Politics & Policy

How the Right Could Lose Its Way on Guns

Supporters of Michigan’s open-carry law demonstrate in April. (Bill Pugliano/Gety Images)
“Bring your gun to work” laws and their ilk are a perversion of the principles that got us here.

In Oklahoma City last week, a business owner and reserve deputy sheriff named Mark Vaughan shot and injured a man who had beheaded one of his employees and, by all accounts, was in the process of attempting to decapitate another. In doing so, a spokesman for the police told reporters, Vaughan had likely saved the lives of “untold others” and he deserved to be treated as a “hero.” Almost universally, local law enforcement concurred. “The incident was not going to stop if he didn’t stop it,” Sergeant Jeremy Lewis explained to the Associated Press. “It could,” he suggested darkly, “have got a lot worse.”

Across the country, advocates of the right to keep and bear arms quickly picked up on the case, contending emphatically that the incident illustrated the broader case for the effectiveness of concealed carry and, more specifically, that it demonstrated the need for employers to permit firearms in the workplace. “In some parts of the US,” Patrik Jonsson noted in the Christian Science Monitor, Vaughan “could have faced employer sanctions for bringing a gun to his job.” Not, though, in Oklahoma, which state “is a pioneer in so-called ‘bring your gun to work’ laws that have spread to 22 other states, mostly in the South and Midwest.” In most of those states, Jonsson reports, such laws are reserved to the parking lot. Others, however, “extend that protection into the workplace,” among them Oklahoma. This, the Monitor proposes, raises a question: “Will jihad-style attack boost ‘bring gun to work’ laws?”

The National Rifle Association certainly hopes so, the outfit, per Jonsson, having recently “put its considerable clout behind ‘guns at work’ proposals, to the point where the organization has attacked politicians that are usually in good standing with the group for heeding corporate concerns about guns at work.”

As a matter of personal preference, I would certainly encourage private companies to allow their employees to bring their firearms to work, and, as a matter of taste, I would prefer it if those who have been discovered violating company policy were treated gently — especially if they were forced to break the rules in self-defense. But, unless one is to wholly rewrite the nature of American constitutional government, these decisions must be reserved to the private sector, and not to local voters or representatives. Like all of the provisions within the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment serves as a check on government and on government alone. It does not apply to Walmart or to FedEx or to Joe’s Highway Diner. When the NRA gripes that some politicians are “heeding corporate concerns” over the predilections of gun owners, what it is really saying is that those politicians are respecting property rights and refusing to get involved where they are not welcome. At what point, one wonders, did that become undesirable to liberty-loving people?

On the campaign trail and in private, conservatives invariably profess enthusiasm for at-will employment, for limited regulation, for free contracts between employers and employees, for the right of businesses to decide with whom they wish to associate, and for legal regimes that privilege local knowledge over centralized edict. Ostensibly at least, conservatives do not wish the state to instruct private firms what their opening hours must be, how much they are required to pay their staff, and what sort of health insurance they are bound to provide. Such opposition is rooted in the Right’s belief about the practical effects of these policies, certainly. But it is also grounded in its view of the role of state, which is to be limited to securing liberty and to creating a framework within which markets can flourish. Are we to conclude now that these ideals do not apply when it comes to the question of guns? And if not, what can explain red-state support for preemption?

Distressingly, the preemptive “guns at work” provisions that are sweeping the middle of the country are not the only hypocritical intrusions that the Right has championed of late.

In Florida earlier this year, Republican majorities in both houses passed an NRA-backed bill that prohibited private insurers “from denying coverage or increasing rates based on customers owning guns or ammunition.” Demonstrating a comprehensive inability to grasp the nature of individual rights, state representative Matt Gaetz told the Tampa Bay Tribune in April that “Floridians have a constitutional right to bear arms,” and that, in consequence, “even one case of insurers taking action because of gun ownership is ‘too much.’” “How much discrimination based on the exercise of a constitutional right is tolerable?” Gaetz asked. Oh dear.

Per the Tribune, the bill was designed to apply

to property and automobile insurers and add language to part of state law that deals with “unfair discrimination.” As an example, the bill would seek to block insurers from refusing to issue policies because of customers’ lawful ownership or possession of firearms. Similarly, it would bar them from charging “unfairly discriminatory” rates based on gun ownership or possession.

Shamefully, Republican governor Rick Scott signed the measure into law.

There is, let us be clear, nothing “conservative” about this idea, which has at its root the dangerous presumption that Americans are not truly able to enjoy their rights unless they are protected from the consequences of their exercise. Contrary to their architects’ exhortations, moreover, such regulations do nothing whatsoever to expand the right to keep and bear arms. Indeed, they have nothing to do with “rights” at all. “Insurance,” per Investopedia, is “a form of risk management in which the insured transfers the cost of potential loss to another entity in exchange for monetary compensation known as the premium.” Depending as they do on the nature of the risk that that the provider is being asked to mitigate, those premiums will vary wildly, Life-insurance coverage for a relatively sedentary writer such as myself will, naturally, cost less than life insurance would have cost for Evel Knievel. Auto insurance for a 23-year-old male with a Ferrari and two DUIs will be more costly than it will for a well-behaved 55-year-old woman who drives a Toyota Camry. It’s no different for firearms, and nor is there a case for making it so. If the actuarial evidence reveals that homes with firearms are riskier than homes without, premiums paid by gun owners should reflect that fact. The Bill of Rights exists to protects the citizenry’s capacity to act without government sanction. It does not guarantee immunity from reality.

Which is to say that, whatever weasel words they might marshal to their cause, Republicans in the Florida legislature did not protect gun owners at all. Instead, they instructed private insurance companies to ignore any increased risks that they were taking on, thereby making it illegal for those companies to cover their costs. The effect of this was to privilege one set of citizens over another and, by pushing the costs onto everybody in the state, to transmute a private choice into a public liability. One wonders how many of those championing the bill recognize that, by forcing insurers to ignore their data in the name of suspect social engineering, they have effectively instituted Obamacare for weapons. This, suffice it to say, is not “liberty”; it’s cronyism.

The notion that there is a significant difference between government force and private choice is a cornerstone of American liberty. Much to the irritation of reformers and meddlers alike, a “right” in the United States is a cudgel that can be used against the state, not by it. That one has a right to privacy does not imply that Washington must provide one with a padlock. Over the past two decades, the National Rifle Association and the Republican party have won a series of spectacular Second Amendment gains, rolling back regulations, reaffirming rights, and removing the tentacles of the state from an area in which they do not belong. This renewal has been electric to watch, but there will be no excuse if these victories provoke a perversion, by which “leave us alone” is transformed by routine success into “do as we wish.” The Right’s attitude toward firearms can serve as a helpful illustration of its stance toward liberty writ large. If it becomes aggressive in victory, it will squander a vital opportunity and lose its soul in the bargain.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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