I’ve always been curious how American progressives got on the wrong – anti-civil liberties – side of gun control. In my mind this has been a grave strategic error. I have written elsewhere about the extreme difficulty liberals and progressives face in engaging the working class. I have also been highly critical of their tendency to get sucked into “lifestyle” campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-obesity, vegetarianism, etc.) etc., owing to the deep seated class antagonism this engenders in blue collar voters. Contrary to the stereotypes portrayed in the corporate media, class differences – and class hatred – is very real in the US. From a working class perspective, the progressive movement is the middle class. They’re the teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, lawyers and religious leaders who play a fundamental role of setting behavioral standards for the rest of this. Thus when they tell us not to smoke, eat big Macs, or buy guns, we don’t see this as political reform. We see it as an extension of their (privileged) class role.
Here in New Zealand, young upwardly mobile professionals manifest the same zeal as their American counterparts for anti-smoking and healthy eating campaigns. However there’s no gun control lobby here. It would be unthinkable in a country where only one third of the population lives in cities. Gun ownership and proficiency are fundamental to the Kiwi way of life, especially in provincial areas like New Plymouth.
The History of Progressive Opposition to Gun Control
For a progressive to take a stand against gun control is a pretty lonely place, but I’m not alone. There’s a 1979 book edited by Don Kates entitled Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. There’s also an organization called the Liberal Gun Club (http://www.theliberalgunclub.com/), whose mission is to “provide a voice for gun-owing liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legalization, firearms safety, and shooting sports.”
Then there’s Sam Smith’s excellent article in the Progressive Review: Why “Progressives Should Stop Pushing for More Gun Control Laws.” Among Smith’s numerous arguments, three leap out at me: the exacerbation of “cultural conflict” between rural and urban and wealthy and not so well off, the tendency for gun restrictions and prohibition to be interwoven with the drive to restrict other civil liberties, and the need for progressives to stop treating average Americans as though they were “alien creatures.” He seems to agree with me that progressives lose elections as much because of their attitudes as their issues.
In January (following Representative Gifford’s shooting and renewed calls for gun control), Dan Baum wrote in the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-baum/after-tucson-stricter-gun_b_811696.html) that progressives have wasted a generation of progress on health care, women’s rights, immigration reform, income fairness and climate change because “we keep messing with people’s guns.” He feels it’s helpful to think of gun control as akin to marijuana prohibition – all it does is turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals and create divisiveness and resentment.
And finally there’s a blog by vjack at Red State Progressive entitled Ambivalent About Gun Control (http://www.redstateprogressive.com/2011/01/ambivalent-about-gun-control.html). Vjack mainly focuses mainly on differing interpretations of what the 2nd amendment says and what the Constitutional framers intended:
“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.”
Gun control advocates claim this means Americans only have an un-infringed right to keep and bear arms as part of a state Militia. However I tend to agree with vjack, who believes that five years after a bloody revolution our forefathers were probably referring to the right “to hold their government accountable through violence.” If we interpreted the 2nd Amendment this way, all gun control legislation is unconstitutional.
How Progressives Came to Oppose the 2nd Amendment
None of this explains, of course, how progressives got on the wrong side of this issue. In seeking an answer, I have been researching the origin of US gun control legislation. US gun manufacturers wrote the first gun control legislation in 1958, in an effort to restrict Americans’ access to cheap imports. However, owing to its civil liberties implications, it ran up against stiff Congressional opposition until 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson played the race card and used the unprecedented 1965-1968 inner city riots to pass a watered down version of his original gun control bill. It required gun dealers to register guns and ammunition, banned the mail order and interstate sale of guns, and instituted a lifelong ban on felons (even on non-violent convictions) owning guns.
To be continued.