The “Barack Obama is Gonna Take Your Guns” bogeyman took another hit Monday, as the Supreme Court overturned Chicago’s 28-year ban on handguns, reaffirming the Second Amendment rights of all Americans.
Combined with the Court’s 2008 decision to overturn Washington DC’s handgun ban, the fact that 48 states now have some form of concealed carry permitting, and the current Democratic Congress’ vote to allow guns in federal parks—which was signed into law by President Obama last year—Americans are unexpectedly living through a gun rights renaissance.
Americans right now live in a country that is taxed less and has fewer restrictions on gun ownership than it did under George W. Bush.
But don’t tell that to the fear-mongering-for-fun-and-profit crowd. Facts would screw up their ability to scare people into anti-Obama activism.
The specter of forced seizure of guns has been a constant drumbeat among the Wingnuts since Obama’s election. Glenn Beck told his listeners that Obama “will slowly but surely take away your gun or take away your ability to shoot a gun, carry a gun.” Skip Coryell, founder of this year’s Second Amendment Marches, wrote an article for Human Events titled "Rattling the Second Amendment Saber" in which he asked, "When do you say "Yes, I am willing to rise up and overthrow an oppressive, totalitarian government?…Is it when the government imposes martial law? Is it when the government takes away your firearms?” And Alex Jones went at the issue with his slickly produced one-world-government fright-wing approach, showcased in his “Obama Deception” DVD. The undertow of anxiety is a constant theme.
• The Most Armed States: View Our Rankings Not surprisingly, there are signs that all this fear-mongering translated into the real world: gun and ammunition sales are way up, causing shortages in markets across the country.
The deep disconnect between fear and the facts are a sign of the times; with the rise of hyper-partisan media, we have been segregating ourselves into separate political realities. And of course guns aren’t the only subject over which hysteria eclipses truth. Taxes are another good example. The Tea Party might stand for Taxed Enough Already, but the facts show that the federal tax burden this year is the lowest since Harry Truman was in office. Of course, Supreme Court decisions on guns are not Obama's doing--he is presiding over an era of increased gun rights, not driving the change. Nonetheless, as counterintuitive as it might seem, Americans right now live in a country that is taxed less and has fewer restrictions on gun ownership than it did under George W. Bush.
Of course, there was special irony in the fact that the Supreme Court’s decision came down on the first day of Elena Kagan’s Senate confirmation hearings. Conservatives have been running against an allegedly liberal Supreme Court for decades, despite the fact that before Obama took office seven of the nine Justices were GOP appointees—hardly making it a red menace. Acknowledging that reality, however, would require rewriting fundraising letters and replacing talking points—and so the narrative endures. Kagan’s replacement of Justice Stevens is not likely to tip the balance of the court, and some liberals argue that she is more conservative on issues like executive privilege than the man whose seat she hopes to take. Nonetheless, the out-of-the-mainstream, dangerously liberal meme is resuscitated, with one religious group even accusing Kagan of wanting to “homosexualize every segment of society.” Classy.
All of this is indicative of a national debate that pits conservative activists who believe that President Obama is at least a socialist against liberal activists who increasingly call him a corporate sellout. Here’s one thing we should be able to agree on: he can’t be both.
The responsibility of the center is to try and be the honest broker in these illogical ideological debates dominated by false facts and false choices. Right now, the idea of common ground seems like it needs to be defended.
But beneath the overheated partisan rhetoric, something more constructive may be happening in the long-running culture war over gun rights. The reality is that fighting gun crime aggressively does not have to be inconsistent with the individual right to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Even the National Rifle Association strongly supports increased mandatory sentencing for gun crimes. And even New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg now acknowledges that licensed guns are rarely used by their owners to commit crimes. We can protect the right of legal gun owners while dramatically ramping up prosecution and penalties for illegal gun trafficking, possession and any crimes committed with a gun. The common goal should be long-term crime control, not perpetuating paranoid fantasies for short-term political gain.
Fear and hate are cheap and easy recruiting tools. But they can result in a divided, dispirited and somewhat deranged nation, unable to agree even on a common set of facts when it diverges from a dominant narrative. If someone believes that the government is coming to seize their guns, news of Supreme Court cases seem distant and intellectual compared to emotional appeals by their favorite opinion-anchor. It might not even help to point out that early Hatriot groups like the early-60s Minutemen were telling their survivalist supporters about a plan to “confiscate all private fire-arms by the end of 1965.” But that cold-water splash of perspective should stir a healthy sense of skepticism; people have tried to sell that fear-infused snake oil before, and we shouldn’t start buying it now.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.