Theologians say the most dangerous heresies are those that take a sacred text and distort it by making it absolute. Such absolutes are dangerous because achieving the good always requires balancing competing values.
Americans have been pretty good at understanding that. We hold “freedom of speech” as essential, but we agree with Justice Holmes that it does not include a right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We hold “freedom of religion” to be sacred, but we draw a line at human sacrifice.
No right is absolute—not when the basic security of a society and its people are at stake.
But the NRA refuses to weigh other values. Rejecting attempts to arrive at some wise balance, the NRA has worked for years to inflame their followers with the fear that any limitation on gun rights is an intolerable assault on their freedoms.
With a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, we could turn the gun issue toward political sanity by drawing a line between weapons that serve legitimate civilian purposes, like hunting or personal protection, and weapons with no legitimate purpose, like those that enable a shooter to kill many people in a short time.
These are weapons of war and, to legitimate these weapons, war is what the gun lobby has worked to get its followers to envision. But war against whom? Against their own government if/when that government threatens them with tyranny.
One hears from the gun culture that guns protect all other liberties. Arms in the hands of civilians, it is declared, can block a tyranny from taking over America. That idea has a powerful effect on how the gun issue plays out in America, but it is a dangerous falsehood.
The weapons of civilians would hardly slow down such a tyranny. The Iraqi army – several hundred thousand soldiers, organized with a command structure and possessing sophisticated weapons—withstood the American military for only a few weeks. If the American military were being wielded by some tyranny in Washington, a dispersed assortment of armed civilians would not be much of an obstacle.
The people of other democracies enjoy liberties like ours. In none of those countries are citizens given the far-reaching gun rights that the NRA insists are essential to protecting our freedom. In many of these free countries, the citizenry is substantially disarmed.
Although guns in the hands of civilians are neither necessary nor sufficient to keep us free, the NRA works to instill such fear-mongering falsehoods, creating the atmosphere for unreasoning antagonism. By defending gun rights as an absolute, the NRA ensures that Americans will fight over this issue rather than consider together how best to balance competing sets of legitimate values. And by treating anyone who disagrees with them as an enemy to be vanquished, the NRA turns politics into warfare. Members of Congress have cowered for years before the NRA, with its “cross us, and we’ll destroy you” approach.
As a candidate for Congress, I encountered citizens who said that they only needed to know a candidate’s stand on gun rights to know how they would vote. By making gun-rights advocates into single-issue voters, the NRA extracts political power from its supporters, power that is then used against them.
Much has been made lately of how the NRA works to feed the coffers of gun manufacturers, but that's just a piece of a much larger picture. The NRA is part of a team on the right deceiving Americans about where their real interests lie.
The real threat to our liberties in America is not from restrictions on assault rifles but from the increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few. History shows how gross inequalities of power can lead to tyranny, and the NRA is part of the political force working to widen still further the gap between the exploitable many and the powerful few. Like a magician, the NRA works with the other members of the right-wing team to distract people by pointing to peripheral issues with the left hand while the right hand picks their pockets and threatens their American birthright.
That deception, as well as the lives that can be saved with a balanced approach to gun rights, is why this battle is so important.
Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.