a historically founded distrust of agents of the state, gun owners are also understandably resistant to arguments that, rather than be prepared to defend themselves against assailants, they're supposed to depend on those same agents as protection against the bad actors of the world.
Cynicism about the intentions of government employees aside, the inability of the police to act as personal bodyguards for the entire population makes dependence on them a cold comfort at best.
That the laws restrictionists forever put forward after terrorist attacks and mass shootings always seem yanked from the shelf, dusted off, and irrelevant to the crimes at hand doesn't help their case any. When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pointed out that none of the mass shootings of recent memory would have been prevented by the usual legislative suspects, gun controllers scoffed—until the Washington Post's Fact Checker conceded that not only was he right, but "[n]otably, three of the mass shootings took place in California, which already has strong gun laws including a ban on certain weapons and high-capacity magazines."
People who see firearms ownership as an important personal right that defends them against bad actors and checks the power of the state should surrender that cherished freedom in favor of…intrusive laws that have already failed the test? Tell us more.
To give them credit, gun controllers' arguments have proven very persuasive—in favor of gun rights. After the San Bernardino terror attack, The New York Times editorialized on the front page for tighter gun laws, including confiscation of "slightly modified combat rifles."
Within a week, a poll conducted by the same newspaper found opposition to The Times' editorial board's favorite restrictions higher than ever.
Not that gun owners are looking for permission to snub gun laws. When Connecticut passed a law requiring so-called "assault weapons"—scary-looking semiautomatic rifles--to be registered, state residents responded with 15 percent compliance. A similar law in New York drew only 5 percent obedience in a state generally considered a hotbed of support for tougher controls.
That's only registration. What would the reaction be to fulfilling The Times' desire to "require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up"?
Even less-intrusive measures are unlikely to get any traction if codified into law. Prof. James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University School of Law, favors expanding background checks to cover sales of guns between private individuals. But he admitted to me in an interview last summer that it's "very easy to get around" such restrictions on inherently private transactions. Some buyers and sellers might be willing to submit to background check requirements, but others would not.
In the midst of debates over a hot-button political right, with major newspapers calling for confiscation, defiance of such requirements is likely to be more the rule than the exception.
And there's a strong "why bother?" argument against pushing intrusive laws that have already failed to prevent crimes, and are guaranteed to accomplish nothing but (once again—remember Prohibition and marijuana?) expose the government's impotence when a substantial portion of the citizenry refuses to obey. Headline-grabbing incidents aside, violent crime has been in decline for decades, even as gun ownership has soared. The latest FBI figures show "the 2014 estimated violent crime total was 6.9 percent below the 2010 level and 16.2 percent below the 2005 level."
That's as the number of guns in private hands climbs every year from an estimated 192 million firearms in 1994 to perhaps 310 million by 2009. Californians, lauded for having the most restrictive laws in the country by the Brady Campaign, have been purchasing almost one million new guns per year that won't suddenly evaporate if the law books suddenly get revised.
Nor will they be a cause of much in the way of crime, to judge by the statistics. They may deter it instead.
Extra credit to President Obama for bundling due process with self-defense rights in a clever scheme to threaten them both at one blow.
But those fretters over supposedly excessive freedom never seem to learn. They advocate the imposition of laws that have already failed on people who won't obey them, to address crimes that are already decreasing in prevalence. And in doing so, they confirm gun owners' fears about the hostility of government officials and their allies to valued individual rights.