I enjoy unproductive talk. Bloviating, berating, snarking and swearing about politics are all pleasures, and not even particularly guilty ones. But my self-indulgence doesn’t accomplish much. It neither seeks nor finds common ground.
Much of our modern American dialogue about gun rights and gun control is like that.
Imagine that we wanted to identify our irreducible philosophical and practical differences, seek areas of agreement and change some minds. What might we do?
First, we could stop culture-bundling. We culture-bundle when we use one political issue as shorthand for a big group of cultural and social values. Gun control advocates don’t just attack support for guns; they attack conservative, Republican, rural and religious values. Second Amendment advocates don’t just attack gun control advocates; they attack liberal, Democratic, urban and secular values.
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When you culture-bundle guns, your opponents don’t hear “I’m concerned about this limitation on rights” or “I think this restriction is constitutional and necessary.” They hear “I hate your flyover-country daddy who taught you to shoot in the woods behind the house when you were 12” and “Your gay friends’ getting married would ruin America and must be stopped.” That’s unlikely to create consensus.
Second, we could recognize that accurate firearms terminology actually matters. Confused gun control advocates may suggest a ban on “semiautomatic weapons,” believing that means automatic rifles, when it actually refers to nearly every modern weapon other than bolt-action rifles and shotguns.
If you think precision doesn’t matter, forget about guns for a second. Imagine I’m concerned about dangerous pit bulls, and I’m explaining my views to you, a dog trainer – but I have no grasp of dog terminology.
Me: I don’t want to take away dog owners’ rights, but we need restrictions on owning an attack dog.
You: What’s an “attack dog”?
Me: You know what I mean. Like military dogs.
You: Pit bulls aren’t military dogs. In fact “military dogs” isn’t a thing. You mean like German Shepherds?
Me: Nobody’s trying to take away your German Shepherds. But civilians shouldn’t own fighting dogs.
You: I have no idea what dogs you’re talking about.
Me: You’re being both picky and obtuse. You know I mean hounds.
You: Hounds? Seriously?
Me: OK, maybe not actually “hounds.” Maybe I have the terminology wrong. I’m not obsessed with violent dogs the way you are. But we can identify breeds that civilians just don’t need to own.
You: Apparently not.
Third, we can’t debate gun rights when we’re terrible at talking about rights in general.
The 2nd Amendment debate is full of assertions like “My right not to be shot outweighs your right to own a gun” and “I have an absolute right to own any gun I want.” How can we evaluate these assertions, except on a visceral level?
When it comes to rights, we’ve lost the plot, particularly since 9/11. We don’t know where rights come from, we don’t know or care from whom they protect us, we don’t know how to analyze proposed restrictions on them, and we’ve built a fear-based culture that scorns them in the face of both real and imagined risks.
It is therefore inevitable that talk about gun rights will be met with scorn or shrugs, and that discussions of what restrictions are permissible will be mushy and undisciplined. Unless we approach all rights in a principled manner, we’re not going to have a productive debate about any of them.
Ken White is a Los Angeles attorney.