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PROFESSOR MEETS GUN, PART FIVE: MY BOYS LIKE SHOOTOUTS
June 16, 2008 - 1:33pm

By

UD

First, an update: I haven't yet contacted anyone about going shooting, but I will.
While I'm arranging that, I plan to go to a gun show in in Virginia, near Dulles Airport, on July 27. I'll write about it here at IHE.

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Over the weekend, I checked out what I figured would be the fervent gun-control writings of some of my colleagues at George Washington University. After all, professors and guns don't mix...

Yet with the exception of Amitai Etzioni, a GW sociologist, UD was rather surprised to discover among her colleagues attitudes ranging from enthusiastic to mild support of an individual right to bear arms.

We'll do Etzioni first. In 2001, he made the bizarre argument that even if the many -- often liberal -- legal theorists who increasingly argue that the Second Amendment does indeed seem to defend an individual right to bear guns are correct, they should keep their traps shut:

... Very bright scholars are naturally intrigued and challenged by, and rewarded for, going against the grain. Nobody is going to be accorded a prize or promotion, or even get published, for documenting the prevailing consensus. In contrast, making the equivalent argument that the earth is flat after all, especially if the case is made with verve, ingenuity, and wit, is sure to command collegial attention. But in the case of gun control, although no one would contest revisionist scholars' right to engage in such research, I can't help but wonder if they are right to engage in such research. Much more is at stake than giving solace to gun advocates. The revisionist arguments, which I suspect start out as clever seminar-speak, may well influence the courts...

If one holds, as most studies do, that guns provide more danger than protection, and notes that other democratic societies greatly limit private gun ownership, one is naturally troubled by the threat that the new scholarship may help to overturn a strong and long-established endorsement of gun control laws by the Supreme Court. With so much at stake, should scholars refrain from conducting studies that might have grave unsettling social consequences?
... Would my colleagues put on their web site a study that demonstrating how to make the Ebola virus in a kitchen sink? Would they publish ways to make nerve gas in one's basement? As I see it, when the results of a publication may well be fatal on a large scale, great weight should be given to social prudence.
... [M]y good colleagues in law schools [should] consider whether they should devote themselves to an academic pursuit other than undermining the Supreme Court rulings that have rendered gun control possible and legitimate...

UD finds Etzioni's analogies -- an individual in possession of a gun is a deadly virus, a nerve gas -- as well as his aristocratic conviction that the possibly correct reading of one of our nation's more important documents ought to be kept from ordinary American citizens, pretty stunning. But she's grateful he wrote what he did, because he's playing a role she wants to cast in this series -- the typical college professor -- with verve and candor.

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At the other end of the spectrum, and more representative of legal opinion, both conservative and liberal, is GW law professor Robert J. Cottrol, quoted on an NRA site in a discussion of DC's strict gun control laws:

[A] society with a dismal record of protecting a people has a dubious claim on the right to disarm them. . . . [I]t is unwise to place the means of protection totally in the hands of the state. . . .
Cottrol again, more blunt:

[T]he ultimate civil right is the right to defend one's own life... [W]ithout that right all other rights are meaningless.
Though UD's done nothing like a scientific survey, her sense is that many of her colleagues in the law school more or less align with Sanford Levinson, liberal legal theorist and author of the much-cited (and charmingly written) essay, The Embarrassing Second Amendment:

... [W]e ignore at our political peril the good faith belief of many Americans that they cannot rely on the police for protection against a variety of criminals. Still, let us assume that the individualist reading of the Amendment has been vitiated by changing circumstances. Are we quite so confident that circumstances are equally different in regard to the republican rationale...?

One would, of course, like to believe that the state, whether at the local or national level, presents no threat to important political values, including liberty. But our propensity to believe that this is the case may be little more than a sign of how truly different we are from our radical forbearers. I do not want to argue that the state is necessarily tyrannical; I am not an anarchist. But it seems foolhardy to assume that the armed state will necessarily be benevolent. The American political tradition is, for good or ill, based in large measure on a healthy mistrust of the state. The development of widespread suffrage and greater majoritarianism in our polity is itself no sure protection, at least within republican theory. The republican theory is predicated on the stark contrast between mere democracy, where people are motivated by selfish personal interest, and a republic, where civic virtue, both in common citizen and leadership, tames selfishness on behalf of the common good. In any event, it is hard for me to see how one can argue that circumstances have so changed us as to make mass disarmament constitutionally unproblematic.

