Politics & Policy

Why the Left Won’t Win the Gun-Control Debate

Angelina Lazo (center), an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, protests in favor of gun control in Coral Springs, Fla., February 16, 2018. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
It’s too hard to persuade people to willingly surrender the right to protect their own lives.

Last week I wrote a long essay in The Atlantic that represented my best effort to explain “gun culture” to those who may be more hostile to gun rights than, say, the typical reader of National Review. I began by describing threats to my family and how a person’s decision to carry a weapon is often directly tied to personal experience of real danger. Today, my friend Bethany Mandel published a similar essay in the New York Times, describing how her mother once chased off an intruder with a gun and how she herself decided to buy a gun when her family was threatened during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The goals of both essays are simple: to destroy stereotypes and to explain that the individual decision to purchase and carry a gun isn’t rooted in some sort of strange gun fetish or Wild West swagger but rather in the fundamental desire (and right) to protect your loved ones from harm. If arguments for gun control don’t grapple with this reality, then they’re destined to fail.

Yet the responses to both essays have helped demonstrate why the Left keeps losing on guns. It simply can’t persuade a rational, reasonable adult who’s experienced a threat that they’re safer without effective means of self-defense. Indeed, the effort to make this case is so often rooted in condescension or ignorance that it’s deeply alienating.

First, there’s an odd argument that it’s somehow illegitimate to make a decision based on “fear.” Or — as one correspondent put it — “fear and paranoia.” This makes no sense. Americans make safety-based decisions all the time. Is it wrong to buckle a seatbelt because that’s a “fear-based” decision? Should you ride a motorcycle without a helmet just to show the world you’re not scared? Reasonable people take precautions in the face of real threats.

Next, you immediately hear that you’re foolish. That “you’re more likely to hurt yourself than defend yourself.” In other words, the gun is more dangerous to you and your family than it is to any given criminal. But if you’re speaking to a responsible, non-suicidal adult, then this argument is flat-out wrong. In fact, even when you include suicides in the analysis — and compare them to the best estimates of annual defensive gun use — you’ll find that law-abiding Americans use guns to defend themselves far more than they do to hurt themselves.

Moreover, another person’s irresponsibility is irrelevant to the existence of my fundamental liberties. I don’t surrender my free-speech rights because another person uses theirs to troll Twitter. I don’t surrender my right to free exercise of religion because another person joins a cult. I don’t surrender my inherent and unalienable right to self-defense because a man across town decides to kill himself.

Finally, if there’s a concession that in your circumstance it’s reasonable to own a gun, then critics will immediately tell you exactly what kind of gun you “need” for self-defense.

“Well, you don’t need a large-capacity magazine.”

“You don’t need an assault rifle.”

“Shotguns are best. You don’t need anything other than a pump-action 12 gauge.”

But these arguments fall apart the instant one considers the real world. If the most reasonably foreseeable threat is from a person with a semi-automatic handgun and a large-capacity magazine, then how is it possible that you “need” less? When the gun-control lobby tells gun-owners what they “need,” what they’re saying is that law-abiding citizens should be outgunned in their own homes.

John Locke described the right of self-defense as a ‘fundamental law of nature.’ It is an unalienable right every bit as essential to human liberty as the right to speak.

John Locke described the right of self-defense as a “fundamental law of nature.” It is an unalienable right every bit as essential to human liberty as the right to speak. Indeed, when a person experiences an actual threat, the need to exercise that right of self-defense becomes more immediately primal and deeply felt than any other constitutional right. You can’t speak when you’re dead. It’s hard to practice your religion when you’re in the ICU.

Faced with a generation of defeat in the gun debate, the Left is increasingly turning to one of its favorite weapons in the culture war, stigma. It’s mobilizing its tribe — including progressive corporations, Hollywood, and the mainstream media — to not just make policy arguments but also to shame and insult Americans who disagree. The goal is to make gun ownership culturally toxic.

But shame is weaker than love. Gun owners who’ve experienced a threat possess or carry a weapon because they love their families. Teachers who wish to carry a weapon at school do so because they love the kids under their care. These folks know that their responsible gun ownership makes their communities and families safer.

Why does the Left keep losing the gun debate? Because it’s hard to persuade any man or woman to surrender an unalienable right — especially when exercising that right helps preserve the most vital right of all, the right to live.

David French — 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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