Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

The Riots and Protests Will Make Gun Ownership More Popular

(Siriphngs He Mgx N Phe Chr/EyeEm/Getty Images)
In their lack of trust and security, people will turn to the Second Amendment

Not in a million years, not if all the nation’s prestigious public-relations firms were mobilized for the cause, could gun manufacturers have conceived of a more effective advertising campaign for their product than the “defund the police” movement. 

Of course, realizing that a flagrantly anti-cop message might not sit well with a public still sweeping up shards of glass left by rioters in city centers across the country, Democrats and their media allies moved quickly to temper the movement’s message. But whatever “defund the police” ends up meaning in practice, it highlights a gaping disconnect between the Left’s anti-cop rhetoric and their anti-gun rhetoric about the Second Amendment. 

It’s true that Americans’ debate over guns has been largely performative for the past two decades. Sure, there will always be political efforts to constrain firearm ownership — in several major American cities, in fact, it’s still virtually impossible for a law-abiding citizen to purchase a handgun for self-defense, despite the legal victories of Heller (2008) and McDonald (2010) in the Supreme Court. (The first struck down D.C.’s ban on handguns and reaffirmed the individual right to own a weapon; the second struck down a similar ban in Chicago.) The intellectual and legal justification for restriction, however, has been exhausted. The coronavirus crisis, and the subsequent riots, may have killed whatever case was left.

Gun-control advocates have long argued that trained police and military, but not civilians, have cause to be armed. We’ve been told that owning a gun is a dangerous fetish — not to mention useless in the face of a state armed with tanks and thermonuclear weapons. A civilized society relies on law-enforcement officers to safeguard the peace, not a bunch of unregulated slack-jawed yahoos. Even the notion of a constitutional right to individual self-defense is, they claim, a fraud perpetrated by the gun lobby and its collaborators. 

The same people now inform us that cops are shock troops deployed by a systemically racist state to suppress African Americans. So much so that the public should contemplate abolishing, defunding, or “reimagining” law enforcement altogether. We frequently hear progressives hyperbolically assert that black Americans are being “hunted down” in the streets by nefarious cops. When the New York Times published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton in which he proposed that the president “employ the military,” if necessary, to protect city neighborhoods from rioters and looters, dozens of the paper’s staffers acted as if the words themselves were violence, tweeting, “This puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” 

So the question is: Why have liberals spent years demanding that we arm racist killer cops and disarm innocent black civilians? Why do they believe white supremacists should have guns but not shopkeepers?

Granted, most liberals won’t admit to any inconsistency in their position, because the liberal position has devolved into a perpetual game of Calvinball. But in the long run, this kind of argument is unsustainable. 

A rational person needn’t subscribe to either maximalist position, of course. Cops are granted great power, and they will sometimes abuse it. But this doesn’t make law enforcement “institutionally” racist. And the simple fact that Americans rely on law enforcement doesn’t mean they should be stripped of the ability to protect themselves, their property, or their family when necessary.  

African Americans can offer a stronger case for the importance of the Second Amendment than any other group in the nation. The same gun arguments that 1960s Black Panthers were making in the Manhattan penthouses of celebrities would not be out of place at an NRA convention today. Nor would the contention of the great black journalist T. Thomas Fortune that a black man needs a gun to “defend his home and children and wife.” Nor would civil-rights leader Ida B. Wells’s claim that firearms “should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”  

In truth, a black American has a far better chance of being shot down by a criminal in his own neighborhood than by the local police officer. But if we accept that the law refuses to grant him the protections he deserves — nay, that it targets him — the case for the Second Amendment becomes stronger still. 

It’s unsurprising, then, that we see guns popping up at Black Lives Matter protests. One young woman in Black Panther garb led protesters through Atlanta streets with an “assault weapon,” assuring reporters it was to “protect” the other participants. When cops in smaller towns attempted to confiscate the rifles of Black Lives Matter marchers, BLM’s defenders did not celebrate. They argued that white Second Amendment advocates were negligent and hypocritical by not defending the BLM carriers — and perhaps they’re right. (Open carry is allowed in all states of the South, and 31 states in total.)

This moment isn’t merely exposing the rickety positions of the gun restrictionists. It is making their cause, as a practical matter, even more unachievable. 

The Second Amendment is the only enumerated right we enjoy that is tethered to tangible things. You may be able to incrementally corrode speech rights or due-process rights from afar, but not arms. The Redcoats who marched on the Concord powder house in 1775 to appropriate munitions were undermined by the widespread prevalence of firearms. So are, in a less violent way, the lobbyists at Everytown for Gun Safety. 

There are probably more than 350 million guns in the hands of American civilians right now. A healthy patriotic disinclination to share this kind of information with pollsters makes it impossible to know. Every time there’s a national social or political trauma, or any effort to curb gun ownership — real or imagined — it sparks a new buying frenzy. 

Bill Clinton was the first president to openly advocate that the federal government constrain gun sales and regulate owners. Thus the Nineties saw a spike in gun purchases. When Barack Obama, another would-be restrictionist, became president, the United States was home to a $19 billion gun industry. The country had a $50 billion gun industry the day he left office. During Obama’s eight years as president, the FBI processed more than 157 million firearm checks, which was 61 million more than it had the previous decade. 

Those increases, however, may all turn out to be trivial when compared with the surge that this moment is generating. Coronavirus quarantines created a sense of foreboding and helplessness among many millions of Americans who were already searching for ways to take control of their lives. That was before rioters and looters began destroying businesses and homes and Americans witnessed the police in a number of major metropolitan areas surrender to them. 

In May, before the protests took hold, the FBI completed 1.6 million background checks, an increase of 75 percent from May 2019, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. April saw a 70 percent gain over the previous April’s total. In March, the FBI conducted 3.7 million background checks, the highest monthly total since the national instant-check system was instituted in 1998. It exceeded by more than a million the number of background checks in March 2019. The record for a single day was set on March 21 this year, when more than 210,000 checks were conducted. Some reports have ammunition sales increasing more than 600 percent during the pandemic.

Gun restrictionists enjoy making the debatable claim that the number of gun-owning households has been in decline. Well, the recent surge in gun sales has already included 2.5 million new individual gun owners — perhaps the largest short-term spike in gun ownership in American history. Women, typically more inclined to support gun-control measures, accounted for somewhere around 40 percent of all first-time buyers, or around 1 million.

The leading reason for purchasing a new gun? Self-defense. The most-purchased firearms during this buying binge? They weren’t bolt-action hunting rifles or revolvers, but semiautomatic handguns — nearly double the number of the second-most-purchased type of firearm, shotguns. You may remember CNN’s raucous post-Parkland anti-gun town-hall special, in which the crowd cheered wildly as one of the young activists proposed banning semiautomatic weapons. 

Good luck with that. 

It’s no surprise that a full-ideological-spectrum collapse of trust in our institutions has sparked a revival in our individual and communal instinct for self-preservation. Historically speaking, the Second Amendment is always revitalized when we feel threatened. This moment is no exception.

This article appears as “A Second Amendment Moment” in the July 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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