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The Jefferson Rifle
David Brin   Jan 28, 2013   Contrary Brin  

I have been asked to post a few “David Brin Classics”.... some of my older riffs and rants… here online for a new generation to share and ponder. I’ve been mulling which ones. Then the topic of the Second Amendment and gun control recently came up. Along with the observation that some liberals are starting to nurse fantasies of needing to be armed, themselves, in the era that they see coming down the road.

Of course, at one level, this topic is a special example of one of my frequent complaints, that many issues in modern life are artificially posed as either-or, zero-sum choices between one rigid position and another. I have always felt that Gun Control is especially tipe for "off-axis" compromise solutions. Indeed, it might make a great test for one of my Disputation Arenas. It also serves to demonstrate the poisonous effects that addiction to self-righteous indignation will always have upon intelligent, pragmatic discourse. But that's another topic.

For now (and with a present day afterword), let's go back to an article first written in 1992 and updated circa 1998...

==Guns and the Insurrection Myth==

The issue of guns in America is intransigent. True believers on both sides hold fixed positions, portraying their opponents in the darkest possible terms. Enforcement of the Brady Law has thwarted thousands of ex-cons and criminals from acquiring arms without seriously inconveniencing legitimate gun buyers, but this hasn’t led to a new era of pragmatic compromise.

Polls show that most Americans don’t wish to eliminate personal gun ownership, they simply want more accountability. In 1998, Attorney General Janet Reno made an apt parallel between firearms and automobiles. Both are potentially lethal devices, yet close to two hundred million drivers participate in a system of training, licensing, registration and regulation that results in remarkably low levels of injury, averaged over billions of human-hours on our roads. Despite drunk drivers, pollution, and traffic jams, motorists seem to handle their metal behemoths -- each car filled with flammable liquids -- for the most part courteously, reliably and with great skill.
We accept a state interest in demanding that all drivers be licensed and that all cars be registered and well-maintained. Why not apply similar standards to the other machines most responsible for premature, violent death in this country -- firearms? In California, where the DMV has lately acquired an astonishing reputation for good service, one could envision renaming it the “Department of Motor Vehicles and Firearms”. A hunting shotgun might be treated like a normal car. You want an AK-47? Then take as many tests -- and get as much insurance -- as a professional trucker who wants to drive an 18-wheeler. If your gun is stolen, report it like a missing auto. Fail to lock it up properly? Your insurance rates go up.

Unfortunately, as logical as all this sounds, it won’t ever be tried. Because it fails to address the underlying reason why NRA members resist even mild forms of gun control.

To understand why, try asking even moderate and reasonable gun owners about their underlying nightmare. They'll explain the scenario that drives them to sleepless anxiety is fear of confiscation. To a great many gun owners, any new law, however benign, is simply a step down the proverbial slippery slope, leading inevitably to seizure of all firearms by the state.

Activists on the other side are too quick to dismiss gun aficionados as macho know-nothings. In fact, many NRA members express a coherent philosophy based on a deeply American distrust of government, coupled with a belief that citizen firearm ownership may yet prove to be a bulwark against dictatorship, even as it was in Jefferson’s day.

Are they foolish to think this? Throughout history, there has been a tendency for governments to grow ever more remote and overbearing, until citizens face a choice between submission or rising to teach their would-be masters a lesson. Many on the left today forget that they once had insurrection fantasies of their own, back when Richard Nixon's paranoid agenda seemed bent on stripping political opponents of their rights. There has always been a notion, at the back of the American psyche, that our leaders don’t oppress us because they know we might fight back.

Of course, things were different in Jefferson's day, when a militia of musket-bearing farmers was nearly as well-equipped as a company of professional soldiers. Today, in contrast, how could any ragtag uprising of angry citizens hope to face a technological army, sent to quash a popular revolt? Yet consider -- how many cities could the dozen or so U.S. Army divisions hold and pacify against an angry, united and armed citizenry? One or two urban centers? Maybe three? Remember that the soldiers in those divisions, Americans themselves, might mutiny if ordered to blow up whole neighborhoods with cluster bombs. Certainly any urban rebellion would fail without support from the populace, but in case of a true mass rising, I'd put even money on the people.

No, I’m not arguing that this insurrection scenario is likely or plausible! Certainly we all pray to never see it tested. Those few who declare that it looms on the near horizon are, for the most part, out of touch with common sense.

My point is that the mere existence of such an option, no matter how remote, affects the basic power relationship between government and governed. Jefferson argued that an implicit threat of rebellion counterweighs the natural tendency of states to grab power. It can be argued that this hasn't changed in two hundred years.

