Perspective — May 17, 2013, 9:00 am

On Gun Control and the Great American Debate Over Individualism

The firearm as emblem of personal sovereignty

Illustration by Jeremy Traum

Illustration by Jeremy Traum

So let’s review our recent national paroxysm about guns, shall we?

Gun control was a complete non-issue during the 2012 presidential campaign, and for good reason: the rate of gun violence — like the rate of violent crime — had fallen by about half since the late 1980s. During those two decades, gun laws got looser almost everywhere, so whatever was driving down the crime rate, it wasn’t gun control. But then came the shootings at the Aurora movie theater and Sandy Hook Elementary, and suddenly nobody could think about anything else. Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and New York passed restrictive laws concerning thirty-round magazines and various weapons based on characteristics — like pistol grips and flash hiders — that have nothing to do with a gun’s lethality. Congress also debated a ban on something called “assault rifles,” which, despite the impression created by the marquee massacres in Colorado and Connecticut, are used in about 2 percent of gun murders. As for the class of firearm that is used in more than half of gun murders, handguns, no one suggested restricting those. Nor could anybody explain how tinkering with rifles’ cosmetic features or the number of rounds they can carry was going to make safer a country that already has about 300 million guns in private circulation.

So the post–Sandy Hook gun debate was about as divorced from reality as could be. But that’s okay, because it all came to naught anyway. By muddying the genuinely useful suggestion of better background checks with inflammatory attempts to limit Americans’ consumer choices, the Democrats managed only to cement their reputation as freedom-hating elitists eager to ban things they don’t understand. The Senate rejected every single gun-safety measure they proposed, and — poof — the issue disappeared. I was pimping a new book about gun culture at the time, doing one media interview after another in the superheated gun-debate environment, but the day of the Senate vote, two public-radio stations cancelled interviews with me that had been scheduled long ago. Game over. Our national distress over gun policy vanished as though it had never existed. The country moved on to the North Korean missile threat, the Boston Marathon bombing, and Angelina Jolie’s breasts.

Gun control will be back, though. Not because bans are sensible policy (see: Prohibition, alcohol; and Drugs, War on), but because guns are a perfect stand-in for one of the fundamental, irresolvable, and recurring questions we face: To what extent should Americans live as a collective, or as a nation of rugged individuals?

We have the same fight over health care, welfare, environmental regulations, and a hundred other issues. The firearm, though, is the ultimate emblem of individual sovereignty, so if you’re inclined that direction, protecting “gun rights” is essential. And if you’re by nature a collectivist, the firearm is the abhorrent idol on the enemy’s altar. This is why no amount of bleating about crime statistics ever seems to change anybody’s mind, on either side.

In the past few days we’ve been momentarily distracted by the plastic pistol. Cody Wilson, about whom I write in my piece in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, successfully produced on a 3-D printer a bulky single-shot pistol, then posted the code on the Internet for complicated anarchic reasons of his own. The State Department immediately demanded that he take the code down, which he did, although once something is on the Internet it is beyond anybody’s control — precisely Wilson’s point — and the plastic gun has already been photographed in Europe, well beyond the State Department’s control.

The idea that such guns are undetectable by airport security remains a red herring; the gun is harmless without ammunition, which is readily detectable by X-ray. Neither is the issue the “ease” with which people can now acquire guns. Making a crude single-shot pistol on a $1,500 printer is far more cumbersome than buying a factory-made multi-shot gun, for a fraction of the price, out of the newspaper classifieds. What really has people upset about Wilson’s plastic pistol is the absence of permission inherent in the project. The idea that people might own something as dangerous and personally empowering as a firearm without society’s permission is what has always given gun-control advocates the fantods. That’s really what we talk about when we talk about guns: the power of the individual in relation to the collective, and the extent to which each of us needs to live by the permission of the rest. That argument is going nowhere, in all senses of the word.

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is the author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip, which was published in March by Knopf.

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