The Boston Marathon bombing and the violent hunt for its perpetrators are already exacerbating the radioactive gun-control debate.
Supporters and foes of curbs on civilian gun ownership in the U.S. are claiming vindication from the mayhem in Boston. Leaving the merits of these arguments to one side, I’ll predict that the unrest emanating from Boston will benefit the National Rifle Association and its allies in their campaign for widespread individual firearm ownership. For better or worse, the pro-gun side thrives on heightened anxiety.
In the run-up to the April 17 defeat of President Obama’s gun-control agenda in the Senate, the NRA played heavily on the supposed dangers of societal breakdown, rampant criminality, and governmental impotence. (For a sample of NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre’s paranoid nightmares, read this.
LaPierre will almost surely add the marathon bombing and the terrifying chase after the terrorists as reasons why all Americans need to be armed and at the ready to protect hearth and home. Even if one does not share LaPierre’s professed concerns about imminent and widespread breakdown of law and order (I do not), his argument has at least some appeal in the context of heavily armed mass murderers on the loose.
Richard Feldman, a New Hampshire-based pro-gun activist of less extreme views than LaPierre’s, articulated this position via e-mail this morning: “Locked down in your home with a likely terrorist hiding out amongst you, who right now wishes they didn’t have the means, the only tool that could effectively stop that fugitive if he broke into your apartment or home where your family is huddled? Yes, the police are on the streets nearby, but what good would they be if it was your home [the terrorist invaded] to kill your loved ones in the 60 seconds it would take before the SWAT team arrived?”
Feldman’s point is not that guns should be unregulated. The head of a small advocacy organization called the Independent Firearm Owners Association, he actually lobbied in favor of imposing background checks on all commercial gun sales, a proposal backed by the White House but defeated in the Senate. Feldman wants to explain “the intensity of this debate”—why so many millions of Americans feel so passionately devoted to the Second Amendment right to keep a firearm at home and/or on their person.
Even if one doesn’t share this passionate devotion, failing to acknowledge its power to motivate pro-gun activists makes the defeat of modest regulatory proposals impossible to understand. The background-check bill died not because it would have made a huge substantive difference to gun rights or crime levels, but because of what it symbolized. The NRA masterfully equates any gun control with hostility to all firearm ownership and a liberal impulse to deny law-abiding citizens their right to protect themselves in extreme circumstances.
Gun-control proponents will insist that there’s no rational connection between making the existing background-check system more comprehensive and defending against terrorists. (Here are some solid arguments along those lines.)
But the NRA and some of its friends are not interested in rational discourse. They thrive on slippery-slope reasoning, according to which any limit on guns is a mere precursor to firearm registration and confiscation. As any gun manufacturer will tell you, the 9/11 attacks helped sales at firearm counters around the country and strengthened the NRA’s hand in lobbying against greater federal restrictions.
The gun debate has been tilting toward the pro-gun side for more than a dozen years. The Boston Marathon bombings will continue that trend.