What We Take for Granted

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[See Update below] A friend in Texas writes:

>>This was the back page of the sports section in the Dallas paper last Thursday. It really struck me (having lost [a family member] to a 9mm) that these particular handguns, like too many other guns for sale, have absolutely no even arguably legitimate purpose in the hands of ordinary citizens, as distinct from soldiers and law enforcement officers. (They might be useful to members of a well-ordered militia, but presumably the gun advocates who've written and read that term out of the Second Amendment would not invoke it to defend the sale of these guns.) It seems extraordinary for them to be offered for sale as if they were electric drills, in newspaper ads suggesting gift certificates and credit cards.<<

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Anyone who has been around American politics recognizes that as a practical reality America is always going to have a gun culture. People write from Europe, Japan, Australia, China, and elsewhere lamenting and wondering how this can be; we could debate the reasons forever, but it is.

Yet much as we recognize degrees of difference in the violence of language and imagery -- within an overall commitment to the untrammeled right of free speech -- in theory we could recognize degrees of risk and collateral damage, within an overall recognition that many Americans will want to be armed. As the reader suggests, you can respect the ordinary citizen's right to be armed in self-defense -- while questioning average-citizen easy access to extended-clip or automatic or semi-automatic *weapons, like the one with which a single attacker in Tucson could shoot 20 people within a few seconds. [*Update: I should have left semi-automatic off the list; extended clips are the sensible next object of concern.]

The NRA naturally couches the argument in all-or-nothing terms: a restriction on any weapon is a threat to the right to be armed at all. They have been strong enough to extend that unreasonable absolutism to most politicians as well. (Ie, unless a politician is willing to accept the all-fronts open-ended career-long hostility of the NRA, it's not worth the politician's while to suggest common-sense restrictions on gun-sales laws, ammunition supplies, types of weapons that are available, etc.) The absolutist outlook is almost always a problem for a democracy. Here is illustration number 523.  
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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