My Last Word on Guns

By Megan McArdle

Jason Zengerle indicates that the real point is that openly carrying weapons at a protest makes it harder for the Secret Service to do their job.  Probably.  On the other hand, lots of things make it harder for the Secret Service to do their job.  Protesting is much harder on the Secret Service--almost certainly harder than one guy openly carrying a gun, because the protesters are a crowd of people who have to be watched constantly for suspicious movements.  Should we ban protesting?  Or force the people who do it off the premises and into a park eight blocks away?

Of course not.  Expression in a free society is important--important enough even to let us risk the president's life, as we are indisputably doing every time we allow a protest, or for that matter a crowd, near him.    You can say, well, free speech is really important, and carrying a gun isn't, but that's begging the question.  I'm going to stop discussing this after the post, because what it comes down to is liberals saying, "Conservatives with guns make me extraordinarily anxious and upset," and clearly, they're right.  Nonetheless.  Carrying a gun is clearly an attempt to make some sort of political statement, though we may not know what--rather like flag burning.  And the supreme court takes a very dim view of "Fighting words" type excuses to limit constitutional rights.

Rather like flag burning, it shouldn't happen, even though you've a perfect right to do this.  The problem with taking a narrow position is that everyone wants to push you into the broader position.  It's easier to argue with the opposite of your position than a halfhearted compromise.  And making narrow arguments in the face of towering rage and anxiety seems, well, kind of wussy. 

Nonetheless, I take the narrow position:  openly carrying a gun to a protest is idiotic.  Our president isn't the only one who has had a totally lunatic pastor.  But there's really very little statistical evidence that it's likely to cause anyone any problems except their own stress.  People who are planning to commit violence are probably going to try to conceal it until the last moment.  And the other people aren't going to pick fights with the guy with the gun. Furthermore, these protests are hardly some variation on the Seattle WTO fights.  They're small and, other than the gun freak show and the LaRouchies with Hitler signs, pretty boring.

People carrying guns are acting like jerks.  So are the liberals who have created a giant scary amalgam of a right-wing protester, who has done every bad thing that every protester has ever done.  More than one person has now asked me how I can defend someone who shows up at a rally holding a gun in one hand and a picture of Obama-as-Hitler in the other, and starts screaming about death panels? 

Moreover, having created this horrifying bogeyman, the next rhetorical move is to claim that this constitutes the whole of the opposition to your program.

Does any of this sound oddly familiar?  Wait a second . . . it'll come to you . . . yes, that's right, it's 2003 all over again!  Coldplay's on the radio, Elizabeth Smart is being reunited with her family, and the rest of America is trying to rip each other's throats out, rhetorically speaking.  The  party in power is busy branding the opposition as something close to traitors because they are skeptical about a speculative venture that the majority just knows is going to turn out beautifully . . . Meanwhile, the opposition is staging increasingly freakish demonstrations, while the loud lunatic fringe starts looking for fascist jackboots and death squads behind every tree.  The party labels have switched, but the vitriol, and the emotional tenor of the debate, seems very much the same.  You'd think that the various players would have learned something from our last outing.

Well, no, you wouldn't.  But it would be nice to think that, wouldn't it?

I'm done talking about this now.  To me, liberals sound like the pro-war crowd did in 2002--positive that they're right, and constructing a lot of arguments around their ability to imagine what is going on in the heads of people they don't know very well, and like even less.  Too many conservatives sound like the lunatics heading the ANSWER brigade, who were not content to say that Bush et. al. were really, really wrong about invading Iraq--no, nothing would do but that they also be secret fascists looking for ways to increase the net stock of suffering in the world.  And too many on the right are letting these morons talk uninterrupted, including me, I suppose, because I can't bear to spend any of my precious life moments listening to Rush Limbaugh or someone even worse.

I hated it then, and I hate it now.  This country can survive Bush, Obama, or anyone else who is likely to get elected.  It cannot survive the moral equivalent of civil war.

Update:  I should add that Zengerle asks me what, besides a bet, I would take as proof that liberals are 100% serious in their beliefs about protesters.  Well, I think revealed preference is the best cue, but I would take a non-bet bet.  That is:  what would falsify your belief that these people are the vanguard of a rising tide of dangerous right-wing militia action?

I don't get the feeling that it is possible to falsify these beliefs--indeed, the rage that confronts me when I attempt the fairly anodyne task of showing that law-abiding gun owners almost never turn criminal, suggests a very considerable emotional investment in them.  But I would be happy to be proven wrong.  So:  what would falsify the belief that all these people are, in some sense, out to get you? 

A Democrat with a pro-healthcare sign and a gun on his hip does not seem to falsify the belief that the only thing carrying a gun can possibly signal is an intent to threaten and/or harm.  A black man carrying doesn't falsify the belief that this is deeply tied into a racist movement.  The utter lack of gun violence so far in no way erodes this belief--indeed, seems to strengthen it, as it can only be a matter of time.

My belief could be falsified in many ways:  on the record statements from the protesters, a shooting incident started by someone who arrived at a rally openly carrying, a plot uncovered by a law enforcement agency.  Obviously, I hope it's not the case.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/08/my-last-word-on-guns/24002/