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Frustrated by the insufferable self-admiration of gun fans that drowns out any reasonable discussion of how the law might address the risks to public safety that guns represent, I recently decided to have some fun with them.

I started with a few base principles that underlie some gun fans' arguments that I have read and heard in recent months:

1. Gun ownership is a natural, God-given right.

2. The text of the Second Amendment does not articulate any exceptions, conditions, restrictions or provisos that would limit the right to keep and bear Arms (hereinafter, "The Right"), therefore The Right is absolute and "shall not be infringed" by anyone in any way for any reason.

3. The Right includes an absolute right to have whichever particular weapon I want. If there's some particular type, make or model of weapon, be it an AR-15, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, an M109 howitzer, a Tomahawk missile, a B-2 Stealth bomber, that scepter that Loki had in The Avengers,* etc., I have an absolute right to possess that weapon. Even if I could still have any other weapon in the world, restricting me from having that specific weapon infringes my Right.

[* 3a. As a corollary, The Right includes weapons that are imaginary or that haven't been invented yet. When the Second Amendment was written and adopted, firearms could not be mass-produced; no gun could fire more than one or two shots per minute; no ammunition existed that consolidated the projectile, explosive and catalyst (pellet, powder, flint) into a single module. Yet, as we are constantly told, the Founding Fathers™ expressly intended that The Right would include mass-produced weapons that can fire self-contained ammunition multiple times per second, and could not be infringed regardless of any risks that such weapons might create. Therefore The Right includes imaginary weapons.]

You can see where this is going.

So, with these principles in mind, I posted a couple of comments over at HuffPo (look here and here), arguing (in character, tongue firmly in cheek) that gun manufacturers and sellers are infringing on my absolute, unconditional, God-given natural Right to Keep and Bear whatever particular Arms I want, by making me pay money for those Arms and charging more than I'm able, or willing, to pay. After all, if this is a God-given natural right, as many gun fans insist that it is, then there should be no preconditions whatsoever to my ability to exercise that Right. The Second Amendment does not limit The Right to "the right to keep and bear [only those] Arms [that you can afford, and that you're willing to pay for]."  How can you have a "right" to possess something if you have to pay for it before you possess it? If you have to give something else up in order to get it?

Arguing bullshit that you don't really believe or agree with is a lot more fun than trying to convince a crazy person to accept something reasonable that doesn't validate his fears and prejudices, partly because there's less frustration involved. But that's not to say that a moot argument, one that the advocate does not personally believe or agree with, can't be internally consistent and logically sound.  

One of the reasons I know that right-wing politics is naught but an elaborate, ongoing improv act is that I can do it. I can act the part without a trace of irony, without the kinds of exaggerations and distortions that would necessarily give me away, and it's really not that hard. All you need is a couple of basic principles or made-up "facts" (i.e., "talking points") and then all you have to do is say things that are consistent with those points; you don't have to actually know or understand anything. (I doubt that right-wingers could successfully impersonate liberals/progressives in the same manner; everything they know about us comes from the caricatures they're fed by fellow wingnuts on radio, TV and the Internet. They don't actually observe or pay attention to us, because their trusted figures tell them not to. I'd imagine they'd give themselves away immediately by, inter alia, saying things that no real liberal or progressive would ever actually say.)

In the process of playing this role, of arguing that being forced to pay money for my rightful weapon is an infringement of my Right, I may have found what the inimitable mrbrink over at Bob Cesca's blog called "the magical 2nd Amendment wormhole in the gun-nut continuum." Follow me below the fold for more detail.

In one of the threads, the best the respondents could come up with was to accuse me of wanting "free stuff." I thought that was rather amusing, but the obvious in-character retort is that if you have a natural, God-given right to something, you should not have to pay for it. At some point a commenter diverted the discussion by claiming that the Second Amendment established a "right to self-defense," which I pointed out does not exist because it's not explicitly mentioned in the Second Amendment or anywhere else in the Constitution. Following this I ended up making some of the arguments that libertarians have made to me about Constitutional Law, viz., that the Constitution is in no way "open to interpretation" and can only be "changed" by amendment, not by the Supreme Court, therefore "interpretation" is irrelevant and the entire field of Constitutional Law is invalid. He made some admissions along the way that I could have delved into, but I didn't want to break character.

