Why I am not a Liberal – part 1

When we lived in Buffalo, I made, maybe, a dozen car trips into Canada. No, not for the ballet; either to eat, or to visit Toronto (“and that’s what’s great about Buffalo”1). In our “post 9/11 world” I always found Canadian border guards to be perfunctory but relatively polite, and American border guards, with rare exception, to be surly, rude, offensive, and intrusive. Only the last is forgivable. On one trip back to the States, after sitting in hours of traffic to get back into the US, the guard set into a range of drilling.

Guard: Where do you reside?

Me: Buffalo.

Guard: And what is your occupation?

Me: I’m a professor at UB?

(As I recall, there was some back-and-forth. He was incredulous. I was incredulous regarding his incredulity. I showed faculty ID.)

Guard: So you’re a professor, huh?

Me: Yep.

Guard: So I guess that makes you a Liberal?

I was dumbstruck, and that’s not a usual thing for me. Had he asked me for an oath of allegiance before returning to my home country, I would have been less surprised. But this injection of political opinion set me back on my heals. I smiled, and said “yep.” But the question bugged me for days afterward. Perhaps the fact that it did makes me a Liberal.

However, there are many situations in which I find myself lacking Liberal (big L) cred. When conversation steers in these directions, I generally just try to keep my mouth shut to avoid discomfort among friends and colleagues. One of those is gun rights.

I live in a city where it’s pretty hard to get a handgun legally. Getting one illegally usually means a trip to Virginia or a hefty mark-up, and so you probably really want to have one. It also has become one of the safest large cities in the US. I’m not sure how closely those two facts are tied, but they probably are related in some way.

Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way. I recognize that places in which guns are legal have more gun deaths. I realize that the number of gun deaths that are a result of self-defense are dwarfed by the number of self-inflicted wounds, accidental shootings, and murders. The idea that I might someday have to send my kid to school with ballistic armor scares the hell out of me. I am fully aware that most developed countries have strict controls on firearms that we do not.

I enjoy shooting, even if it’s not my life’s love. That people enjoy shooting does not mean it should be legal. They can switch to archery; or for bans on handguns, they can switch to long guns. But likewise, that guns kill people is not enough reason to severely limit their availability. Second-hand smoke kills people, and we have yet to outlaw cigarettes. Drunk drivers kill people, and we are not about to outlaw drinking.

Oh, and I fully support jailing people for committing crimes with guns. Heck, I would be OK with changing most drug offenses to misdemeanors, unless a firearm was involved in some way.

But the original reason for the Second Amendment is one of the reasons I think it is still worth keeping. The Bush presidency was an uncomfortable move toward a totalitarian state, and although I am pleased with Obama’s election, I can’t imagine that he will wave a wand and we will suddenly forget our fear and start living as a free nation. That we could swing so far in such a short time suggests that there remains a good reason for citizens to prepare a defense against their own government. Yes, of course, diplomacy should always be the first choice, but sometimes that no longer works. Ironically, many of the people who espouse such a radical adherence to the principles of self-government seemed to be lining up to support secret wiretapping of American citizens, and the downward redefinition of torture by state actors. Yes, the fact that the people most interested in challenging the government tend to be extreme right-wing nuts does bother me, but I still think the idea of having a collective violent backstop to government expansion is a good one.

Second, I believe that someone well practiced in the use of a firearm can put it to effective use as a weapon of self-defense. My former judo and jujitsu teacher, who was also a police detective, urged a three-step process when encountering someone who wished to do you grave harm: 1. Run. If running is not an option, 2. Shoot. If shooting is not an option, 3. Use whatever other means are at hand. (You can presume that there is a 0. Don’t place yourself in a position where such a confrontation occurs. After all, Judo is a “gentle” way.)

It is absolutely the case that a handgun in untrained hands is as likely to end in the death of the owner as it is in protecting her, but a handgun in trained hands represents a weapon of substantial lethality, and presents the opportunity to establish a better personal outcome in the case of an extreme conflict.

