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What the Left Doesn't Understand About the Gun Ownership Debate

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I started to read Michael Waldman's book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, with a certain amount of trepidation, because if nothing else, here's someone who hits the ground running when it comes to anything having to do with public policy. And whether it's voting rights, or election financing reform, or same-sex marriage or just about any other domestic policy that liberals want to own, Waldman has been in the thick of the argument ever since he took over the Brennan Center in 2005.

Why trepidation? Because although Waldman may have actually shot a rifle at least one time, let's just say that he's not much of a gun guy and his friends and policy associates don't spend Friday afternoons popping some tops down at Franzey's Bar & Grill.

Now don't get me wrong. You don't have to be a gun guy to say something smart about guns. But Waldman's resume reads like the exact opposite of someone who would give gun owners a break, and let's not forget that he runs a public policy institute named after a Supreme Court justice who probably would have been just as happy if the Second Amendment didn't exist. So I figured the book to be just another one of those "it's time to defang the NRA" deals, with the usual elixir of anti-gun proposals like more background checks, another assault weapons ban and, for good measure, let's get rid of all the damn things anyway.

I was wrong. Leaving aside the early chapters on the how's and why's the Second Amendment even got into the Constitution, the book's real strength is Waldman's ability to tie the narrative of recent gun jurisprudence to the general rightward drift of American politics and American law. I have been waiting for someone to explain how judges like Scalia defend the notion of Second Amendment "originalism" in order to promote a conservative, current-day agenda and Waldman nails this one to the wall. Going back to the 1980s, he charts the confluence of conservative energies represented by politicized evangelicals, right-wing think tanks and specific-interest groups like the NRA, all combining to support a judicial agenda that seeks to roil back or dilute progressive programs and reforms.

It's not so much that gun control is at the top of the progressive agenda; it ebbs and flows as high-profile shootings come and go. But a majority of gun owners, particularly people for whom guns are a serious part of their life-styles, tend to be politically conservative anyway, so using fears of gun restrictions to enlist them in the anti-liberal crusade works every time.

A close reading of sources from the debates over the Bill of Rights makes clear that individual gun ownership represented the ability of citizens to protect and defend their political rights; rights to free speech, free assembly, due process and the like. But the argument for gun ownership advanced by the NRA today, Ollie North's appeals to patriotism notwithstanding, is based on the alleged social value of guns to protect us against crime. The NRA would never argue that the Glock in my pocket should be used to stop cops from coming through the door, but they insist that the same Glock is my first line of defense when a bad guy breaks down that same door.

Waldman clearly understands that by using the Second Amendment to justify gun ownership as a defense against crime, the pro-gun community has successfully restated the history of the Second Amendment to buttress a contemporary social justification for owning guns. Neither will be readily undone as long as gun control advocates believe they can respond to this strategy by stating and restating the "facts." Remember "it's the economy, stupid"? Now "it's the guns."