Over and over again, after each successive outbreak of gun violence, America’s gun owners have resisted even modest regulation of their precious Second Amendment right to bear arms on the grounds that the founders saw gun ownership as the people’s last defense against tyrannical government. In a previous essay (Taking Aim at Tyranny), we explored the historical veracity of that claim and found it sorely wanting. But today, it no longer matters whether gun owners have their history right or ass-backwards; what matters is whether they believe what they say and whether they are willing to act on those beliefs. For we no longer have the luxury of discussing hypothetical scenarios. Tyranny is here. We can say this without hesitation – not because Cal Thomas or some other plutocratic bootlicker believes that the rich are subjected to excessive taxation or that their political front-groups are being unfairly targeted by the IRS – but because Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance state have exposed a scurrying mass of cockroaches feasting on the tatters of the Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment’s requirements of particularized suspicion and individualized judicial authorization of searches and seizures have been sacrificed on an altar of bogus security. As Barack Obama’s pathetic defense made painfully clear, all levels of government, together with their vast corporate tentacles, are complicit in the offense. And the corporate media – the so-called Fourth Estate that is supposed to check the three branches of government – has become a willing adjunct of the colossus, aiding its evil progress by demonizing the whistleblower instead of protecting the Bill of Rights from a massive and terminal injury. Against this dismal backdrop, the country needs a last bastion, a strong bulwark, a John Wayne on a trusty steed. It needs someone to take out the trash, to make our day. It needs the NRA.
But where are they? Where are these brave men who have told us repeatedly that they believe in liberty and stand against tyranny? Where is Wayne LaPierre? When was the press conference at which he raged against the NSA’s violence against our precious constitutional principles and issued a rousing battle cry to the serried ranks of his formidable organization? Where are his noble allies in the Congress – the Lindsey Grahams, the John McCains – those glorious statesmen who have so often declaimed that the rights of American citizens must not be infringed? Where are those fearless hunters with assault rifles in the tool chests of their trucks – those real men who do manly things with their phalli of steel? And if these putative guardians of American freedoms are not coming to save us, then where are we?
In the glaring absence of any evidence that Wayne LaPierre has expressed concern about the NSA’s activities, we must look at the positions of his allies in politics. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is happy that Big Brother is watching us and wants us all to know that we have nothing to worry about if we’re all good boys and girls. John McCain (R-AZ) sees the government’s spying on its own citizens as an appropriate response to a “growing” threat. For them, the Fourth Amendment is clearly disposable. But when it comes to the Second Amendment, the language of the Constitution assumes a mysterious power not granted to lesser amendments. McCain – while positioning himself as a moderate elder statesman by voting for the very mild (and, crucially, doomed) gun-control bill proposed by Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey – has a staunch record of defending gun rights against meaningful restrictions. Graham proffered an alternative to Manchin-Toomey that eschewed expanded background checks in favor of armed guards in schools and a focus on the mentally ill. Then, shortly after gun control died in the Senate, Graham called for the Boston marathon bomber to be stripped of his rights as a criminal defendant and treated as an enemy combatant. Apparently, the all-powerful NRA has no problem whatsoever with Senators dismissing the importance of other constitutional rights, so long as they hew to the right line when guns are involved.
The Formula of Fear
Lest we be accused of rushing to an unfair judgment of inconsistency against these towering titans of the Senate, let us pause to consider a possible justification for this seemingly unprincipled display; namely, fear. As this discussion of the NRA’s allegiances makes clear, the health of the NRA’s business plan depends in part on the fear its members feel. But fear of impending gun restrictions is surely not the only fear we need to discuss. For guns are purchased as a result of other fears, some more legitimate than others: fear that a big black man will enter the home and rape the womenfolk1; fear that a coyote will take livestock; fear that manhood will be questioned if the blood of deer is not spilled on a fairly regular basis. And if we add to this mix of personal fears a social fear of some malevolent, external, unpredictable threat, then a decision by society at large to obsess over its own safety could be seen as an extension of an individual gun owner’s quest for protection. For political conservatives selling defense as the primary, legitimate role of the state, a terrified citizenry presents a rich vein of opportunities to expand the military-industrial complex and to exploit all the attendant avenues for corporate profit. (For a textbook example, we need look no further than Edward Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen.) Fear is a winning formula for the contemporary authoritarian state, just as it is for the firearms industry. When we contemplate the hypocrisy and double-standards of men like Lindsey Graham, we should not just see red, we should see green.
A president of FDR’s humanity would have seen through this pernicious paradigm in an instant. But in the current dispensation, we will not see leadership of that caliber again. Instead, we are treated to the doubly sick joke of a president whose formal education ought to erect a firewall against constitutional vandalism, and whose racial heritage ought to instill an instinctive aversion to official thuggery. While Dr. King and FDR are both turning in their graves, there has been at least one voice urging consistency in our adherence to the Bill of Rights: Rand Paul of Kentucky. A reliable defender of gun rights, Paul has challenged the bipartisan consensus behind the surveillance state, criticizing the portion of the Patriot Act that authorizes the NSA’s domestic spying and even threatening to launch a class action lawsuit against the NSA. Correctly identifying the Obama Administration as even more authoritarian than that of Bush II, Paul is treading on toes that are more accustomed to being caressed. It will be interesting to see whether Paul is considered irritating enough to buy off, or if he will simply be ignored as an irrelevant eccentric a la Bernie Sanders. Either way, Paul is not likely to alter the course of the ship of state. We are long past the point where reasoned debate can make a difference.
Put Up or Shut Up
And this brings us back to our friends in the NRA. They have talked the talk; it is now time for them to walk the walk. They insisted that they had to have their guns to protect the country against government tyranny. The tyranny is there for all the world to see, so what are we waiting for? Why aren’t they marching on the Capitol, guns in hand, to demand that the government respect the Fourth Amendment rights of the American people and immediately cease and desist from all internal surveillance unless specifically authorized by a properly obtained, individualized search warrant? Are the concepts too difficult to grasp? Are they not worth fighting for? Does the tree of liberty no longer need to be nourished by the blood of patriots and tyrants?
The answer to all these questions is that gun owners don’t have the kind of courage required to do the job for which they applied. They lack the physical courage and they lack the moral courage. It is one thing to shoot a deer in the woods; it is another thing altogether to put one’s life on the line for freedom. Somewhere in Hong Kong, a 29-year-old man without a gun is feeling that difference. Without men like him, freedom doesn’t have a chance.