So the problem is not necessarily guns, but education. You are required to pass a driving test and get a license to drive a car, and I think you should be required to have a license to use a gun. This, of course, makes me a pinko liberal in many people’s books, but I think there is a legitimate state interest in making sure that people that have guns do not allow them to be used inappropriately. (I think a similar set of restrictions should be put on drug dealers and prostitutes, allowing those activities with proper regulatory oversight.)

1 There was a series of radio spots boosting the city when we lived there. One extolled the virtues of Toronto, which was a short two-hour drive from the city. Proximity to Toronto was just one of the things that was “great about Buffalo.” Halo effect, I guess.

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  1. Bertil
    Posted 1/27/2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but you mention several factual innacuracies:

    > Second-hand smoke kills people, and we have yet to outlaw cigarettes. Drunk drivers kill people, and we are not about to outlaw drinking.

    It is now prohibited in most developped countries to smoke inside, on the basis that you have far less second hand smoke out doors — a regulation clearly intented to prevent the deaths that you mention. Similarly, it is strickly forbiden to drink-and-drive. Prohibition extends to the smallest infered behaviour in either case. The equivalent to prohibiting tobacco or drink would be to prevent ironsmith tools on the base in can be used to build arms.

    > a collective violent backstop to government expansion is a good one.

    I can’t imagine executive abuses any greater then the recent spying, torture and bailout of cronies — and I’ve never heard of any incident using the Second amendment to challenge any of these. Under what possible circumstances should we expect to exert the right for citizen to band against? Self-defense should encourage the ownership of incapacitating weapons, not lethal and easily mishandled device. Hunting is the only a legitimate use of a gun: if you want to defend that right (and plead for a needed wildlife and arms-handling training) go for it — but don’t confuse ‘game’ and politics.

  2. Posted 1/27/2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I remember hearing this quote once, I’m not sure by whom, that went something like “a government with an unarmed populace have nothing to fear from its people.”

    I don’t like guns and I don’t own one. I tend to not like most people who are NRA-type gun advocates. At the same time, if things ever got to the point where we really had a totalitarian government here I’d sure as well hope we had plenty of armed people to form some kind of resistance.

    There seem to be so many right-wing militias in this country it’s scary. If the government collapsed tomorrow, we on the Left would get our asses kicked by these autonomous fascist groupings.

  3. Posted 1/27/2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    It always was and always will remain the original intent of the 2nd Amendment that literal power (guns) should remain in the hands of the source of power (‘the people’), to essentially keep our government reminded of who has control here (‘we the people’, not ‘they the government’) because the US is founded on the principle that all power comes from the collective consent of the governed. Bottom up, not top down. Recent innovations in ballistics have skewed things a bit, so there are cases where the balance needs to be adjusted, but the overall concept is not only sound, it’s worth defending. I don’t own guns, but I will fight tooth and nail to preserve my rights to own one should *I* ever feel it necessary. The NRA for all the yuks and jokes about it, serves a valuable purpose as the self-proclaimed defenders of the 2nd Amendment rights. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, the 2nd Amendment serves a very real purpose even still today.

    Your argument that we didn’t rise up in violence against the erosion of freedom and civil rights under the Bush administration doesn’t fly with me as any sort of critique of the 2nd Amendment. Rather, I view it as an essential trust in the idea that the Constitution contained methods of self-correction for momentary errors in judgment and reason, and We the People decided instead of violence to give the system a chance to correct itself peaceably.

    The government did come very close in many peoples’ minds to crossing the uncrossable line. We joke about it now, but my civil union partner and I still have a fully detailed exit strategy for how to flee the US should it become necessary. It may seem premature, but livng as an openly gay couple and practitioners of a minority religion means to us both that we stand in the very front of the line when the conservatives start getting itchy trigger fingers. Obama’s election may have put things back to Civil Rights Defcon 3, and I believe in our current president quite a lot, but Alex’s point about how easily the political spectrum changes made me quite personally convinced that this little political experiment we call the United States will perpetually teeter on the brink of failure. Therefore, the 2nd Amendment and gun rights remain fundamental cornerstones of the true check and balances of power for this country. And yes, I am a Liberal. But I also believe gun control should mean gun education, not elimination.

