New Gun Owners and the Election
The numbers are simply astonishing. Between the beginning of March and the end of June 2020, Americans bought in the neighborhood of 8.3 million guns. Per the National Shooting Sports Foundation, around 40% of these were sold to first-time buyers. If this pace is maintained—and it seems likely that it will be—this year will go down in history as having featured the largest number of private gun sales since federal records began.
For decades, opponents of the Second Amendment have argued that there is no need for a robust right to keep and bear arms when the government is there to keep the peace. In service of this argument, advocates of stricter gun-control have assured voters that “only cops need guns,” and insisted that “if you want a rifle, join the army.” This year, however, these arguments have almost totally evaporated, and, in their place, we have heard calls for the complete abolition—or at least the substantial weakening—of our right to keep and bear arms by presidential candidate Joe Biden.
There are now several million more gun-owners in the United States than there were at the beginning of the year—and, if the trend continues, there will be millions more than that by its end. For the first time in their lives, many of those new gun owners have a practical stake in the preservation of the Second Amendment, and in the prevention of draconian gun-control laws that attempt to criminalize their peaceful behavior and make scapegoats of the peaceful. Perhaps in the coming election, but certainly soon after, these alterations will yield a change in our political debate. As history shows all too well, when “those other people’s rights” become “my rights,” things on the ground tend to change pretty quickly.
It is, of course, as important as ever that Americans insist upon the selection and election of politicians and judges who respect the U.S. Constitution. And yet it remains the case that the most-effective long-term prophylactic against gun-control demagoguery is the widespread ownership of arms, coupled with the suspicion that one may need those arms for one’s defense at some point in the future.
Much of the rhetoric we hear from anti-Second Amendment groups presumes, as its starting position, that the mere desire to own a firearm is indicative of a flawed character. As a matter of routine, gun owners are cast as “crazy” or “scared” or as “uneducated” or “irresponsible” or “dangerous.” Gun owners, goes these mainstream-media narratives, are supposed to be selfish or myopic or lacking in empathy. Perhaps they can get away with these tactics, to a certain extent, when addressing people who do not own guns themselves, and, additionally, who do not know many people who do. One cannot get away with this, however, when addressing people to whom gun ownership is entirely unremarkable. In politics, demonizing strangers is relatively easy. But someone’s father, sister or friend? That’s a tall order. There are three million more of those fathers, sisters and friends today than there were six months ago.
And no, not of all them look the same. The press likes to pretend that gun ownership is merely the preserve of white men. But this has not been true for a long time. There was, indeed, a time in American history in which minorities were, in some areas of the country, denied the right to bear arms. But it was not the advocates of the Second Amendment who acted as the architects of this prohibition; it was its enemies. Indeed, as scholars such as Nicholas Johnson and Charles Cobb Jr. have shown, the champions of the Second Amendment have been only too thrilled to see the right protected and extended to every group in the United States.
This is as it should be, for the right to keep and bear arms is not tied to, or contingent upon, any political, religious or ideological position, but is a natural liberty that attaches to each of us on account of our being human. It should be unsurprising that the consequence of the great restoration of the Second Amendment has been an explosion in the number of privately owned firearms and a widening of interest in the right itself. This is a big country, with an extraordinary variety of people and places.
Nevertheless, the political consequences of an expansion in gun ownership should be obvious. At present, America is a sharply divided nation, with a whole host of public policy questions in play that split straight down its middle. The Second Amendment, however, does not follow those divisions neatly, and, each time a new gun-owner is added to the mix, the equation changes further.
Back in 2008, shortly after the D.C. v. Heller decision was handed down, Gallup found that, while three-quarters of Americans understood that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, “gun owners are nearly universal in endorsing the view that the Second Amendment guarantees their right to own guns,” whereas “non-owners are less likely to view the amendment this way, but a majority still do.” This correlation should not surprise us.
The indirect consequences of this surge seem clear. More gun-owners means more people who know how guns work and how they do not work; more gun-owners means more people will understand the difference between “semi-automatic” and “automatic,” and who know that there is no such thing as the “gun show loophole” and that “assault weapon” is a purely political term. More gun-owners also means more people who grasp that the last thing anybody ought to be worrying about is legal concealed carriers; and, yes, more gun-owners means more people willing to familiarize themselves with the relevant history. Or, to put another way: More gun-owners means less superstition about guns, which is always a good thing in debates over public policy.
The direct consequences are equally, if not more, important—especially as we move toward the general election. The more gun owners there are in America, the more votes there will be for the maintenance of the right to keep and bear arms, and, by extension, the more politically and practically difficult it will become to push for confiscations and prohibitions of all sorts. Beto O’Rourke has said that he hopes to confiscate AR-15s, and, as a reward for the candor, Joe Biden has promised to put O’Rourke in charge of the “gun problem” during a Biden administration. With every new owner of an AR-15, O’Rourke’s plan becomes less palatable in the electoral realm, and less defensible in the legal realm under Heller’s much-ignored “common use” standard. It is certainly possible that the explosion in sales that we have seen during the last few months will have a meaningful effect on the outcome in November. Gun owners vote—for president, for the Senate, for the House and in the states. And more gun-owners means … well, you do the math.
“The more gun owners there are in America, the more votes there will be for the maintenance of the right to keep and bear arms.…”
Such a dramatic increase also presents a practical obstacle to the sort of constitutional vandalism the Biden campaign and others are promising. One of the core problems associated with the imposition of thoughtless gun-control measures lies in the damage that such measures do to the relationship between law enforcement and the citizenry. In the last couple of years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of “sanctuary counties” (areas in which citizens and police officers alike have resolved to ignore any gun-control edicts that contradict the U.S. Constitution).
In that they, at least symbolically, defang unconstitutional laws and render them unenforceable, these “sanctuary counties” are important in and of themselves. But they are also instructive insofar as they illustrate and make clear the scale of the political will to push back against the undermining of the Second Amendment.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the “sanctuary movement” in Virginia was the reminder it provided that, even in a state run exclusively by a Democratic Party that had vowed to impose draconian gun control, there remains a critical mass who will not take the abridgment of their rights lying down. That the government in Virginia eventually backed down on some of its anti-gun agenda is a testament to the movement’s ongoing willingness to fight.
One can only hope that the men and women who won that partial victory in Virginia are resolved to keep going—and, crucially, to bringing into the fold the millions of new gun-owners who have joined their ranks. There are no permanent losses in politics, the old saying goes, because there are no permanent victories in politics. This maxim teaches us that our approach should be the same, irrespective of what happens at the polls. You fight to win each election, and then you keep fighting for your rights regardless of the outcome. If you’re 10 points down, you fight. If you’re 10 points up, you fight. If the government seems hostile to your rights, you fight. If it seems supportive, you maintain pressure as if it were opposed. And then you fight some more.
There is no substitute for facts on the ground. A culture that argues openly with itself about matters great and small is unlikely to dismantle its free speech protections. A nation whose devout citizens worship openly and without apology will defend its right to the free exercise of religion without hesitation. And a country in which all manner of people elect to keep and bear arms will assiduously avoid the further infringement of that right.
We are now entering a period of uncertainty and tumult, in which the foundations of our freedom are being openly questioned. Thus far, this year has not brought much good news with it, but that there are millions more among us who have seen fit to exercise their rights protected under the Second Amendment is a welcome development indeed. And in November, it may just make the difference.