There’s a movie that shows what can happen when only the military and police have guns. It’s called “Schindler’s List.”
While our Founding Fathers could not have foreseen the murderous Nazi despotism about which that movie was made, they knew a great deal about tyranny and its historical prevalence. The steps the Founders took to prevent loss of freedom should loom large in the minds of Washington Republicans as they make decisions that will determine the future of the GOP.
For starters, the Second Amendment, which contemplates a “well-regulated militia” and recognizes the unalienable right to keep and bear arms, has precisely nothing to do with hunting, recreation or even self-defense against criminals. It was intended as a political right and has subsequently been recognized as such by the Supreme Court.
In 2010, the Court proclaimed gun rights anew, finding that: “It is clear that the Framers … counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.”
As one of the Founders, Tench Coxe, put it: “Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? … Congress has no power to disarm the militia. Their swords and every terrible implement of the soldier are the birthright of Americans.”
The implication is simple. While the ballot box combined with freedom of speech and press are often enough to preserve liberty in an established democracy, a further firewall of last resort is essential. That firewall is a citizenry with the realistic physical means to resist a political class if it turns on them. This capability is what Mr. Obama’s Washington is now threatening — something an active minority of Americans grasp.
Progressives today scoff at such antiquated notions. Pointing to the developed world, where most populations are disarmed, they think mankind has progressed beyond the risk of such tyranny — especially in America. Conservatives, who often seem better acquainted with history and the more indelible and unappealing facets of human nature, know better. Any study of the past reveals that tyranny is the norm for humanity — not the exception. And as recently as the last century, every major dictator, including Hitler, Stalin and Mao, took pains to restrict gun rights early in his tenure.
Then there is the common sense of the matter. None of the anti-gun measures broached since the Newtown massacre could plausibly reduce crime or prevent such atrocities. Criminals and dangerous lunatics — the very people progressives have turned loose in every major American city since the 1960s — can always ignore laws and obtain the means of destruction. Only the law-abiding observe gun laws.
Today’s most violent and crime-infested cities have gun laws far more regressive than those currently being contemplated. In 2006, I was mugged by two pistol-wielding criminals in Washington, D.C., which then had a total handgun ban. Obama’s hometown of Chicago has similarly tough gun laws and yet is America’s most violent big city. Britain — often held up as the nirvana of gun opponents — actually has a higher violent crime rate than the United States. Gun control only disarms victims and doesn’t work.
What does work is gun deregulation. Supposedly gun-happy Texas actually banned the concealed carrying of guns until 1995, when then-Governor George W. Bush signed a law allowing concealed carry. Progressives predicted a bloodbath and vigilante justice. Instead, violent crime plummeted. The same pattern has been exhibited in more than a dozen other states that followed suit.
Noticeably absent from today’s debate are congressional Republicans — who love to talk up the Constitution when it’s convenient. Instead, defending gun rights has fallen to the NRA and a ragtag group of pundits and average citizens.
Indeed, multiple sources on Capitol Hill have confirmed to me this week that congressional Republicans are prepared to cave on gun control. Presumably, the congressmen think that caving on gun rights is practical given the shrill media voices calling for restrictions.
Practical and disappointing.
What is in the offing is the third major Republican betrayal of conservatism. It is no solace that Rep. Paul Ryan can invoke the Federalist Papers if he voted for the bank and auto bailouts — which he did. It is no solace that Speaker John Boehner can talk about the difficulties faced by small businesses if he voted for higher taxes on them — which he did. Likewise, it is of little comfort to know congressional Republicans carry mini Constitutions in their breast pockets if they don’t understand what they mean.
What’s most loathsome about the current crop of Beltway Republicans is not that they keep losing. It is that they are unpersuasive and hold their principles only when it is convenient and cost-free — making them what that other Founder, George Washington, called “Summer Patriots.”
There are exceptions. Ted Cruz, who has been a senator for only a week, has been more eloquent and active on gun rights and other conservative priorities than much of the GOP caucus. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hasn’t ruled out changes in gun laws, but has artfully shifted the conversation to include mental illness and violence in our culture.
Beltway Republicans should follow their lead. Try being principled. Try being persuasive. Try doing politics.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior adviser during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianWhiton.