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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
The Red-Blue conservative divide on guns
Peter C. Hansen  (January 1, 2013, 12:28 am)

In a recent, controversial post on National Review's Corner, Kevin Williamson decried views on gun control espoused by New York attorney and conservative Brett Joshpe (who responded here). Without seeking to wade into that discussion, I would note that Williamson's forcefully expressed, Texan views on guns provide a precise snapshot of a mindset which is alien and even repugnant to many mainstream, blue-state conservatives, even those who enjoy guns and shooting.

Williamson writes that the "purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons [i.e. 'an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine'] is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions." To make his point crystal-clear, Williamson states that "[t]here is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to secure our ability to oppose enemies foreign and domestic, a guarantee against disorder and tyranny."

Williamson's premise is that private (and indeed individual) armies are required to keep American government within proper bounds, and more generally to prevent a politico-social apocalypse. This makes a certain small degree of sense, since an unarmed populace cannot be a militarily effective force. Williamson wrongly assumes the obverse, however, to wit that an armed populace would make an effective military force. There is no reason to believe this. A gun is merely a tool, and does not create militias ex nihilo, let alone "well regulate" them in line with the Second Amendment. Williamson's position is thus founded on a dubious premise, and consequently rings hollow, and indeed strange and worrisome, in blue-state ears.

Williamson's conceit is that a gun owner is a flinty and moral private soldier, endowed by nature with a stern fidelity to the constitution, a yeoman's instinctive ability to form a posse, and a keen understanding of the democratic social order. In other words, Williamson assumes a combination of the Minutemen, Davy Crockett, Sergeant York and David Hackworth. While such folks do exist in substantial numbers, their qualities are not magically imparted by a gun handle. They are instead produced by personal character development, a proper social education, and a surrounding culture that celebrates mature responsibility. If mere gun ownership caused one to develop wisdom and virtue, the hip-hop culture would be producing chivalric chansons de geste rather than gangsta rap.

Indeed, even membership in a "well-regulated" private militia is no guarantee of noble character or purpose. While privately raised Confederate units like those of Forrest and Morgan fought bravely and effectively in the Civil War, their members were not always paragons of military or social virtue. For example, Forrest's men massacred black soldiers who had surrendered at Fort Pillow, and Forrest himself was one of the earliest leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. In the case of Quantrill's Raiders, which conducted an organized massacre of civilians at Lawrence, Kansas, alumni Jesse and Frank James became legendary for their violent banditry.

In short, there can be no assumption that a gun owner is automatically qualified to be a member of the "well-regulated militia" envisaged by the Constitution to defend the republic. Indeed, one cannot even assume that a gun owner will exhibit common sense. In the notable case of spree killer Adam Lanza, for example, it appears that his mother kept multiple guns in the same house as a disturbed young man, and even gave him shooting lessons. This apparent course of action hardly seems worthy of a member of the "well-regulated militia." Instead, it appears to have been a bizarre if not clearly foolhardy course of action.

Apart from misplaced assumptions about the virtue created by simple gun ownership, Williamson's position falters on practical considerations. Let us assume here for the sake of argument that every private gun owner is a paragon of martial virtue and constitutional discernment. The cold fact is that even such a yeomanry, armed with the heaviest-duty military hardware, would be largely irrelevant in the event of a politico-social apocalypse.

If a tyranny or society-wrecking disorder were actually to rear its head, one of two situations would likely unfold. The first and likeliest (but still almost inconceivable) situation would be a splitting of the political elite into factions that divided the armed forces. In such a situation, the resulting battles for control would be between former U.S. military units, with populist input being limited to occasional bushwhacking and the maintainance of local order in areas where police were absent. The second possible situation, which is far less likely still, would be that an armed U.S. populace would face off against the most lethal and well-armed force in human history – the U.S. military – which would now be allied to a tyrannical political order. That would pit satellite-directed drones and trained assault teams against guys holed up with their Bushmaster rifles. Good luck with that.

A third situation is often dreamed about, largely because it is a fantasy. This is the Red Dawn, Escape from New York and "black helicopter" scenario, where a heroic individual or small posse leaps into the maw of anarchy or invasion to re-establish or protect the traditional order. Williamson's position assumes such a scenario, where hundreds of millions of Americans make occupation or disorder impossible through the violent imposition of a spontaneously organized, armed and effective democratic order. Such a vision appeals to the American self-image, but it relies on a paradox. Every such doomsday scenario assumes the total absence of a civic or military order, which is ridiculous as a practical matter. Moreover, if civic virtue and pluck are so deeply imbued in average Americans that they will privately fight for democracy, it is only logical that such virtue also infuses government ranks to at least the level required to maintain the government's existence as a functioning constitutional democracy.

