01/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Nation Clinging to Guns

In 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, the country was emerging from a recession. No one was buying cars, Detroit and the housing market were on life support, computer sales were dragging bottom. And what was the most profitable and fastest growing business sector at that time? Firearms.

Amendment II

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

In perspective, there are Second Amendment Democrats as well as the higher profile bumper sticker patriot gun rights zealots. All of whom, for various reasons, believe in the right to keep and bear arms. Obama appears to be one of them, if for no other reason than respect for the document and the wisdoms of those who wrote it. The wording of the Amendment is slightly confusing, but the courts have consistently upheld the interpretation that what is meant is that individual ownership of arms are a requisite to a forming a militia. Most would be more comfortable with some more detail, but the subject seems so fraught with emotion that argument becomes futile, quickly. And the question of to what purpose one would form a militia is sadly equivocal as well. What is difficult to envision is a situation in our future that would crystallize the intent of the Amendment into clarity.

The era in which firearms were a practical necessity is substantially and thankfully over as of the end of the 19th century. They are possessed now for what most honestly amounts to a hybrid of sport, nostalgia and primordial anxiety.

The nation has a long history of love/hate with firearms. In seeming disregard of the Second Amendment, keeping and bearing have been infringed many times and in many ways, most sensibly. Wyatt Earp is said to have cleaned up Dodge City with the aid of a ban on carrying firearms in the city. The Civilian Marksmanship Program was formed in 1916 by Congressional act, to promote firearms skills in the general public in case of the need for their military service. These are exemplar of competing objectives. As a nation we seem to want to defend ourselves but cannot decide on just the right amount of readiness for that defense.

There are a multitude of local ordinances and federal constraints on purchase and possession and millions of retired U.S. Military surplus firearms have been "shredded" to prevent them from reaching the public. The BATF exists because of the public interest that weapons be regulated in some fashion. It does amuse me that the government should have a branch that regulates all my particular vices save one.

But it was the Clinton move to ban assault weapons that got the public excited in 93. People were afraid that Clinton would curtail their access to military style weapons. Staggering numbers of cheap Russian and Chinese military surplus semi-automatic weapons from the dissolving Iron Curtain countries were being dumped into this country in response to a yawning unmet demand. Men, and women, of all degree were three deep at the display case for months, until the Assault Weapons ban was finalized and watered down to prohibit bayonets and limit ammunition capacity.

Fine historical pieces, as you might guess, were not what was selling in 1993. Nor are they what is selling today as millions of Americans fall prey to their nightmares once again. I suspect it is a national frenzy, but for proof I went to a regional gun "show". The local gun dealers are sold out of everything that costs less than $1500 and can be loaded with more than five rounds of ammunition. The local gun show, where you can buy and sell, had thousands in attendance instead of the usual couple of hundred.

Americans seem to be preparing for some undefinable war. This even as an Obama administration, going forward, makes the prospect of real shooting war far less likely than at any time since Eisenhower. The Constitution, which the guarantee of possession of arms is intended to defend, is more likely to be upheld by Obama, the Constitutional Scholar, than by any President in modern history including FDR. If you doubt that, then pay attention to his statements on separation of church and state, abortion and gun rights. There is fine ethical construction in what he has to say on these issues. But, either you take him at his word or you do not. Personally, I have never known a man to do such thorough thinking and then go back on his word. You think it through in order to be able to keep your word. So if some conflict of a nature so immense that it requires American militias to form is not eminent, then for what purpose do these throngs seek the means of self defense?

Why exactly do we seem to need these firearms? A gun will not insure that you do not lose your job to an international merger or international competition. A gun will not get you a raise. A gun will not prevent crime, it will give you a split second opportunity to make a life and death decision about killing or being killed in the progress of a crime. General prosperity prevents crime. A gun will not prescribe to government a program to eliminate crime, corruption, drugs, homelessness, pornography or pedophilia. A gun will not educate your children, save the environment or foster temperance. The only effective weapon for achieving sophisticated political goals is words. If words fail, then there are guns. Use of guns, weapons of any kind, are the definition of chaos. The road to chaos is swift. The road back is nigh impossible.

In theory, the Second Amendment is emblematic of the American compulsion in resistance to tyranny. Resistance to tyranny is a fine sentiment. It has adherents in all shades of the political spectrum. The political act of last resort is to take up arms and throw off your oppressor. It has a romance that rings deep into the heart and soul of a free people. As history clearly shows though, your oppressor is as likely to be on the political right as on the political left. Authoritarianism has no political affiliation. It is simply a product of weak and evil, mostly greedy stupid, men in whom the social and political skill required to govern is lacking.

As I walk through the gun show I hear a seller holding forth to a crowd on why the Democrats will take their guns. Democrats, he says, are afraid of your right to own guns. An onlooker suggests the time worn solution, "they can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead, hands."

The THEY that will pry the gun from the cold dead hands appears not too well defined, unless the tyranny that is to be resisted is the tyranny of your neighbors. Democracy does have that aspect. If a majority of one resolves a vote, then they are imposing on the minority but for one. Democratic to 51% can mean tyrannical to 49%. But we are fortunate in that regard. As the gun seller, above, fails to consider, we have the Constitution, Bill of Rights and courts to prevent the unreasonable subjugation of any minority, even of one person. Defending that high scholarship of governing is what the Second Amendment is intend to accomplish, if haphazardly. Imagine the agonies of the Founders over whether or not to canonize a resort to the chaos of war in order to accomplish and maintain a more orderly and just society? That is what they did. And it is arguable whether the time for that guarantee of a last resort has or will soon pass.

Might not the political spectrum be circular instead of a linear dead end left and right? If authoritarian regimes know no political preference, it is rather likely that resistance to authoritarianism is what the extreme right and left have most in common. THEY are some foe of ancestral dread that will subjugate, confine and torture the most dear of our aspirations, liberty. The union, meeting point of this political circle is in chaos. Unfortunate that we cannot so well examine our own fears that we should have to realize them in order to define them.

In the mean time, guns are a symbol, little more, although more dangerous to family and friends than criminals or imagined despots. By far most will sit in the corner of a closet, unused, for the lifetimes of those new buyers just as they have the lifetimes of previous buyers. It is the mercies of competent government that keeps them there.