Pro-Gun Absolutism: The Gun Lobby’s Push To Privatize Law and Order

The idea of outsourcing public safety to private vigilantes is a mad project conceived in paranoia, says Will Marshall.

Pat Sullivan/AP

The gun lobby is shooting sensible gun legislation full of holes. Already, the Senate has dropped a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and Rand Paul is threatening to lead another filibuster, this time against stricter background checks.

As the endgame approaches, it’s important to understand the radical vision that underlies pro-gun absolutism. Forget about the Second Amendment—the gun lobby, abetted by timorous Republicans, is trying to privatize law and order.

Maintaining public order is supposed to be government’s job. The sociologist Max Weber considered a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force to keep order” to be the defining characteristic of a competent state.

The Republican Party exists to elect people to run the government. Where are the Republicans who will stand for the civilized principle that the government, not private vigilantes, should provide basic law and order? Apart from a few honorable exemptions, such as John McCain, they have been intimidated into silence.

In the gun lobby’s dystopic view, Americans can no longer rely on government to keep them safe, so they have to do the job themselves. When everybody is armed and dangerous, the predators among us won’t be able to find any victims. Banning assault weapons and high-capacity clips is tantamount to unilateral disarmament, since it would leave law-abiding citizens outgunned in their confrontation with thugs and criminals.

By this warped logic, it’s better to outsource public safety and law enforcement to private vigilantes than to curb public access to weapons of war. Conceived in paranoia, this mad project will make all of us more vulnerable to sociopaths with unlimited firepower. It would make America a less civilized country.

The NRA has a schizoid attitude toward government. In fundraising appeals to members, it fans fears that jackbooted feds are coming for your guns. In the political arena, it depicts government as pathetically weak, overwhelmed by the orgy of violent criminality and insanity engulfing our society.

After the Newtown atrocity, the NRA formed a commission to assess school safety. To no one’s surprise, it failed to recommend a single measure that would have made it more difficult for Adam Lanza to get the military assault rifle he used to murder 20 first graders and six adults. Instead, it proposed that school officials be armed and trained to use guns. “Response time is critical,” former GOP Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who headed the commission, told reporters. “If you have the firearms in the presence of someone in the school, it will reduce the response time and save lives.”

This, then, is the NRA-GOP vision for maintaining civil order in America: turn every public school into Fort Apache. And if our children’s lives are disfigured by a pervasive climate of fear and mistrust, well, at least they will be safe in their educational bunkers, and no American need ever be deprived of the “right” to own an AR-15.

Of course an assault-weapons ban wouldn’t have stopped Adam Lanza. But don’t we have a responsibility to try to limit the carnage psychopaths can inflict? Is forcing them to stop and reload really a threat to American liberty?

After the tragedy, NRA mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre asserted that arming the populace is the sole path to public safety: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

It’s right out of an old Western, and it’s not true. Take the case of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia. McLelland was a “good guy with a gun,” an Army veteran who carried a gun for self-protection. Nonetheless, he and his wife were surprised by the killer at their home. That’s the problem with the NRA’s theory: cold-blooded killers always have the initiative.

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If you think the NRA is shrill on guns, there are groups even further out on the fringe that consider the NRA a pack of lily-livered surrender monkeys. Senator Paul, the right’s new shining knight of liberty, is raising money for the National Association of Gun Rights, which has blasted the NRA for “signaling surrender on handing President Obama and his anti-gun pals more information about American gun owners.”

NAGR has targeted negative ads on Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia Beach, whose offense was to introduce a bill to strengthen penalties for straw purchasers. So much for demands from pro-gun types that Washington vigorously enforce existing gun laws before passing new ones.

Once again, Republican pusillanimity in the face of gun fanaticism threatens to gut sane gun legislation in Congress. Yet progressives shouldn’t despair, because there is a saving grace—American federalism. New York, Maryland, and Connecticut have passed reforms that do not infringe upon the right to bear arms. In some states at least, lawmakers understand that commonsense restrictions on lethal weapons are part of government’s fundamental responsibility to assure public safety and order.