On Friday, the internet began passing around a column from last year by The New York Times’ in-house conservative columnist, Bret Stephens. That op-ed called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. It’s an exercise in futility, shot-through with misplaced indignation and a shocking amount of willingness to overlook the plainly factual.
Stephens begins by deriding the “conservative fetish for the Second Amendment.” Why, he asks, do conservatives support a private right to own weapons for the protection of life and liberty?
After all, Stephens says, “From a law-and-order standpoint, more guns means more murder.” Now, this is plainly untrue. More guns in certain places means more murder. Stephens cites a study in the American Journal of Public Health, for example, to show that “States with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.” There’s just one problem with the study: it examines the statistics on a state level, which makes no sense. Virtually all murder happens in major cities, not in the surburbs or the boonies, so we’d have to actually examine gun laws and their efficacy in cities themselves to see how effective they’ve been. And that supposedly bulletproof study actually comes to a rather uncomfortable conclusion that both the study authors and Stephens would prefer to ignore: “For each 1-standard deviation increase in proportion of household gun ownership, firearm homicide rate increased by 12.9%. For each 1-standard deviation increase in proportion of black population, firearm homicide rate increased by 82.8%.” (The study write-up attempts to hide this fact by not showing the data in the text.) The correlation between gun laws and gun death is actually non-existent, according to Eugene Volokh of The Washington Post.
Stephens continues by stating, “From a personal-safety standpoint, more guns means less safety.” He then cites the fact that more people are killed in accidental firearms deaths than in self-defense shooting situations. But that’s not the point of owning a weapon. The point of owning a weapon is not to fire it. While the CDC points out that there were 268 justifiable homicides by firearms in 2015, according to the National Self-Defense Survey extrapolations, people use firearms in self-defense millions of times per year. Brian Doherty at Reason has an exhaustive analysis of just which one is closer to the truth — but it’s certainly not true that only justifiable homicides act as a measure of the value of guns in self-defense.
Stephens next moves on to deriding the founding-era viewpoint that guns could protect liberty. He says that such a suggestion is “quaint” in terms of foreign policy, laughing at the suggestion that guns could deter “Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.” Except, of course, that small firearms utilized in guerilla warfare have thwarted major states time and again, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. He also mocks the notion that “an armed citizenry is the ultimate check on the ambitions and encroachments of government power,” citing the Whiskey Rebellions and the New York draft riots. Except, of course, that the Whiskey Rebellion likely resulted, politically, in the ouster of President John Adams and the end of the internal federal taxes on whiskey. Most armed insurrections are terrible mistakes, of course, but to say that their threat doesn’t act as a deterrent is historically illiterate (it’s one major reason, for example, that the feds haven’t tried a major gun grab — try telling Texans that the ATF is coming to confiscate weaponry).
Then Stephens turns to the “active shooter” phenomenon, stating that such situations are “extremely rare” in the rest of the world. That’s true. It’s also true that they’re extremely rare in the United States. And citing Stephen Paddock as an example of a person who had no record of mental health problems is intellectually dishonest — he’s about the only example of an active shooter without a history of red flags. That’s some serious cherry picking of data.
After that, Stephens starts parroting the talking points of full-blown idiots like Piers Morgan. He says, “I’m not the first pundit to point out that if a ‘Mohammad Paddock’ had purchased dozens of firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition and then checked himself into a suite at the Mandalay Bay with direct views to a nearby music festival, somebody at the local F.B.I. field office would have noticed.” Really? How good a job did the FBI do of watching Omar Mateen in Orlando or Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino?
Stephens suggests that Leftists are losing the gun control debate because they lie about the facts (correct) and talk about “common sense gun control” when they really mean full-scale repeal of the Second Amendment. His solution: repeal the Second Amendment.
He then says that this should become a “great cause.” He says gun ownership shouldn’t be outlawed, but it “doesn’t need a blanket Constitutional protection, either,” again mocking those who think “Red Dawn” is imminent. It apparently never occurs to Stephens that a state powerful enough to confiscate weapons or ban the sale of them is made more powerful by the lack of weapons in private hands.
What about the founding philosophy? Stephens says that today, James Madison would be on his side — without any evidence.
“The true foundation of American exceptionalism should be our capacity for moral and constitutional renewal, not our instinct for self-destruction,” Stephens concludes.
This is about as non-conservative a philosophy as can be found. Human nature doesn’t change. The founders knew that. It’s why they thought the right to self-defense and defense of liberty was the foundation of all other rights. If Madison would be shocked by our level of murder, his recommendation would be to inculcate virtue in our communities, not to restrict our rights. Down the alternative path lies tyranny.
NOTE: This column originally stated that Stephen's column was released in response to the Florida shooting. That was incorrect. The column is actually from October 2017, and went viral again on Friday.