I support the argument that the United States should enact a total ban on civilians owning firearms.
Oh, I don't support the ban. I support the argument.
I support the argument because it's honest and specific. It doesn't hide the ball, it doesn't refuse to define terms, it doesn't tell rely on telling people they are paranoid or stupid in their concerns about the scope of the ban. The argument proposes a particular solution and will require the advocate to defend it openly.
That elevates it above most gun control dialogue.
I've argued before that gun control debates would be improved if people avoided culture-bundling and cared about the meaning of words. Most don't. Too much looks like this:
There's a very good reason to care about what you mean when you argue that "assault weapons" should be banned: the term is infinitely flexible. If you think it inherently means something specific, you haven't bothered to inform yourself about the issue. "Assault weapon" means whatever the definers decide it should mean. Banning "assault weapons" is the gun version of banning "hate speech" or "disruptive protest" or "dangerous persons" or "interfering with a police officer" — it's a blank check. And I don't like handing out blank checks to the government to ban things and jail people.
I'm not making an argument that it's impossible to define assault weapons.1 I'm not even making an argument that banning "assault weapons," defined with reasonable specificity, would violate the Second Amendment. There's an argument to be made about that — an argument that's still in its jurisprudential infancy, given the recency of Heller — but it's not my point. My point is that if you won't even try to define what you want to regulate, and how, the argument about practicality and constitutionality is both abstract and premature. It's the same with defining automatic and semi-automatic. I don't want gun control advocates to acquire some vague grasp of what those mean because I'm eager to have my neighbor own a machine gun. I want advocates to learn the difference so I can have some level of confidence that I know what kind of proposed government power we're debating. Right now the debate seems choked with people who don't know, are proud of not knowing, and think you're a redneck gun-nut asshole if you want them to know because they feel very strongly about this. I decline to take that seriously.
Gun control advocates may argue that it's pointless to define terms because gun control opponents will oppose gun control laws no matter how they are crafted. That's a fair description of the behavior of some — perhaps even most — gun control opponents. But it's not a logical or moral excuse for not trying. Urging vague and unconstrained government power is not how responsible citizens of a free society ought to act. It's a bad habit and it's dangerous and irresponsible to promote it.
This is not an abstract or hypothetical point. We live in a country in which arbitrary power is routinely abused, usually to the detriment of the least powerful and the most abused among us. We live in a country in which we have been panicked into giving the government more and more power to protect us from harm, and that power is most often not used for the things we were told, but to solidify and expand previously existing government power. We live in a country where the government uses the power we've already given it as a rationale for giving it more: "how can we not ban x when we've already banned y?" We live in a country where vague laws are used arbitrarily and capriciously. We live in a country that is about to nominate Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President of the United States: a man who wants to limit free speech, ban people based on religion, and generally jackboot around. We live in a country where his opponent is a long-time advocate of the security state who got famous helping label young black men "superpredators."
Maybe gun control advocates won't define terms because they know that the defined terms they want won't sell. That's not unusual; it's typical politics. That doesn't make it right. You have no moral or rational claim to your fellow citizens' support for a deliberately vague law. Cowboy up. Define what you want and argue for it. Anything else is either silly and self-indulgent, or deliberately deceitful.
- It's certainly difficult — past bans often led to gun manufacturers making minor cosmetic changes to evade the law. ▲
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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