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.

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

More from Dan Baum:

From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

The gun Congress can’t ban

Commentary July 20, 2012, 7:30 pm

The Price of Gun Control

From the August 2010 issue

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

My concealed weapon and me

Get access to 165 years of
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  • Kim

    ‘A nation of rugged individuals?’. Please spare me. Freedom means not being spied on by your employer and government. Freedom means being able to express your opinion without being prosecuted. Since we obviously don’t have those freedoms anymore, we have to settle for this: Freedom is owning an object that has only one function: to kill you or others. Wow. That’s a pretty pathetic exchange, if you you ask me.

    • Matthew McDole

      I don’t understand your complaint about loss of some freedoms but not others. A violation of any your (or my) liberties is still an infringement on freedom. Whether your first, fourth, or second amendment rights are being infringed, what is the difference?

      So please spare me. Picking and choosing which freedoms you choose to defend is intellectually dishonest, you simply can’t be a lover of liberty and a collectivist at the same time.

      • Kim

        Owning an object is not a freedom. It is a commercial transaction. If you use roads, the internet, or any part of the infrastructure of this country that my and and your tax dollars pay for you are also a ‘collectivist’ There are no absolute rights. This country was built by the government and private enterprise. Like the author, you are setting up a false dichotomy- there is no one or the other. There’s both. And yes I can be a lover of liberty and a ‘collectivist’ at the same time. Freedom to me is not a firearm.

        • Matthew McDole

          Straw men abound….

          Talking about “infrastructure” is a silly argument, a favorite of collectivists everywhere. Next you should waste more time by talking about how police and fire agencies are socialist institutions and we’re all socialist because of it. I’ll respond to all of those silly arguments by saying they should be privatized and/or local responsibilities and that the federal government has no place, nor right to dictate their development or operation.

          Yes, rights ARE absolute. You’ll come back and say I don’t have the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. My response is that that because doing so would violate the rights of others it would be unjust, but I do indeed have the ability to make that choice.

          Furthermore, yes, there IS one or the other. Liberty and Collectivism are diametrically opposed. The two concepts are in direct conflict with one another. Your attitude of “the needs of the many outweigh the rights of a few” is nonsense. Needs change, rights do not. Your mindset will not only lead to tyranny, but encourages it.

          • Kim

            If all you care about is yourself, that’s all you’re going to be left with. Margaret Thatcher once said there is no society. Well, I’m sure you saw the groundswell of public sentiment at her funeral. Your rights end when you violate mine. There can be one or another. There can be both, because there is both. Just because you can’t deal with the reality of it doesn’t make it any less so. The highway system you drive on was started by the federal government. It’s NOT a private enterprise. That’s reality.

          • Phil Wilson

            “your rights end when you violate mine”

            Fair enough. How about this: I’ll continue to leave you alone, and you stop trying to render my family helpless before criminals and others who would deprive us of life, liberty, and property. If we can agree on this, I think we can co-exist peacefully.

          • GomeznSA

            Phil – you hit one of the key points that their ‘side’ refuses to admit or acknowledge: they believe that EVERYONE has to abide by their version of the ‘rules’ – individuals are subservient to the will of the collective…………

          • Jon Shell

            Your rights end when you violate mine, huh?

            Will you still say that when your view on firearms gets someone killed for lack of one?

          • Les Legato

            You whine about your loss of freedom and then decry personal weapon ownership as part of some selfish, “capitalist-pig” mindset at odds with the benefits provided with the benfificence of the State.

            It’s clear you only want “freedom” as long as marxist / libtards like you can dictate who can make which decisions, thus you DO make the author’s point.

            Keep obfuscating, we hope you are naive enough to NOT own firearms, so that when the CW you so eagerly await is started by you and your Obamunists’ ever-over-reaching grab of our freedoms, you will be one of the ffirst of those left bleeding out at the barricades.

          • Kim

            I’m not a Marxist. And Obama is not grabbing your guns. Guns are not Freedom. It’s a right that come with responsibility. And no I don’t make the author’s point- I’m not dictating anything. I’m saying that you can have government and personal freedoms. This is a realty.

          • Carl Stevenson

            You may not be a Marxist, but you are certainly a statist. You believe in the “goodness” of government. The Founders would have thought you a fool. I certainly do.
            “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” – Daniel Webster
            Webster was too generous … Men who gravitate to and seek positions of power do mean to be masters, but many of them have no intention of being be benevolent masters.
            Look at Obama. He is a narcissistic psychopathic sociopath.
            Hitler would have been envious of the resources available to Obama. Several generations have been hoodwinked and brainwashed through “public education” and a compliant, leftist media to see the leviathan of government as their protector and provider, rather than the oppressor it has become.
            I would submit that we are at a worse place than Germany was just before Hitler’s total takeover and that Obama is capable of even greater evil than Hitler and Stalin combined.
            Just think, Obama admires Mao … He has Mao ornaments on the WH Christmas tree.
            “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” – Mao
            Obama and his inner circle revere Mao and the way he ruthlessly grabbed power in China. The fact that he murdered about 100 million Chinese to do it is, to them, a “feature,” not a “bug.”
            Wake up and smell the tyranny! 