  4. alex
    Posted 1/27/2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks all for your replies. To respond to Bertil’s notes:

    The equivalent to prohibiting tobacco or drink would be to prevent ironsmith tools on the base in can be used to build arms.

    Hm. I would say that the equivalent of prohibiting smoking in restaurants would be prohibiting firearms in restaurants. I spent time growing up in Arizona, where some bars and restaurants had you check your firearm at the door. Of course, a more realistic restriction–given the harm–would be on carrying firearms into schools or government buildings.

    The equivalent on the drunk driving side would be “firing a weapon while under the influence,” which I agree should be illegal.

    I can’t imagine executive abuses any greater then the recent spying, torture and bailout of cronies

    I’ll assume this is hyperbole. I don’t have to imagine greater executive abuses, they occur in many countries around the world. As critical as I am of the Bush administration, to equate it with the kind of police state found in China or Saudi Arabia is folly. That said, I think we were moving closer to a point where armed resistance would be necessary. Cases like that of a former colleague at SUNY Buffalo really started to feel Orwellian.

    What steps would have to happen before I would join an armed resistance? That’s a really difficult concrete question to ask. The suspension of habeas corpus was a large step, but widespread jailing for political dissent (not the narrow and relatively short-term jailing of, say, protesters during the Republican convention), would probably do it. Large scale restrictions of a group of American citizens (e.g., Arabs or those of the Muslim faith) could do it. Significant limits to my ability to speak my ideas freely might do it. An attempt to suspend elections would likely do it. Flagrant thwarting of judicial decisions or legislative votes by an executive might do it. Basically, when there is widespread abuse of state power inconsistent with the Constitution, and traditional remedies are completely unavailable, I think armed revolt is an appropriate response.

    I believe that non-lethal weapons–to the extent that they exist–are in some ways more dangerous than lethal weapons. However,if the aim is to defend yourself against a government using lethal technologies, a non-lethal response may not be substantial enough.

    Again, I’m not against regulations on how these weapons are used, just against banning them. As with all rights guaranteed by the Constitution, restrictions should be as narrowly tailored to achieve state interests as possible.

    I actually think there is a greater state interest in limiting the sale and consumption of alcohol and (even more so) tobacco. Both of these cause more significant social ills, I think, than firearms. But you can have my whiskey and cigars when you pry them from my drunken cancerous hands.

  5. Jeff
    Posted 1/27/2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Adam’s position that the second amendment protects the right of the people is support by the supreme court ruling last year that declared the intention of our founders when using the word people was intended to mean the individual. As such, we have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The ruling deemed the gun control law in D.C. to be unconstitutional. The law in NYC that Alex refers to is very similar to the one in D.C. (are Plaxico’s attorneys listening).

    I am a gun owner and avid hunter. I willfully submit to the background check necessary to purchase my firearms. I would support a licensing system for gun ownership, not only for the reasons Alex stated above, but also to increase the revenue stream for conservation efforts largely supported by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses right now. I would go as far as supporting a “recreation license” for those individuals who hike, camp and bird watch on those same lands support by fees paid by those who hunt and fish.

    I stop short of supporting any efforts that require the registration of firearms. My rationale? The overwhelming majority of those who seek such regulation have made clear that their true intent is to ban gun ownership. Thus, we circle back to the rights conveyed via the second amendment, and like Adam, I will fight with all I have to protect that right.

    I share the concerns about the previous administrations violations against civil rights and personal freedoms (and I voted for the man!). However, as a gun owner, I am bracing for the fight that is surely ahead as the new administration comes to power.

    P.S. I had a number of links that I would have like to have posted to support some of my points, but alas, my blogging skills are weak.

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