Whatever its fallacies or merits, this rarely-discussed mythos is crucial to understanding why millions resist gun control in general, and weapon registration in particular. Innumerable gun owners are deeply convinced that their opponents' real agenda is to compile a comprehensive list of private weapons, so that some future bureaucracy will know exactly where to confiscate every firearm not already in state hands. Talk to them as I have, and don’t be too quick to call them crazy.

The Slippery Slope Syndrome poisons so many issues on the national agenda (e.g. abortion, sex education, the right-to-die.) Fear of an insidious erosion of liberty spurs obstinacy on all sides, thwarting the American genius at compromise. In the case of gun control, we might start toward a solution by noting what NRA members fear most about proposed regulations -- not the inconvenience or paperwork, but a long slide toward confiscation and eventual loss of a traditional (if perhaps illusory) insurrectionary recourse. As a nation, we should consider ways to allay their deep fears, while at the same time demanding action against a plague of firearm-related deaths.

==The Militia Rifle==

Here is a possible compromise, one of many. Moderate gun owners just might accept reforms that treat most personal weapons like motorcars -- including registration, mandatory training, licensing and insurance -- if they were also offered some surety against the dreaded slippery slope. This could consist of a grand compact permanently setting aside one class of firearms from oversight.

Traditional bolt-action rifles and simple shotguns are rarely used by criminals, impulse murderers, or children. They are hard to conceal, slow to reload, difficult to bring to bear in close quarters, and not much help to hit-men or muggers. They have produced victims, to be sure, including some famous ones. Still, these basic firearms wreak havoc at a minuscule rate compared to the carnage spread by other weapons favored by criminals for concealment and rapid fire. They are also the firearms most appropriate for hunting, target shooting and home defense.

Oh , there is one more place where the bolt-action rifle proved itself -- on the battlefield. It was the primary weapon of most armies in both world wars. One criminal using such a rifle can be taken out by any SWAT team. But events in Bosnia and Chechnya have shown that it takes artillery and bloody-minded ruthlessness to root out large bands of dedicated neighbors, supporting and covering each other with hunting rifles.

If matters ever reached total civil war in America, with napalm and carpet bombing, a civilian militia would crumble, no matter how well armed. But in a borderline case, where soldiers and commanders refuse to stomach bombarding citizens, ten thousand men and women with simple rifles just might force a tyrant to negotiate. Maybe. At least it’s a scenario believed by millions.

Okay, such talk about protecting a citizen’s right to a “militia rifle” may sound romantic -- even bizarre to some -- but radicals on the other side are just as quixotic to imagine they will ever rid this society of all personal weapons. Nothing is more likely to cause civil war in America than a full bore effort to achieve a total ban. Neither side has a monopoly on unreasonableness.

Perhaps we should try listening to each others’ fears, instead of simply ridiculing our opponents. It may be the only way to move beyond slippery slopes and silly extreme-scenarios toward the kind of pragmatic problem-solving that we are best known for in the world.

One thing is certain -- the present situation is intolerable. We need a compromise on gun control. If moderate gun owners will accept a constitution-level guarantee, keeping the least harmful class of weapons unregistered and forever safe from confiscation, we might finally see automobile-style regulation of handguns, semi-automatics and the other true engines of death that make life needlessly perilous in a decent civilization.


AFTERWORD January 2007:

Of course this was written in an earlier, somewhat more innocent age. A time when it was the far-right wingnut jobs who spoke of “black helicopters” and not regular joe soldiers in Iraq, whispering about “Blackwater Helicopters.” A time when the Army Reserves and National Guard were still in their homes, at their jobs, training on weekends and fulfilling the “well-ordered militia” role, instead of being squandered in a foreign adventure, leaving us all wondering what stands between us and peril, if a surprise disaster hits. A time before power began consolidating so heavily among a few thousand golf buddies, that the actual “aristocratic control ratio” may soon be worse than it was when the Founders rebelled against King George and his cronies.

Under those circumstances, might any decent person... even a liberal... ponder a fresh view of the “insurrectionary recourse,” at least in fantasy?

It bears pondering, and not just by liberals and moderates. The top aristos may want to start wondering... do they really want to head down a path that starts to alienate... and even radicalize... a well-armed and super-educated middle class? Over the long run, is that really smart or wise?

Worth pondering.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


This solution may have been slightly plausible and relevant in the age before 3d printing.

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