Indeed, only in recent months have we seen the brutal suppression of the Chinese student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. It should not surprise us that some NRA sympathizers have presented that situation as an abject lesson to those who unthinkingly support the prohibition of private gun ownership. "[I]f all Chinese citizens kept arms, their rulers would hardly have dared to massacre the demonstrators... The private keeping of hand-held personal firearms is within the constitutional design for a counter to government run amok... As the Tianamen Square tragedy showed so graphically, AK 47's fall into that category of weapons, and that is why they are protected by the Second Amendment." It is simply silly to respond that small arms are irrelevant against nuclear armed states; witness contemporary Northern Ireland and the territories occupied by Israel, where the sophisticated weaponry of Great Britain and Israel have proved almost totally beside the point. The fact that these may not be pleasant examples does not affect the principal point, that a state facing a totally disarmed population is in a far better position, for good or ill, to suppress popular demonstrations and uprisings than one that must calculate the possibilities of its soldiers and officials being injured or killed.
Levinson concludes:

For too long, most members of the legal academy have treated the Second Amendment as the equivalent of an embarrassing relative, whose mention brings a quick change of subject to other, more respectable, family members. That will no longer do. It is time for the Second Amendment to enter full scale into the consciousness of the legal academy. ... It is unlikely that ... those too often peremptorily dismissed as "gun nuts " [will soon be considered] providers of "insight and growth," but surely the call for sensitivity to different or excluded voices cannot extend only those groups "we" already, perhaps "complacent[ly]," believe have a lot to tell "us." [Levinson is quoting here from another legal scholar.] I am not so naive as to believe that conversation will overcome the chasm that now separates the sensibility of, say, Senator Hatch and myself as to what constitutes the "right[s] most valued by free men [and women]." It is important to remember that one will still need to join up sides and engage in vigorous political struggle. But it might at least help to make the political sides appear more human to one another. Perhaps "we" might be led to stop referring casually to "gun nuts" just as, maybe, members of the NRA could be brought to understand the real fear that the currently almost uncontrolled system of gun ownership sparks in the minds of many whom they casually dismiss as "bleeding-heart liberals." Is not, after all, the possibility of serious, engaged discussion about political issues at the heart of what is most attractive in both liberal and republican versions of politics?

This seems to me a far more plausible, humane, and progressive approach to evolving attitudes toward the Second Amendment than Etzioni's don't ask don't tell.

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UD concludes with an opinion piece by another GW law professor that appeared a few years ago in the Washington Post. Title: My Boys Like Shootouts. What's Wrong With That?
This professor lets his boys play with toy guns. His neighbors are appalled. At local parks, they stare at him and his kids in revulsion, and take their own kids home lest they witness the outrage.

My colleague is baffled and offended by this zero tolerance:

My wife and I are hardly poster parents for the National Rifle Association. We are social liberals who fret over every detail and danger of child rearing. We do not let our kids watch violent TV shows and do not tolerate rough play. Like most of our friends, we tried early on to avoid any gender stereotypes in our selection of games and toys. However, our effort to avoid guns and swords and other similar toys became a Sisyphean battle.... [W]e do not believe that play guns and swords are ruining our children. Frankly, after three boys, my wife and I have resolved the nature/nurture debate in our house in favor of nature. Yet on the playground there seems to be a palpable fear among zero-tolerance parents that boys harbor some deep and dark violent gene that, if awakened, is likely to end years later with some sort of Hannibal Lecter situation. Of course, there are at least 100 million men in this country who probably played with toy guns or swords as children and did not grow up to become serial killers.
The guy's daughter is indifferent to toy guns, as, I seem to recall, was wee UD.

But, as Levinson notes, circumstances change.

 

 

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