This is a longer version of an an op-ed that ran in the Mercury News (Silicon Valley, California) on February 11 (print version), entitled "Saddam's pistol, Ike's speeches and the ethics of gun ownership."
In the current debate over gun regulation a simple point is being missed. Every citizen has the right to a gun. But shouldn't every man, woman, and child also have the right not to have a gun and expect to live in a safe and secure environment?
The road to new legislation on guns is uncertain because political leadership on this issue takes place in alternate ethical universes.
Consider that for George W. Bush, one of the most prized artifacts of his presidency is Saddam Hussein's 9 millimeter Glock. Presented to him by U.S. Special Forces who pulled the former Iraqi president from his "spider hole," President Bush writes in his memoir that he took pride in showing it off to visitors. The gun now resides in Dallas. It is to be a featured exhibit in the George W. Bush Library, scheduled to open later this year.
Saddam's pistol seems an unworthy relic, a trophy that smacks of a style of political leadership that glorifies guns. Yet despite the Hollywood myths of gunfights and prairie justice, the greatest American political and military leaders are known more for their moral restraint than their lust for combat or desire for revenge.
Grant famously allowed Confederate officers to keep their sidearms upon the surrender at Appomattox. Eisenhower's humility was evident in his V-E Day speech that extolled the sacrifice and courage of "GI Joe" rather than the awesome firepower of the allied forces. Later, as president, Eisenhower said in his Farewell Address, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
Eisenhower understood that force was necessary to confront evil. His world was defined by threats from Nazism, Communism, and general instability. But he also understood that something is amiss when leaders promote the mystical status of the force of arms. To this way of thinking, guns and lethal force are to be respected. But political leaders have a larger responsibility to debunk glorification of armed force.
It was Hitler who believed that the unmitigated lust for power was a sign of good health and that restraint was a sign of decadence. American leaders like Eisenhower knew Hitler had it exactly wrong. Power-obsessed societies are ultimately self-destructive. Ethical leadership requires restraining and directing the use of force to its ultimate purpose, the establishment of peace and security for all.
Evil still exists and some aspects of life in the twenty-first century still resemble a street fight. Both at home and abroad, living in a dangerous world requires being armed with what you need to protect yourself—and perhaps a little more. The point yet to be made, however, is that restraint is a sign of strength, not weakness. It is a sign that a society understands the limits of the gun and what it can do.
So far the current debate at home has fallen into the stale arguments over Second Amendment rights. But change is not only possible. It is inevitable.
Change will come when leaders respond to pressure from changing social norms and expectations. Guns have always had special status in American society. But even their special qualities have changed over time. Consider the example of dueling. In the days of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, dueling was not only legal it was considered a duty under certain circumstances. As culture changed the law followed. The idea of settling a dispute at 40 paces now seems ludicrous. Someday, personal ownership of assault weapons and access to unlimited ammunition may appear similarly barbarous.
The debate over guns is a debate about ethics. Too often we see the gun as the end not the means. The gun has become the symbol of freedom rather than the object of responsibility. No one is coming for anyone's gun. Gun producers and owners will enjoy remarkable freedom for as far as the eye can see. The question is: What sort of responsibility and restraint will be demanded in return?
As long as we fetishize Saddam's pistol and all manner of firearms, we miss the point. Guns are not the problem. The problem is the idea that they alone are the answer to personal security.
The best way to honor gun rights is to respect the rights and sentiments of those who have no interest in gun culture and wish to live without a gun. The Second Amendment is about public safety. Its concern for a free and well-ordered society applies to all, bearers of arms and non-bearers alike. The non-bearers' voices are rising. It would be a mistake to dismiss their rights claim as weaker than any other.