        • Carl Stevenson

          When they have you lined up for the camps (or the ovens, or simply a trench), I suspect you’ll suddenly wish you and your fellow victims had some guns. But, at that point it will be too late.
          The 2nd amendment guarantees the freedom that protects all the others – the inherent right to self-defense. Without it, all of the others are surely lost. That was the Founders’ view, having lived through, and survived, their generation’s tyrants.
          Disarmament has always led to tyranny and butchery … Look at history. 262 MILLION people were murdered BY THEIR OWN GOVERNMENTS in the 20th century – AFTER they allowed those governments to disarm them. See:
          They ALL thought “It can’t happen here” – until they were disarmed and it started, then it was too late. Don’t make the same mistake. Don’t EVER let your government disarm you.
          The Founders knew that government, if not constrained at every step, will continue to accumulate power and control until it becomes tyranny. That’s why they feared standing armies and insisted that the “right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

    • Michael Marriam

      Kim, I’ve used my guns for many things and I’ve never killed anyone. If by chance we were attending the same public function and you were in immediate mortal danger would you want me to defend you with my guns or would you rather die?

  • Joshua Grabow

    Kim, your truculence only proves his point. Many political scientists would define a government as an organization with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and force. It is a basic part of the social compact. Those, like me, who advocate weapons as a civil right take the broader view that while it is necessary for government to wield force, monopolies are generally a bad thing. We would like to retain some measure of that power and responsibility in the citizenry. This may be messy around the edges, but so is the rest of our political system. Our entire method of government is about sacrificing some level of efficiency for greater accountability and dispersed power. And dispersing the means of violence is the most democratic of all power diffusion. You may mock this “exchange”, but we do not. We can argue the specifics all day, whether crime rates are affected, whether a specific law is likely to be effective, etc. But the basic disagreement is that I think people should be entrusted with some measure of responsibility over the violence in their lives, and you don’t.

  • Shootist

    The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.


    Good day.

  • pjb1

    Dan, I think you are on to something here. Although, when we speak of “collective”, of course what is meant is the ruling class. A collective of anything cannot have an opinion about anything. Well, the ruling class is itself a collective, but the individuals in it really do largely share the notion that the peasants must beg permission to do anything; and especially on guns, members of this or any ruling class always hate to see the peasants armed.

  • Kim

    Let’s see- we have Hitler, Mao, being lined up in camps, socialism, tyranny,Marxism How did you guys find Harper’s anyway? Because of the word “Guns”? Spare me your paranoia. Government and private enterprise can be both good and bad. They both exist in this country. You can invoke Mao, Hitler, or whoever else you want to. That doesn’t change the fact. Calling me names won’t change that fact. Good or bad, government is not going away. Good or bad, private enterprise isn’t either. Corporations will not save you. Wall Street doesn’t care, and if you want toll roads, go to Texas. I hear they have a lot of them there. I am neither a statist nor a ‘sovereign’ citizen. Neither are any of you. You are not sovereign. You are subject to the laws of the country the same as I am. Owning a gun doesn’t make you special.

    • MiguelSaavedra1

      You nailed it Kim, the NRA fills the coffers of demagogues, who exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, nothing stops the people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population. In this case it’s the kooky fear that some ‘Libtard’ is coming around to take their guns, check their criminal or mental history, or limit the amounts of ammunition they can plug into a hand-gun, which too-many of them leave lying around for anyone to pick-up or steal from a desk drawer or a glove-compartment.

      Basically, they’re wilfully arming young children, who are curious and like to snoop around or thieves, who like to market stolen weopons. Living in apoplectic fear of armed criminals who they so often have indirectly harmed themselves is hardly rational; but I suspect there’s a lot compensation going on for inadequacies for which they’re too embarrassed to see a counselor about, so they just troll for the word ‘Gun’ and preen themselves on hackneyed, pseudo-tough words like ‘Rugged Individualist’, till someone gets the drop on them.
      Seeing everything through the ideological lense of ‘gummint’ bad’, unfettered gun ownership good! Puts a lot of power in gun lobbyists for the manufactures hands. But heck, if you’re kneeling at the altar of Private Enterprise over common sense regulations, that must be a good thing.

      “Ideology is the science of idiots.” ― John Adams

    • Ariel Rainault

      You should watch OCCUPY UNMASKED and stop going along with the socialists…I know I was duped too! :(

  • Obamunist

    Nearly one million “collectivist”, “statist”, “Marxist”, “Obamunist” American citizens have been gunned down in the USA over the past ten years by “rugged individualists” with guns. Nearly a third of a million of them have died.
    I don’t know about other readers of this column, but I am more fearful of rugged American individualists packing heat than I am of the “trenches”, “ovens” and “camps” they think they are protecting me from.
    How gun laws in the USA have become more relaxed after 300,000 gun deaths is beyond comprehension and beyond second amendment protection. Can you possibly imagine what the USA would be like today if one million Americans had been shot by terrorists over the past ten years? Hey, wait a minute…

    • nueces

      Most of those gun deaths were suicides. Many of those suicides were people at the end of their physical ability to continue living. Terminal disease. They chose not to live their last few weeks or days in unbearable pain.

      If collectivists actually cared one tinker’s damn about folks dying before their time they would have the national speed limit set down to 55 mph or less. That would probably save ten thousand or so lives a year. But that would inconvenience THEM.

      Statists care about control not people. We ‘rugged individualists’ know most of us aren’t that rugged any more but we are individualists and we know, without a shadow of a doubt that individualism, girded with an educated and cultured sense of personal responsibility and christian morality, will out perform the dumbed-down collective and their drones throughout time.

      You statist anti-american elites may have taken New England and the western edge of the left coast but you aren’t getting much further. We’ll even get Colorado back soon and ninety percent of Illinois. The most recent generation is waking to the fact that socialism has created a world for them without jobs and saddled them with a debt guaranteed to eat out the substance of the nation. They are turning on you now. They are not happy.

  • Ethan Vanderbuilt

    We have tried almost unlimited guns in the United States and now it is time for gun control.



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