Gun debate: individual right versus community safety

The mass shooting in Florida and the inevitable pro-gun and gun control reactions are about much more than firearms and their use.

The issue is really about the nature of our society and government. The NRA makes sure we don’t forget that. After every shooting, it opposes gun control advocates by saying that what they propose threatens personal freedom.

Among truly democratic, developed countries, people see society and government in one of two ways. On one side, people believe they have a right to the greatest possible personal freedom and that government should guarantee it. Possibly, the only democracy where that is the rule is the U.S.

On the other side are countries in which the interest of the community prevails and personal freedom is subject to limits that protect the entire society. Democracies in which this view prevails include Canada and the countries of Western Europe.

In countries where the community interest dominates, gun use is controlled, people have fewer guns, and there is little gun violence. In the U.S., gun use is subject to few controls, gun ownership is widespread, and there is much gun violence.

People under both systems enjoy natural rights. In the U.S., some of those rights are protected from being overridden by government by the Bill of Rights. Among the protected rights is the Second Amendment’s right to own and use firearms.

The Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment means that individual Americans have that right. But it also said that, like all guaranteed rights, this freedom is not absolute and may be subject to some reasonable limits short of denying the right itself. Some gun owners refuse to accept that government can impose any limits.

The issue boils down to the difference between how many Americans view the relationship between government and the individual and how that relationship is viewed in other free and democratic countries.

The reason for the difference may be that Americans inhabited a frontier nation in which the use of guns was essential for activities ranging from subsistence hunting to keeping the peace. The Mounties preceded settlers in the Canadian West, and there was no frontier in England or France.

The American frontier is gone, though some of its rules and practices continue. Australia, with its own frontier, was like the U.S. until a mass shooting there brought stronger gun control.

The frequency of mass shootings by people using automatic weapons has fueled more discussion than usual about guns and limits on their type and use. But there would still be quite a way to go until state and federal legislators adopt some limits and people understand that reasonable limits will not cost them their rights.

President Trump’s solution is more arms, this time in the hands of teachers, but possibly no more limits. He accepts the NRA’s thesis that we can stop mass shootings by finding all mentally ill persons and denying them guns. That is so impossible that it must be recognized as a tactic.

We should not forget that Trump is a Republican and his party and the NRA are firmly linked. The GOP harvests gun owner votes thanks to its loyalty to the NRA’s stance.

For many years, the Republican Party has adopted positions designed to motivate and attract single issue voters. If a voter cares deeply about gun rights and fears any limits, that person may vote for the GOP for that reason alone, regardless of its positions on matters ranging from health care to warfare.

Such a voter may even come to support Republican positions on issues far removed from guns and possibly even against their own interests. For example, a person without health insurance could oppose the Affordable Care Act, because the GOP supports his or her gun rights.

Issues like gun rights and gun control can become so-called “wedge” issues. Others are opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. Wedge issue voters oppose government action on their single issue and arrive easily at the GOP view that government is too big and powerful.

Voters favoring gun control do not treat it as a wedge issue. Though a majority of Americans want tougher gun laws, most have not been willing to allow that to become the driving issue for them.

The ultimate resolution of the gun issue would signal an historic change in how Americans view society and the government. Undoubtedly, its historic importance explains why change is so slow and difficult. It may only come at the point of a gun in Parkland, Florida, or your hometown.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.