The other thread was more interesting and, I think, more revealing. A gun fan there attempted to come up with a distinction between gun control laws and the cost of guns as impediments to gun ownership, in an effort to show that the former is "infringement" and the latter is not. I won't reproduce the entire conversation here, and it got rather unpleasant at the end when his frustration got the better of him ("That's the liberal mindset shining through" is my favorite boilerplate wingnut insult), but along the way he tried to make three main points (paraphrasing):

It's only "infringement" if the government does it; the Second Amendment prohibits the government from infringing gun rights, not private businesses.
This one is easily dispensed with. Unlike the First Amendment, which says "Congress shall make no law...", the Second Amendment is phrased in the passive: "...shall not be infringed." It doesn't specify by whom. Therefore the right can't "be infringed" by anyone, in any way, for any reason, ever. The fact that the Framers phrased the Second Amendment differently from the First in this fashion indicates that they intended each to have a different meaning and application.

An argument could also be made that the ability of a manufacturer or seller to demand money from me as a precondition of my keeping and bearing my rightful weapon is backed by the government, in that the manufacturer or seller can use the government (law enforcement and the courts) to force me to pay for my weapon or punish me for not paying for it (and could not do so without the government). Therefore the requirement that I pay for my weapon does come from government.

If you're right, then not being given [X] infringes your right to [Y].
False and inapt analogies are a staple of this kind of argument. He made a couple of these; paraphrasing, "Not being given free transportation to the polling place infringes your right to vote", "Not being given free food and shelter infringes your right to life." There are distinctions to be made, of course, that render these analogies false and/or inapt, which I explained in detail in the comment thread but won't address here. It can also be pointed out, in practically every case, that no part of the Constitution states "the right of the People to [Y] shall not be infringed." Even the right to life is conditioned, in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, on "due process of law."  The Second Amendment does not read, "the right of the People to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed without due process of law."

Analogies are only that: analogies. Whether having to pay for food and shelter infringes your right to life, or having to transport yourself at your own expense to the polling place infringes your right to vote, has nothing to do with whether having to pay for the gun you want infringes your right to keep and bear Arms.

Gun control is active infringement; cost is passive.
This was his main point and the one that both makes the least sense and comes the closest to making the distinction he was trying to make.

What he meant by "cost is passive," it seems, is that it's simply a fact of life that consumer goods cost money and must be paid for. That's true, and he also pointed out that everyone knows, understands and accepts this, which is also true. However, he treated this as if it were the end of the analysis, which it isn't. The distinction he was trying to make was that cost is just something that exists and that everyone accepts, whereas "gun control" (i.e., the law) is a conscious, deliberate, purposeful effort by the big bad mean nasty Golem called "The Government" to actively prohibit virtuous, heroic people like him from having their rightful weapons.

[At one point I pointed out, perhaps unintentionally breaking character in the process, that not all gun controls "actively prohibit" gun ownership; they merely impose conditions on it, like cost/payment is a condition. This led to a bizarre back-and-forth about whether "impose" and "infringe" are synonyms, as my counterpart completely missed or ignored the actual point being made, viz., that imposing conditions on something is not the same as actively prohibiting it. He also seemed to think I was implying that they were not both infringements, which I wasn't.]

