One of the issues sure to be raised in the New York Senate race, because it is thought to be dear to the suburbanites on whose vote the election will hinge, is gun control. Representative Rick Lazio has painted himself a moderate on the issue, because he voted for the Brady Bill, which was opposed by the National Rifle Association. Since Hillary Clinton has never held office, we have no record of her votes. But she has attacked her opponent as a false gun controller because of his failure to support other gun-control measures.
Let the debate begin. It has been a strangely muted one in New York City. Not much has been said about the source of the gun used by the multiple murderers at the Flushing Wendy’s. I saw one throwaway reference to the fact that it had been originally sold out of state, coupled with the traditional New York City complaint that all our crime problems originate in states run by hunters, militia members and other Second Amendment snake handlers. The complaint was halfhearted, however, because the gun had been resold (illegally, of course) in New York City. So some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation can’t prevent a black market in firearms here. The gun controller’s solution? Make guns illegal everywhere in America. Why not? It works with cocaine.
Rosie O’Donnell got some attention for her hypocrisy on gun control, but not nearly as much as she would have if she’d been, say, a randy evangelist. Ms. O’Donnell was the celebrity emcee of the Million Mom March against guns in Washington, D.C., and she believes, “You shouldn’t buy a gun anywhere.” Turns out Rosie has, yes, armed bodyguards. Where do they get their guns–on the black market? As a TV star, Ms. O’Donnell is, of course, subject to stalkers and weirdos; but as a resident of Greenwich, Conn., she is not exactly on the firing line. Call her net threat quotient middling. Yet here is Miss Big Star, telling the average peasant how he (and she) may or may not defend themselves, while she is surrounded by samurai.
One story that was well covered was the N.R.A.’s proposal to open a theme restaurant in Times Square. This came to the notice of The New Yorker ‘s Talk of the Town, which welcomed the N.R.A. to the neighborhood. (Not!) For 30 years, we ceded Times Square to vagrants, whores and smut merchants. But let Charlton Heston try to set up shop there, and we know how to protect our public spaces.
When the issue is debated, bogus statistics abound. One of the most popular is that guns kill a child every–you see different spans of time, but all of them are a mere matter of minutes. These numbers are generated by classifying as “children” all teenagers–in other words, 18- and 19-year-old drug dealers engaged in extreme negotiating are counted to swell the figure, and the impression that the United States is the Wild West. Come to think of it, how old are Rosie’s bodyguards?
There is plenty of nonsense on the other side, of course. I have frequently seen a quotation attributed to George Washington, supposedly telling Congress that widespread gun ownership was a safe thing because “99.98 percent” of all guns in the 1790′s were used to repel criminals. The quotation is a fraud on the face of it–no one in the late 18th century threw around percentages in that fashion. (The Founders believed in principles, not statistics.) I was once assured by a solemn gun owner that the phrase “well-regulated” in the Second Amendment referred not to the laws under which militias operated, but the mechanical precision of the weapons. The original intent of the Second Amendment has been a focus of much scholarly debate in recent years. It seems to me that reading it simply as a carte blanche to own guns is anachronistic. If that were the true interpretation, then the federal government has long been in violation, having outlawed machine guns in the era of the Untouchables.
The Founders guaranteed gun ownership so that muskets and rifles might be used in militia service. Not that all of the Founders liked even militias. During the Revolution, militias were good for intimidating Tories and pacifying the countryside, but were typically the despair of generals. As President, Washington (instead of rattling off statistics to Congress) called up the militias of several states to suppress the militias of western Pennsylvania, which had risen up against the excise laws. But times change. There are no more Tories anymore; nor is the average citizen threatened by Indian raids or slave revolts. He is threatened instead by violent crime, at a level unknown before the rise of large cities. All the exertions of Mayor Giuliani and the quality-of-life cops have brought the homicide rate in New York down to where it was in the mid-1960′s–which was when everyone first began keening about how bad crime was. Supporters of gun control tend to be enemies of large and proactive police departments. Mayor Giuliani is a rare example of a politician who is both militantly anti-gun and militantly pro-cop. Most gun control supporters don’t like Rudy or his Police Department, either. (Ms. O’Donnell certainly doesn’t.) But what is the alternative? If we are not willing to fill the streets with centurions, how are people supposed to protect themselves? Wouldn’t it be sensible to allow for flexible free-market defense? If you have moral qualms, you don’t have to pack heat yourself–the knowledge that it is out there will make criminals marginally more cautious.
It is not clear that the employees of Wendy’s would be alive or uninjured today if the manager had had a gun. The crime depended on one of the alleged murderer’s knowing his future victims and bluffing them into ill-judged obedience. But shouldn’t it be easier for store owners in New York City to get gun permits than it is for gun banners in Connecticut to hire their own thin blue lines? Before we put on airs about Times Square shooting galleries, let’s think about how well we protect the public.