Opinion | Why an Assault Weapons Ban Hits Such a Nerve With Many Conservatives


Weapons of mass death, and the submissive fear they engender, put teeth on that shrinking minority’s entitled claim to indefinite power. Without the threat of violence, what have they really got? Votes? Sooner or later, they won’t have enough, and they know it.

Nearly every Republican policy priority lacks majority support. New restrictions on abortion are unpopular. Slashing legal immigration levels is unpopular. The president’s single major legislative achievement, tax cuts for corporations and high earners, is unpopular.

Public support for enhanced background checks stands at an astonishing 90 percent, and 60 percent (and more) support a ban on assault weapon sales. Yet Republican legislatures block modest, popular gun control measures at every turn. The security of the minority’s self-ascribed right to make the rules has become their platform’s major plank, because unpopular rules don’t stand a chance without it. Float a rule that threatens their grip on power, no matter how popular, and it’s “my AR is waiting for you, Robert Francis.”

They’ll tell you their thinly veiled threats are really about defending their constitutional rights. Don’t believe it. The conservative Supreme Court majority’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller found an individual right to own guns for self-protection, but no civilian needs a weapon capable of shooting 26 people in 32 seconds to ward off burglars. The Second Amendment doesn’t grant the right to own one any more than it grants the right to own a surface-to-air missile.

They’ll tell you their foreboding “predictions” of lethal resistance are really about preserving the means to protect the republic against an overweening, rights-stomping state. Don’t believe that, either. It’s really about the imagined peril of a multicultural majority running the show. Many countries that do more to protect their citizens against gun violence are more, not less, free than we are. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, 16 countries enjoy a higher level of overall freedom than the United States, and most of them ban or severely restrict ownership of assault weapons. The freedom to have your head blown off in an Applebee’s, to flee in terror from the bang of a backfiring engine, might not be freedom at all.

I’m not too proud to admit that in my misspent libertarian youth, I embraced the idea that a well-armed populace is a bulwark against tyranny. I imagined us a vast Switzerland, hived with rifles to defend our inviolable rights against … Michael Dukakis? What I slowly came to see is that freedom is inseparable from political disagreement and that holding to a trove of weapons as your last line of defense in a losing debate makes normal ideological opposition look like nascent tyranny and readies you to suppress it.

So it’s no surprise that the most authoritarian American president in living memory, elected by a paltry minority, is not threatened in the least by citizen militias bristling with military firepower. He knows they’re on his side.



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