The point he was trying to make, that gun control (i.e., infringement by law) is "active" whereas the cost of guns (infringement by market forces) is "passive," therefore the former is "infringement" and the latter is not, is wrong on a couple of counts. First, I argued repeatedly that gun manufacturers and sellers choose, consciously, deliberately, purposefully and actively, to demand money from me as a precondition to my having my rightful weapons; no authority requires or compels them to do so. They could give away weapons for free if they chose to. [Of course, in reality, it would not make sense for them to do that or be reasonable for us to expect them to, but that's beside the point.] Second, guns may be a consumer product, but they're the only consumer product that the Constitution explicitly gives me the Right to own.  The Second Amendment does not condition or subject The Right to "market forces," affordability of or payment for desired weaponry, and no part of the Constitution states that "the right of the People to be compensated for their goods and labor shall not be infringed."

But mainly, both of his characterizations are wrong. The law is no more or less "active" or "passive" than the market; both are the result and reflection of the ongoing cumulative effect of the innumerable individual acts and decisions of an entire society. What my counterpart is doing here is thinking of one and not the other as a Golem, i.e., a singular conscious and malicious force. Hence the law becomes "The Government," a personified entity that can act, think, speak and perceive as if it were an individual person, while "the market" or "market forces" remains an abstract, amorphous, "passive" thing that simply exists and can't be helped or controlled. Neither characterization is accurate.

What he ultimately showed, if anything, was that the cost of guns is an infringement that he's OK with, that he (and everyone else, apparently) is willing to tolerate, accept and allow, not that it's not an infringement to begin with. He's OK with infringement by market forces because he's OK with who's doing the infringing and why, whereas infringement by law he can't accept because he doesn't like or trust the person or people he perceives to be the infringer(s), and thus doesn't like, agree with or accept their reasoning or motivation, whatever he perceives those to be.

It's unfortunate that at the end he fell into the trap of lashing out in anger, hostility and categorical insult, but to his credit, he didn't fall into any of the other various traps I set for him along the way. In avoiding those traps, consciously or unconsciously, he failed to make a principled distinction between conditions and restrictions on gun ownership imposed by law and those imposed by "market forces" that would render the latter a non-infringement, because in order to do that, he would have had to admit things he didn't want to admit.  Starting with:

(1) Gun ownership is not a natural right. After all, how can it be a "natural" right to own something artificial? Something that, as he repeatedly pointed out, has to be manufactured? Let alone that you have to pay for?

(2) Certain "infringements" are permissible when other rights and interests prevail.

(3) In the alternative, if, as he repeatedly insisted, the cost of guns is not an infringement at all, because one person's right to be compensated for his goods and labor trumps another's right to possess those goods, then any measure taken in recognition of any other right that trumps gun ownership is also not an infringement.

He never explicitly went there; never said, "his right to be compensated for his goods and labor trumps your right to have those goods," and I never explicitly said the opposite. But he couldn't say that, because saying that means acknowledging that it's possible for other rights and interests to trump your individual right to have the particular weapon you want. Gun fans can't do that, and can't acknowledge that, because it torpedoes their entire case.

Something else I thought of during the conversation that I never brought up:

Remember when Rand Paul said that if health care ever became a "right," then he as a medical doctor would be effectively enslaved? Meaning, that anyone who got sick or injured could come to his house with armed police to "conscript" him, and "force" him to treat that person for free? Well, apply the same reasoning to the Right to keep and bear Arms. Since owning guns is a right, I should be able to "conscript" and "enslave" any gun manufacturer or seller, or even any individual gun owner, and "force" them to either give me, or make for me, the exact gun that I want, free of charge.

Yes, this is all ridiculous and absurd. But that doesn't mean it's not a valid argument or that it's not internally, logically sound, provided one accepts as base principles the arguments typically made by gun enthusiasts.

I know some people are going to hate this exercise, and hate me for engaging in it. That's what the Internet is for, I suppose. But sometimes it's necessary to literally play the Devil's advocate, in order to deepen not only one's own understanding of an issue, but one's understanding of others' understanding.

Originally posted to GrafZeppelin127 on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 09:57 AM PST.

Also republished by Repeal or Amend the Second Amendment (RASA) and Shut Down the NRA.

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