U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez wipes away tears during a CNN town hall meeting on February 21, 2018. (Michael Laughlin/Reuters)
A rage more personal than political exists on both sides, and poses real danger to the ties that bind us as a nation.

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second Amendment. They mocked the notion that rape victims might want to arm themselves for protection. There were calls of “murderer.” Rubio was compared to a mass killer. There were wild cheers for the idea of banning every single semiautomatic rifle in America. The discourse was vicious.

It was also slanderous. There were millions of Americans who watched all or part of the town hall and came away with a clear message: These people aren’t just angry at what happened in their town, to their friends and family members; they hate me. They really believe I’m the kind of person who doesn’t care if kids die, and they want to deprive me of the ability to defend myself.

The CNN town hall might in other circumstances have been easy to write off as an outlier, a result of the still-raw grief and pain left in the wake of the Parkland shooting. But it was no less vitriolic than the “discourse” online, where progressives who hadn’t lost anyone in the attack were using many of the same words as the angry crowd that confronted Rubio and Loesch. The NRA has blood on its hands, they said. It’s a terrorist organization. Gun-rights supporters — especially those who oppose an assault-weapons ban — are lunatics at best, evil at worst.

This progressive rage isn’t fake. It comes from a place of fierce conviction and sincere belief.

Unfortunately, so does the angry response from too many conservatives:

While I don’t live in New York and D.C., I do interact with quite a few members of the mainstream media — from cable hosts to producers to print reporters — and I can assure you that this sentiment is every bit as slanderous to their characters as the claim that gun-rights supporters “don’t care” when kids are gunned down in schools.

Moreover, videos like this run alongside the NRA’s hard turn toward Trump and its angry ads that blur the lines between peaceful resistance and Antifa riots while condemning the “violence of lies” from gun-control advocates.

One thing’s for sure: Every single conservative who argues that such rhetoric is merely “fighting fire with fire” or making the enemy play by its own rules is matched by a progressive who argues the same darn thing. If you’re looking for one, you’ll never have trouble finding a reason to demonize your opponents.

My colleague Kevin Williamson has long argued that the gun-control debate isn’t a matter of policy but of “Kulturkampf.” The mutual disdain isn’t limited to vigorous disagreement about background checks; it extends to a perceived way of life. As Kevin says, some progressives believe that firearms are little more than “an atavistic enthusiasm for rural primitives and right-wing militia nuts, a hobby that must be tolerated — if only barely — because of some vestigial 18th-century political compromise.” They simply do not grasp — or care to grasp — how “gun culture” is truly lived in red America.

This loathing isn’t one-sided. It’s simply false to believe that the haters are clustered on the left side of the spectrum, and the Right is plaintively seeking greater understanding.

This loathing isn’t one-sided. It’s simply false to believe that the haters are clustered on the left side of the spectrum, and the Right is plaintively seeking greater understanding. Increasingly, conservatives don’t just hate their liberal counterparts; they despise the perceived culture of blue America. They’re repulsed by the notion that personal security should depend almost completely on the government. The sense of dependence is at odds with their view of a free citizenry, and — to put it bluntly — they perceive their progressive peers as soft and unmanly.

This divide won’t go away, and it has the potential to break us as a nation.

Unlike the stupid hysterics over net neutrality, tax policy, or regulatory reform, the gun debate really is — at its heart — about life and death. It’s about different ways of life, different ways of perceiving your role in a nation and a community. Given these immense stakes, extra degrees of charity and empathy are necessary in public discussion and debate. At the moment, what we have instead are extra degrees of anger and contempt. The stakes are high. Emotions are high. Ignorance abounds. Why bother to learn anything new when you know the other side is evil?

It takes more than a constitution or a government to hold a nation together. The ties that bind us as Americans are strong and durable, but the great challenges that formed them are receding into the past. Geographic differences create cultural differences, and cultural differences hasten ever-greater geographic change. Like clusters with like, and it results in the fury we saw last night, when one of the bluest communities in America vented its rage at the red emissaries in their midst.

A nation cannot endure forever when its people are consumed with such hate.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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