I tend to shy away from intense discussion of the Second Amendment because it doesn’t really matter.

However it could have been phrased, whatever meaning was interpreted or intended is, in the end, a moot point; we would still be having the same arguments about the same issues — merely the symbols would change. We wrestle over the intent and interpretation of the Constitution because we’re supposed to, but, as with any text, people can always fabricate support for the pre-existing convictions that they bring to the table. The issues behind firearms emerge from our very nature as human beings, and no constitution can alter that.

As with any issue, people appeal to international norms, to traditions, to social expectations; these are allies of opportunity, tools of manipulation, selected and discarded in order to support pre-existing objectives. The principles are more interesting and important than the clothes in which they are dressed.

The topic of firearms generates a great deal of heat, perhaps more than any other subject in the world, because it cuts close to the heart of our greatest social issues: what is the proper relationship of the individual to others, separately and collectively? I have been on both sides of the issue (if it can be reduced to a single, two-sided issue), and I like to think that I can appreciate the hopes and fears of both sides. No matter what position you take, guns are not simple. Guns are messy, serious and very real, because, in the end, guns are us. Sans humans, a gun is an inert pile of atoms. Any argument about guns is an argument about people, an argument about power and who holds it.

Guns are tools that amplify the power of those who hold them. They can be used for two purposes: to force compliance in others, or to resist such force. The questions then are, who has the right to force what compliance and to what degree, and who has the right to resist what force and to what degree?

Everyone concedes that governments have the (delegated?) right to use force against criminals; that is a central purpose of governments. Most of us also believe that governments have the right to raise force against the general citizenry; taxation, regulation and law are based on the assumption of force.

Gun ownership is usually evaluated according to a rather emotional cost-benefit analysis, each side franticly proving that its position provides the greatest public and/or private benefit (whose definition of “benefit?”). This is based on the assumption that the individual’s highest purpose is to advance other people, but if the individual does not have inherent worth, neither does anyone else. The value of one’s actions to oneself is perfectly valid. “Because I want to” is a perfectly good justification so long as it does not encroach on the rights of others (whose definition of “rights?”).

People argue whether gun ownership increases or decreases societal violence in general, assuming that the individual’s safety and rights exist in terms of an endless succession of somebody elses. But if the individual can be thrown under the bus, what makes the group sacred? To uphold this counterbalancing of individual rights with public benefit is to assume that they are in contradiction; that a “balance” must be struck between rights and people. This is like arguing that a balance must be struck between mass and matter.

Firearms expand the user’s capacity for violence. To endorse private ownership is to assume that this capacity will be handled wisely, while opposition is often based on the belief that it will not be handled wisely. To resist aggression (whether a private thug or a public one) is to take on the burdens of identifying aggression and of developing an appropriate response.

To identify aggression means to hold fundamentally different values than the aggressor, to take an ideological stand, to choose. To determine an appropriate response is to make a value judgment outside the shelter of the “guidelines” (those social expectations and legal requirements that dictate behavior). To put the response into effect is to accept moral and physical responsibility for that choice. This is a heavy burden. To endorse gun ownership is to believe that private persons are thusly capable, to believe that the individual has a responsibility and a guiding light that exists above the many forces of the world.

But if the private individual is not capable of bearing that burden, who is? Elected officials? To participate in elections is to carry a similar burden, albeit mundane and sanitized. The only true refuge from private responsibility is totalitarianism. Power will always exist. The question is: who wields it?

No matter what you believe about guns, you’ve probably been lied to. When the Clinton assault weapon ban ended, an open-fire zone was predicted. Crime continued decreasing. Whenever a state opens access to concealed-carry, bloodbaths are predicted that fail to materialize. “Gun-free” zones are formed, but killers don’t seem to care. Officials claim that Mexican drug lords casually purchase weapons from the United States. The grenades and machine guns are heavily-restricted here and originate elsewhere. Politicians ban gun components that they can’t even identify. A lot of individuals, groups and governments oppose the private ownership of guns, and they’re willing to lie for “the greater good.” What kind of person is better off when others are unable to say “no?”

The best way to become informed on an issue is to meet and develop respect for people you disagree with. Recognize your capacity to be wrong, and develop the habit of questioning yourself. Associate with people who hold you intellectually accountable and value clarity more than conformity. Take a firearm safety course and rent a booth at a range.

Who, in the end, makes sure that the right decisions are made, that evil is vanquished and good triumphant? No one makes sure; there is no guarantee. To my mind the greatest fault of our American system of government is its own success — we now firmly believe that, if we could only determine the exact right rules and elect the exact right people, everything will definitely work. It won’t. It can’t. Rules and rulers are necessary tools for success, but only when directed by those who use them wisely.

When all is said and done the fundamental issue is not the allocation of power, but the exercise of character. Character cannot be commanded or guaranteed; laws may corrupt it, but they cannot create it. The use of power is determined by character. Character cannot be controlled. This is why power should be concentrated as minimally as possible.

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