Other Voices

Americans choose uninhibited gun rights over public order

The National Rifle Association has fought strict requirements on who can carry concealed weapons and some guns.
The National Rifle Association has fought strict requirements on who can carry concealed weapons and some guns. AP

Joe the Plumber had it right. In May 2014, after six people were killed in a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., the erstwhile Republican campaign icon published an open letter to the father of one of the victims.

“I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds — your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

Joe the Plumber’s timing and blunt language may have been insensitive, with the effect of pouring salt in a grieving parent’s unsuturable wound. But his analysis was unassailable: Gun rights reign supreme.

That reality has nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution. Guns were regulated in America both before and after the Constitution existed.

Even the Supreme Court’s creaky 2008 Heller decision, which by a 5-to-4 vote established an individual right to arms that previously did not exist, makes it clear that regulation of guns is both rational and constitutional.

The national paralysis on gun violence is a product of American political culture, not the Constitution. After all, if we can legally regulate guns to minimize violence — and we surely can — why don’t we?

If you wanted to stop psychotics from obtaining firearms, for example, you would make it much harder to purchase firearms. Rigorous background checks. Waiting periods. Community input.

Responsible, sane people would surmount those obstacles and purchase a gun. Your neighbor’s schizophrenic daughter who’s in the middle of a psychotic episode would not.

The history of aggressive gun regulation in Europe is a history of comparatively low gun violence rates. In the U.S., by contrast, we don’t make even rudimentary efforts, such as carrying out mandatory background checks.


Among Republicans, 75 percent say it’s more important to protect the rights of gun owners, while 24 percent say it’s more important to control gun ownership. Democratic views are more or less the inverse.

In effect, large numbers of Americans, ably represented in Congress and state legislatures, value unfettered gun rights over public safety — just as Joe the Plumber does.

Of course, guns are marketed as tools of personal safety. We lack definitive research on the efficacy of firearms purchased for protection, but an effective ban on public research, inspired by the gun lobby, suggests just how much confidence the gun movement has in its own claims.

When tougher laws are enacted in one region, they’re undermined by the lowest-common-denominator effect of weaker laws elsewhere.

The result is that guns are sold essentially indiscriminately to people with alcoholism, depression, drug dependency, rage and more.

They are sold to reckless parents who leave loaded guns within reach of toddlers. They are sold to gang members and aspiring terrorists.

That choice is shaped by a professional gun movement that enjoys enormous political influence and considerable social respect even as it works to foster paranoia and anti-government zealotry.

Ceding national gun policy to that movement has rendered practical long-term solutions beyond discussion, and beyond reach.

Until Americans change that dynamic, this is Joe the Plumber’s world. We’re just living and dying in it.

Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.