The Niskanen Center used to be a libertarian think tank, until it decided manifest destiny applied. With that, the very smart Will Wilkinson took to the papers to argue against “assault weapons.” Fair enough, and there is no doubt that the matter of gun control is a huge issue in the country. Wilkinson is hardly the only smart guy who has taken the position that semiautomatic guns are a blight on America, a weapon that can no longer be tolerated and, all other issues aside, must be stopped.
But how his argument is framed is a problem.
Why an Assault Weapons Ban Hits Such a Nerve With Many Conservatives
The premise of Trumpist populism is that the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens matter more than democracy.
As I’ve said here many times, I’m not a gun guy. If there was no such thing as an AR or AK or a semiautomatic weapon beginning with the letter “A,” I would lose no sleep. I don’t have one. I don’t want one. If they were banned, per se, it would make no difference in my enjoyment of life.
But those characterizations scare the crap out of me. Only conservatives have guns? Only a minority care about constitutional rights. Only “Trumpist populism” stands between the Constitution and the evisceration of constitutional rights when the majority, if it is a majority, wants to rid us of these meddlesome rights?
Wilkinson’s argument uses the juxtaposition of Beta O’Rourke’s mandatory gun buyback idea with Houston Republican legislator Briscoe Cain’s challenge suggesting he won’t give up his AK whatever without a fight. Wilkinson goes nutpicking.
Democracy is what we do to prevent political disagreement from turning into violent conflict. But the premise of Trumpist populism is that the legitimacy and authority of government is conditional on agreement with the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens — a group mainly composed of white, Christian conservatives.
I get the concern. I’ve heard it from many, and understand why Wilkinson has joined their ranks. When the bottom line is life or death, and you’re staring down the barrel of a gun, the last think you’re thinking about is the constitutional ramifications of what you’re about to say or do. Survival comes first. I get it.
What’s being argued here isn’t survival, but how a constitutional right, despite Wilkinson’s somewhat disingenuous argument about holdings in circuit courts that have intentionally challenged the Supreme Court to reverse them for their flagrant refusal to apply Heller and McDonald, is subject to the will of the majority.
The argument is grounded in ad hominem, that only Trumpists are interested in the Second Amendment, and that they are the minority of Americans. To dispute Wilkinson, therefore, means you must be a Trumpist, and hate the will of the majority. And, of course, the weapons themselves are evil.
Weapons of mass death, and the submissive fear they engender, put teeth on that shrinking minority’s entitled claim to indefinite power. Without the threat of violence, what have they really got? Votes? Sooner or later, they won’t have enough, and they know it.
Wilkinson evokes the fears of parents, of good people, of people who don’t want to die and don’t want others to die. Appeals to emotion are understandable. Mass shootings are emotional. Mass shootings of school children are as emotional as it gets.
But the same can be, and has been, said about the rest of the Bill of Rights, whenever they work to the benefit of someone whose conduct is awful, wrong or, at times, deadly. Can the Fourth Amendment serve to free a murderer, even a mass murderer, if the search and seizure is unconstitutional? It can, and wouldn’t a majority of Americans find it troubling that we let murderers go free?
I would. I bet Will would as well. Probably you, too. Because we’re not supporters of murder or murderers. We condemn such terrible crimes. We can be outraged at the harm they cause. But we know better than to qualify constitutional rights for all because the majority decides the rights of the minority, if minority it is, are no longer worthy of protection.
Democrats don’t want to grind the rights of Republicans underfoot. They want to feel safe and think it should be harder for unhinged lunatics to turn Walmarts into abattoirs. But when minority-rule radicals hear determined talk of mandatory assault rifle buybacks, they start to feel surrounded. They hear the hammers clicking back, imagine themselves in the majority’s cross hairs.
No decent human being wants some unhinged lunatic to open fire in Walmarts. Or a schools. Or anywhere. Or a murderer to walk free. Or “hate speech” to be used to attack a person for being black, or gay, or transgender. The list goes on. The same rationale applies. It’s long been referred to as the tyranny of the majority, where enough people decide that they don’t like a right enjoyed by the minority, and since they’re the majority, they can just eradicate the right they disdain.
That’s why we have a Constitution. If the majority decides they no longer like a right, and their solution is to vote it away rather than amend the Constitution to reflect the change they seek, then no right is safe, including the rights you may need when it’s your turn in the crosshairs.