What Williamson's position boils down to is the claim that every person has the God-given right to prepare to make war upon the government, or upon his or her neighbors, and to commence hostilities whenever disorder or tyranny arises. As discussed above, this view assumes a person of unknowable moral and cognitive capacity, but one who clearly believes that he can fight not only city hall, but the U.S. military as well. Williamson is comfortable leaving to such peculiarly self-confident persons the power to decide what constitutes "disorder" and "tyranny." Many folks, particularly those in thickly populated blue states like New Jersey, are far less comfortable with such persons having that kind of discretion. A decision to forcibly adjust the social order is after all a profound one, since it involves an armed struggle for political power. As Williamson points out, this goes far beyond the issue of whether guns are needed or useful to deal with "Bambi and burglars."

Williamson seems perfectly content to give every clinically sane non-felon carte blanche to prepare for the second American revolution, which they will be free to launch whenever they should desire. This breezy lack of concern might fly in sparsely populated and lightly governed locales like rural Texas, Idaho or North Dakota, where people can disappear into remote dwellings or compounds to live out their fantasies. While occasional government intrusions like those in Waco or Ruby Ridge might temporarily dispel the inhabitants' illusions of frontier autarchy, most of the time such folks can pass their entire lives dreaming away and shadowboxing in peace.

New Jersey is different. It is 14 times more densely populated than the U.S. as a whole. Put another way, while the average American has eight acres to himself or herself, the average Jerseyan has only half an acre. Consequently, anyone expecting the end of days in New Jersey will get stuck in traffic a lot. They will bump into way more red-tape and general public scrutiny than their Idahoan counterparts. In short, the friction of crowded daily life will scratch strongly against their violent pessimism.

Jerseyans do not want the guy they edge out on Route 287 to be armed against the possibility of Red China or a mob of undesirables stopping his car. Such a guy is, in Garden State terms, simply a nut. After all, one guy is not going to liberate Edison Township from the Communist horde, or a U.S. military run amok. More to the point, Edison is not likely in any foreseeable future to become the scene of Stalingrad-style street battles requiring heroes to rise from the rubble. Any NJ guy harboring such self-aggrandizing delusions has been playing way too many video games. If anything, he is just the sort of pompous loon who heads to the mall for target practice when he loses his job or his wife walks out on him.

In short, Williamson's view is not only ill-founded, but completely at odds with the crowded reality of New Jersey. This should not be taken to mean that NJ folks are anti-gun fanatics, however. Far from it. Guns to handle "Bambi and burglars" are not a problem for many if not most folks. What freaks Garden Staters out is the sort of chap who thinks he has the right to start a private war. New Jerseyans deal with a vast number of official abuses. If one could shoot up a government office every time one felt wronged by an official or an unfair application of the law, there would hardly be any NJ government building left unburnt.

By enduring the massive imperfections of their government, and hewing to democratic and judicial means of addressing their problems, Jerseyans show themselves to be quite, well, conservative. While that may not square with Williamson's Texan view that "conservative" means someone willing to start the next Shay's Rebellion, it does square nicely with Burke.

I have written (here and here) about a conservative approach to gun control that emphasizes cultural rather than legislative approaches, and which would be well-suited to blue-state settings. In a nutshell, I have suggested that the goal should be to treat gun ownership as akin to medieval knighthood, with an overt and rigorous program of training, oaths and monitoring, and with a broader gun culture that imposes a strict if informal code of conduct.

The "well-regulated militia" clause does not require formal mobilization, but it seems properly to require gun owners to be capable of forming such a militia when needed. In other words, gun owners must be developed into persons who fit the noble image assumed by Williamson. While some people may not need any such training, others most certainly do, and some will forever be found wanting. It is incumbent on our society, and particularly on those enamored of a highly armed yeomanry, to do the hard work of channeling gun ownership toward a highly responsible, democratic and benevolent warrior class. Only then will Williamson's views on gun ownership find a proper logical footing and make practical sense across the nation.