A modest price to pay to preserve our free society

By: - January 24, 2013 2:11 pm

Why we can and must move ahead with new gun violence laws

 “The [global] death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems – and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction.’” – Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Almost no one likes being told what to do by government or having to endure bureaucratic rules. This goes for about 99.9% of Americans—progressives and conservatives.

Many of us remember a more carefree time when we could walk right to the departure/arrival gates at airports; enter sporting events without going through metal detectors; smoke wherever and whenever we wanted; drive cars that were as dangerous as we cared to make them (with or without any safety restraints); buy as much Sudafed as we wanted; and simply pour any household chemical we had down the drain or just toss them in the trash (or burn the trash right in our backyard). There are obviously scores of other examples of things that people used to do as a matter of course, but must now refrain from or temper.

It is, however, a simple reality of our modern, urbanized, ever-more-populated and technologically advanced world that, increasingly, our actions and failures to act can affect the freedoms of others.

When we drive loud, dangerous, exhaust-belching cars down public streets or puff on cigars in restaurants, we impinge on the freedom of others not to be poisoned, injured or killed. When we enjoy unrestricted access to airport gates, we impinge on the freedom of those who wish not to be murdered in suicide hijackings. And when we demand unfettered access to mass killing machines—be they cannons, flamethrowers, machine guns or “assault weapons” with the ability to fire large numbers of rounds in a few seconds—we reduce the freedom of those who hope to avoid being killed by crazy people wielding such weapons (and to live in fear of such a result).

Is there always a perfect answer to such dilemmas? No of course not; crafting the balance between personal freedom to do as we please and the freedom not to be harmed by others (or to live in perpetual fear of such an occurrence) is frequently a challenge.

But it is also demonstrably true that Americans of 2013 are, on balance, freer and better off as a result of democratically-developed laws that regulate airport safety, make cars and highways safer, restrict public smokers and polluters, and yes, restrict killing machines.

Hijackings are almost unheard of in the world of post-9-11 airport security. Cars and highways are dramatically safer than they were before government got in the business of effectively regulating them. Secondhand smoke and air pollution have both been limited significantly in recent decades to the great benefit of all. And when was the last time you heard about a mass U.S. killing that involved an illegal weapon like a bazooka or, perhaps, a machine gun like the ones favored by Al Capone?

So, while we obviously can’t guarantee safety in all circumstances, we can strive for a better balance that both preserves what one Supreme Court justice called, “the right to be let alone,” and the right of the mass of the population to be as free as practicable from murder and the fear of it.

Reducing gun violence

And so it must be with the dangerous weapons that plague us today. We cannot and should never attempt to pass laws that confiscate all the weapons of American gun owners as truly paranoid figures like NRA boss Wayne LaPierre claim to fear. And, of course, no one is proposing such a thing. But we can achieve a better balance (as we have done with cars and airports and pollution) in protecting the freedoms of competing groups and individuals in our complex, modern society. There simply must be a way to dramatically reduce the chances of our children being murdered in school that preserves gun ownership rights and that does not force every American to arm him or herself to the teeth.

As Kofi Annan’s quote above reminds us, small arms are a global affliction. They truly are “weapons of mass destruction.”

And when it comes to the United States, the good people at North Carolinians Against Gun Violence recently put it this way:

“Every day, 33 Americans are murdered with guns. This [the current debate] is not about confiscating guns; it’s about stopping needless gun violence that devastates families and communities across our country. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court made clear that law-abiding citizens have a right to own a gun to hunt and protect their homes, but Justice Scalia’s majority opinion also stated that the right to keep and bear arms is ‘not unlimited,’ and is not ‘a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.’”

Fortunately, a huge proportion of the population agrees with Scalia’s conclusion. In a recent national poll, 85 percent of all gun owners—and 87 percent of NRA members—agreed that, “Support for the Second Amendment goes hand-in-hand with keeping illegal guns out of the hands of criminals.”

A recent national poll commissioned by the Associated Press found similar support (84%) for the establishment of a federal standard for background checks for people buying guns at gun shows. It also found that:

“Nearly six in 10 Americans want stricter gun laws in the aftermath of last month’s deadly school shooting in Connecticut, with majorities favoring a nationwide ban on military-style, rapid-fire weapons and limits on gun violence depicted in video games, movies and TV shows.”

Even in gun-friendly North Carolina, there is similarly broad support for at least some laws to limit gun violence. In a story released yesterday, WRAL.com reported that:

“North Carolinians disagree on many of the proposals to regulate gun ownership that surfaced after recent mass shootings, but a WRAL News poll found widespread consensus that all gun buyers should have to pass a criminal background check. More than 90 percent of those surveyed said they favored universal background checks for gun buyers, and that support was consistent across categories such as age, gender or whether someone owned a gun or not. The poll of 500 North Carolina residents was conducted by Survey USA between Jan. 9 and Jan. 12. ‘That is a large consensus,” said Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll who reviewed the poll results. “It’s rare to get that kind of support behind anything.’”

Going forward

The reason for the broad public support in favor of strong action is obvious: Most Americans “get it” that law abiding citizens have to make sacrifices to preserve and protect everyone’s freedom. Some of that sacrifice, of course, involves acceptance of the fact that we cannot make life risk-free. Another part of it, however, must involve acceptance of the fact that individuals will need to curb their behavior – even behavior that itself is unlikely to harm anyone else – to expand overall societal freedom. We do this when we abide by traffic rules, when we refrain from smoking in public places, when we dispose of toxic chemicals safely and in scores of other circumstances.

Right now, when it comes to dangerous weapons, essentially all of the sacrifices are being made by innocent victims of gun violence and the people who live in fear of it. We clearly need to adjust this imbalance as quickly as possible if we are going to remain a free people.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.