The Senate’s defeat of the remnants of the Feinstein gun control bill last week was denounced by the President and others as “cowardly,” not to mention other unkind epithets. It was touted by many, but not all, Democrats as “common sense” legislation. The terms in quotation marks deserve some comment.
First, it is always useful to look at terms that are effective, as in Frank Luntz’s Words that Work treatise. “Cowardice” is an emotionally loaded term. It is an odious offense for which the death penalty is prescribed for soldiers who display it in battle. It is the failure of one to perform a clear duty because of perceived harm or unpleasantness to oneself. Cowardice is unjustifiable, even in our wishy-washy current culture, and it is hard to live down. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is a good explication of the downstream effects of a cowardly act.
“Common sense” is a powerful concept. It means that wisdom is gained by an accumulation of shared common knowledge. It denominates a cut to the core, no-nonsense approach to problem solving. It is free of nuances and matters irrelevant to the immediate question. And it works for most of us most of the time. Thomas Paine entitled his pamphlet calling for American independence from Britain Common Sense, and applied the concept: It was common sense that an island (Great Britain) should not rule a continent (the colonies). Common sense has since had a powerful appeal. I say rightly so. It is true that common sense often fails when one attempts to apply it to complicated, esoteric problems, where all of the variables are unknown, but it is nearly always a good starting point; a populist Occam’s Razor, if you will.
The invoking of common sense, not common sense in itself, will also fail if one misapplies it. In other words, if something is obviously not commonsensical, calling it such will not make it so. I suggest that its exactly what happened in the recent controversy. The idea that universal, or nearly so, background checks would prevent or reduce the number of guns available to criminals and lunatics, does not make sense when the meanest intelligence can see how such checks would be evaded by criminals. Additionally, most of use realize that mentally disturbed persons would simply fall through the cracks because there is no way to identify them consistent with due process before they commit a heinous act.
Is it cowardly for a legislator to oppose and vote against a measure his constituents do not want? After all, they elected him to represented their interests. There has been a dichotomy since the days of Edmund Burke as to whether an elected representative is bound to use his best judgment on an issue, even when it might not be popular, rather than be a mere mouthpiece for his electors. Yes, we elect representatives to use their judgment, particularly on measures that are complex and the average voter does not have the time and inclination to become familiar with. Nevertheless, if a legislator ignores the wishes of his constituents on an issue when they have made their views plain, he won’t remain in office for long, and rightly so. Trusting a politician has its limits.
Senators, especially Democrats from swing or Republican leaning states, were accused of bowing to the National Rifle Association’s perceived ability to influence elections, and thus shirking their duty to vote for a law that was in the national interest. But was the bill, even when reduced to merely expanding background checks to some private sales, in the national interest? There were vocal, even strident, opinions on both sides, and no clear consensus. If Congress is to enact a law that substantially burdens what has been declared to be a fundamental right, there must be a clear and convincing super-majority to do so. Liberty is an overriding issue on which politicians must listen to their electorate, not their individual judgment.
Well, what about the 90% of Americans who want background checks? That number has been bandied about incessantly. The accuracy of polls depends on the form of the question asked and the sample of the population that is polled. I have seen neither the questions asked nor the sample data. If it was a nationwide poll, however, I would venture a guess that a question framed like “Do you believe that Congress should enact gun control measures that would prevent guns from getting into the hands of criminals and the mentally ill?” would elicit positive responses from nearly everyone. Furthermore, the sample polled could be be weighted toward regions where gun control is more popular.
Much to the dismay of those who tilt to the left, we have a federal system of government in place. This means that the opinions and wishes of those who inhabit the several states and may have different opinions have a mechanism for those to be respected. There may well be 90% and more in the northeast and west coast states who favor certain elements of gun control. I am certain that not even a simple majority of Texans, or, more to the point, Democratic Senator Max Baucus’s Montana constituents, want. Recall that we are debating a national law, applicable to everyone in every state, that would burden a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. Perhaps that could be justified by proof that it would be effective in keeping criminals and lunatics from possessing firearms, but that proof does not exist.
The great bogeyman for the left, the NRA, is effective because it speaks to and for a significant part of the population. It would not exist and have the power it apparently does if it did not. The only thing the leftist gun control advocates can do now is stomp their collective foot like a child having a temper tantrum.
Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, as well as other really commonsensical Americans might paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt: The leftists have begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. They are unanimous in their hate for us — and we welcome their hatred.