The latest outbreak of mass shootings in the United States has again raised the issue of how to prevent gun violence. Proposals to enact the most minimal restrictions on the ability to acquire a firearm, particularly one which fires multiple shots in seconds, have produced the expected fierce counter-reaction, as gun proponents use familiar arguments to twist the true meaning of the Second Amendment.
But the firearms debate, as important as it is to the safety of Americans, reflects a bigger problem – the impulse of many elected officials to place the perceived rights of individuals ahead of the safety and security of the general population, especially when they can utilize the debate to score political points and raise campaign cash.
Think back to the 1970s. In the wake of political assassinations and crime waves in the nation it appeared the United States was on the verge of restricting access to handguns. The debate in the country seemed to focus more on how to accomplish this than whether it should happen.
Fast forward to the 2020s. Mass shootings now occur on a regular basis, utilizing weapons designed to inflict maximum harm in minimal time. But the debate on how to react to these deaths, even from those supporting restrictions on firearms, too often begins with the disclaimer “I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s freedoms.”
The freedoms we enjoy in the United States are designed to prevent the tyranny of authoritarianism. But in order to guarantee the safety and security of the general population and avoid chaos, there are necessary restrictions on those freedoms, and governments work to achieve the proper balance.
This balance has tended to shift throughout the history of the United States as different interests jostle for profits and power while we progress as a society. But our progress has come in fits and starts because progress always leads to push back.
Sadly, the push back in the last half century has utilized the concept of freedom to emphasize individual privileges at the expense of what is best for the people of the nation as a whole. The gun debate is an example of how special interests have used this to their advantage.
The National Rifle Association is a master of the use of the freedom argument. Their aggressive fight in the 1980s to preserve the right to own a handgun proved successful, and they built on this success to expand the fight to the unrestricted right to own other types of weapons, no matter how lethal.
In the wake of the NRA’s success, the use of the freedom argument has increased. Individuals claim the freedom to refuse service to people they do not like, to not follow directives to wear masks to prevent the spread of disease, or to graze their livestock on public land.
But this advocacy of freedom only goes so far. Those who promote freedoms such as gun ownership or non-mask wearing are often the first to object to granting freedoms for things they do not like, such as civil rights or sexual orientation. In reality, their argument is not about freedom – it is about change and power. These individuals and groups strive to resist progress and promote individualism as a way to maintain their wealth and influence.
An example of the type of progress these forces object to is Social Security. The creation of the Social Security system was a shining moment in the history of the United States. It gave many older Americans true freedom to live independently and avoid poverty after their working years.
But those attempting to maintain the existing wealth and power structure strenuously objected to Social Security. They argued Social Security eliminated the freedom of individuals to invest their earnings as they wished without acknowledging more older Americans now had access to a retirement income. Their objections have continued into the 21st century as they resist attempts to make the changes necessary to ensure the solvency of Social Security into the future.
Those who advocate for the United States to progress recognize a need to promote the general welfare of everyone in the nation. But improving access to health care, developing safer neighbors, and guaranteeing equality threaten the existing power structure.
In the face of this threat, the wealthy and powerful will again roll out tired arguments about freedom and individual rights in the renewed debate about guns. It is time to turn the argument around and promote a different vision of freedom which values the safety and security of all citizens.
Allowing individuals to own military grade weapons is not a path to progress in the United States. Or, as the voice of Janet Joplin in “Me and Bobby McGee” might say today, freedom is not another word for selfishness and greed.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.