The Republican Party does not have a great track record of standing firm on important issues in the face of social shaming and political pressure from the left. The GOP has not yet abandoned the Second Amendment—mostly because they fear their constituent’s wrath more than they fear the Democrats. Republican voters truly, viscerally care about gun rights, and the voter’s opinions are amplified in Washington by the ceaseless lobbying efforts of the NRA. But gun rights are now being attacked by numerous sophisticated enemies, and the standard conservative defense of the Second Amendment is not equal to the current challenge. The GOP and the gun community have adopted unrealistic rhetoric and poorly thought out policies that will ultimately serve the purposes of the left. The average gun owner has an outdated idea of what the Second Amendment is for and an ineffective rhetorical style that appeals to other pro-gun conservatives while having little impact on public opinion. Many in the gun community are committed to an abstract ideal of absolute gun freedom that has never existed in the real world and actually makes necessary political maneuvering on gun policy impossible. In short, the GOP and the gun community have brought the worst, most untenable traits of libertarianism into their defense of gun rights.
Consider GOP rhetoric about the purpose of the Second Amendment. Many conservatives talk about resisting tyranny as if millions of gun owners were just one tax hike away from reenacting the American Revolution. And yet those very same conservatives are powerless to stop the indoctrination of their children in public schools, corruption in the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy, or the demonization of American history and traditions. Guns cannot win an ideological battle or a culture war. Soft totalitarianism has enmeshed most citizens in a net of perpetual insecurity through massive personal debt, weaponized HR departments that deprive the uncooperative of their livelihoods, and state control of taxes, retirement, and healthcare. Whenever frustration with the government rises to dangerous levels, conservative pundits scramble to reassure the base that everyone should work peacefully within the system rather than rebel against it. I doubt that there is any government encroachment upon liberty so egregious that Conservatism Inc would actually advocate for armed resistance. Gun owners can talk about Red Dawn fantasies and stockpile dozens of unused rifles in their basements, but if you want to actually be a free man, sell all but the six most useful guns in your arsenal and put the extra money toward paying off a mortgage or starting a business. Resisting tyranny is no longer as simple as the 18th century expedient of lining up for a set piece battle.
Conservatives emphasize unrealistic Revolutionary War scenarios because the reality of modern gun rights is awkwardly racist. The current value of the Second Amendment is that it gives law-abiding Whites the means to defend themselves against a largely non-White criminal underclass that is growing thanks to generous welfare programs and open borders. The term gun violence is just one more euphemism for avoiding the racial realities of American crime, as Paul Kersey’s website exhaustively documents. The leftist media now openly call attention to the implicit White supremacy of gun rights in the hopes that this will discredit the NRA and pro-gun politicians. America would certainly be safer if government policy were designed to keep guns away from Blacks and Hispanics while leaving them easily accessible to Whites, but, alas, the White supremacy of gun rights is merely accidental. Many Republicans are so colorblind that they truly believe liberals and gun control laws make Chicago such a dangerous city. Some libertarians advocate foolish gun policies that would obviously make Americans less safe, ignoring basic facts about race, mental health, and drug use in their blind adherence to abstract principles. The libertarian and conservative failure to accept racial realities means that they are unable to set gun policies that actually benefit America. Instead, we get National Review’s repudiation of the stop and frisk policy necessitated by the urban diversity the establishment GOP has supported for decades and a rush to be the least racist gun owner.
The GOP’s complete lack of gun policy understanding is not the only problem, because conservative gun rhetoric is helping turn public opinion against the Second Amendment. Many gun advocates misread the American public by assuming that a majority of voters can be more readily swayed by statistics rather than emotion. Much gun rhetoric is therefore only convincing to those who are already pro-gun. Here is one image that presents facts and still misses the mark.
Quick, if your child were about to be attacked in their school, would you rather have the killer armed with an AR-15 or a bare hand? Ted Nugent, Charlton Heston, and David Hogg would all answer that question the same way. Moderate, undecided voters do not care about total yearly homicides; they are swayed by horrific images of spectacular, high-speed violence. What better way to convince them their fear of ‘assault rifles’ and ‘high capacity magazines’ are justified than by contrasting AR’s with less effective killing tools? The same miscalculation is at work when conservative media feature stories of Canadian or European killers, arguing that deranged people will attack no matter what restrictions are in place. The real message that sticks in the public consciousness is how much lower the body count of a crossbow attack is.
The mainstream American Right has a curious split personality that sometimes acknowledges the dangerous fruits of multiculturalism and at other times acts as if we live in a sane, homogeneous White country filled with responsible, trustworthy citizens. In a sane country we could expect to keep guns for defense, hunting, and recreation, but the reality of diverse America is that we will be lucky to keep even our most basic rights. The critical Second Amendment message is weakened when the gun community allows itself to be distracted by high profile toys. The NRA has enough to do just defending effective self-defense tools like the AR-15 and 30 round magazines. Not all products the free market comes up with actually serve the cause of liberty or the ultimate purpose of gun ownership. Bump stocks, for instance, are almost universally derided by defensive shooters and instructors. They offer no discernible benefit for the serious firearm uses the Second Amendment was designed to protect, but they have been used in a mass shooting. If the gun community insists on placing bump stocks and other curiosities on an equal footing with concealed carry pistols and home defense rifles, the media will happily comply, knowing that the Bill of Rights will ultimately suffer.
I sympathize with gun advocates who fear that any negotiation or compromise on gun laws is the first step down a slippery slope. Republicans correctly sense that the left always negotiates in bad faith on the gun issue. Democrats really do want to use some innocuous ‘common sense’ regulation as a starting point for banning all guns. Gun advocates cannot be paralyzed by this knowledge but instead must recognize that the political task is not to convince the left through debate, but to keep the American public favorable to guns rather than unfavorable. Democrats have time on their side because they are using every terrible murder statistic from Chicago and Baltimore, and every mass shooting, as bargaining chips to draw public opinion to their side. The left can sit back and wait, not doing anything for mental health reform or school security, letting public opinion catch up to the progressive vanguard one tragedy at a time. Instead of just watching this happen, the NRA and the Trump administration should be publicly lobbying for mental health reform. Americans generally understand that concealed carry saves lives, but they do not see the GOP offering anything beyond boilerplate answers to horrific, high profile crimes. Republican acceptance of the status quo on healthcare opened the door for Obamacare, and the same kind of apathy on mental health laws is paving the way for gun bans in the near future.
Yielding even an inch to anti-gun Democrats rankles Second Amendment absolutists, but the right does not have the resources to fight on every front at once. We must prioritize and win one issue at a time. For sake of analogy, cast your mind back to the 80’s and 90’s, when many gun rights were restricted. Americans could not purchase fully automatic guns nor could they carry concealed weapons. The NRA correctly perceived that owning machine guns, in addition to being a public relations nightmare, was of interest to a statistically insignificant subset of the population and entailed huge risks and limited rewards for politicians. Self-defense handguns, on the other hand, could be sold to many candidates, whether their platform was law and order, female empowerment, or American tradition. If the gun community had insisted on full auto rights first, or had refused to accept concealed carry because it was only a partial restoration of gun rights, we might still be living with the assault weapons ban and 10 round magazines. Ultimately, American gun policy, like all other parts of government, will be incoherent so long as the USA is chained to an ideology of multiculturalism and egalitarianism. Gun issues do have the potential to red pill conservatives on race and other issues, but only if we recognize the real purpose and limitations of the Second Amendment, develop effective rhetoric that reaches the general public, and prioritize serious gun use over recreation.