AS THE HORRORS OF THE SCHOOL MASSACRE IN NEWTOWN, Connecticut, had begun to sink in, and nestle their way into the broken anatomy of the American body politic, another shooting incident took place, this time in the Rochester, New York, suburb of Webster, on Christmas Eve.
The gunmen in both incidents were demented beyond the pale of culture-war distractions that often deflect attention from the plague of gun violence in American society. Adam Lanza, the twenty-year-old who brutally assassinated twenty elementary-school children and eight adults (including himself and his mother), appears to have manifested his alienation in simple silent withdrawal; no evidence has surfaced in his psychological profile of the usual suspects that firearm advocates love to finger in the wake of gun attacks, such as ultragraphic slasher movies or first-person-shooter video games. The Webster sniper, sixty-two-year-old William Spengler, killed two area firemen responding to an early-morning alarm about a fire he’d set in his home, and appears to have had no motive beyond sheer delight in mayhem. Police investigators found a note at the scene in which Spengler announced that he was getting ready “to do what I like doing best, killing people.”
In other words, all the shooters had in common, beyond their entirely predictable gender and race, was a weapon of choice: the Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle, the one marketed with the crass slogan “Consider your Man Card reissued.”
And the one thing that the great men choreographing our Kabuki-style debate over gun rights have ensured is that we can’t have any honest discussion about such weapons themselves. If the last twenty years or so of political stalemate on the gun front have taught us nothing else, it’s that the traffic in automatic weaponry designed to maximize bloodshed is a sacrosanct individual right, vouchsafed by the country’s founders in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In reality, this mythic notion is of very recent vintage, and runs counter to everything about the actual wording and historical context of the Second Amendment. The doctrine of individual rights as the basis of gun ownership was formally inscribed into constitutional law only as a result of the US Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which overturned the District of Columbia’s handgun ban. That major legal decision—together with the millions of dollars that the gun industry’s lobbying arm, the National Rifle Association, lavishes on the political system—has effectively reduced the prospect of any substantial ban on assault weapons into what’s known in the debased vocabulary of our national politics as a “nonstarter.”
So it’s perhaps fitting that the yawning vacuum that now surrounds substantive discussions of the Second Amendment left the first public response to the Newtown massacre in the hands of the more nimble and image-conscious masters of the equity market. The holding company that owns the Bushmaster concern—which bears a name steeped in mordant Orwellian irony, the Freedom Group—has been put up for sale by its overseers at the Cerberus Group (which itself is named for a mythological hound of hell). Needless to say, Cerberus’s response to the mood of national crisis is woefully inadequate. Ditching Bushmaster does nothing to alter our suicidal romance with assault guns—the company’s sellers will eventually find a buyer (a foreign one, most likely, that won’t have to reckon quite so directly with the blowback from the inevitable next US gun massacre). In any case, sales of the rifle have skyrocketed in the wake of the infamous shootings, amid the gun community’s paranoiac rumors that the government, or some other shadowy offstage actor, will retire the .223 model.
Indeed, in its new individual-rights-bearing guise, the ideology of gun ownership follows its own logic of the market. Fervid gun advocates uniformly hail the possession of a firearm as a foundational expression of freedom—the right of coercive self-protection. That’s why the fallback defense that gun advocates take in the wake of a tragedy such as Newtown is always a call for increased gun ownership—a position advanced by hack political scientist John R. Lott Jr. in his long-discredited but somehow still influential 1998 tract, More Guns, Less Crime. Taking a page from that gun-fundamentalist playbook, today’s defenders of the unconditional right to bear arms argue that if only the slain principal at Sandy Hook, Dawn Hochsprung, had had her own assault weapon on the premises, she could have cut Adam Lanza down before he fired his first shot.
Never mind that this is delusional fantasizing—in a culture already choked with guns and gun massacres, there have been only a handful of cases in which the intervening armed party wasn’t an off-duty cop. The real point of such outlandish counterfactuals is to shift the responsibility for regulating our rampant gun culture onto individual citizens. This is, in effect, an embrace of Thomas Hobbes’s war of all against all as a model of social policy. In our case, even more absurdly, unconditional Second Amendment freedom would compel a career educator to pursue an entirely unwanted dual career as, well, a paramilitary superhero, never quite sure whether to plug a bullet into a suspiciously agitated parent complaining about how a favorite child was graded. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t what libertarian hero Barry Goldwater meant when he said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Some die-hard libertarians go beyond the model of the Rambo-fied pedagogue to demand still greater sacrifices before the altar of individual gun rights. Daily Beast columnist Megan McArdle has proposed that if it were “drilled . . . into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8–12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.” Yes, you read that right: A nationally published pundit is so beholden to the lie of absolutist gun rights that she’s preaching the ongoing sacrifice of kids in classrooms as a safety measure. And McArdle isn’t the only one: National Review columnist Charlotte Allen contended that the lamentably effeminate state of our elementary schools had prevented “some of the huskier 12-year-old boys” at Sandy Hook from rushing and disarming Lanza as he opened fire. In his 1945 essay “The Responsibility of Peoples,” Dwight Macdonald correctly observed, in the wake of the full disclosure of the commonplace horrors of the Holocaust, that it represents an unjust burden on ordinary citizens to expect them to act with self-sacrificing heroism in the face of brutal totalitarian rule; one blanches to think of what Macdonald might make of our quisling right-wing pundit class, which effectively chides our slain children and elementary-school teachers for falling short of the standard set by Bruce Willis in Die Hard as they themselves fall victim to an out-of-control gun culture.
These callous preachments of communal sacrifice for the sake of a singularly destructive conception of individual liberty completely distort the Second Amendment and its original intent. Fordham University historian Saul Cornell, author of the authoritative 2008 history of the amendment, A Well-Regulated Militia, notes that today’s gun fundamentalism overlooks the dense network of social obligations and communal solidarity that midwifed the Second Amendment’s conception of a militia as both a safeguard and an extension of the civic-republican ideal. “The whole thing about the militia idea is that the militia is the institution that integrates you into your community,” Cornell says. “It’s the volunteer fire department or the Rotary—it is the social cement of early American society.” This, indeed, is why the Spengler shooting in New York was, in some ways, the most powerful rejoinder to prophets of maximal gun sales, such as the NRA’s reliably deranged executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, whose response to Newtown was to call for armed guards to be posted in each of the nation’s hundred-thousand-plus elementary schools: Snipers armed with assault weapons can, and do, target civil servants just as easily as they do unarmed children.
This sort of rabid individualism also runs completely counter to the militias that are the only clear beneficiaries of the Second Amendment’s protections. In the militias of the early Republic, Cornell notes, “gun-owning is knit into an institution that connects people to one another, and there’s no presumption of anonymity in that. The whole rhetoric of the gun movement now is, ‘Destroy all background information after you’ve cleared it. No registration. Don’t publish the names of people who have concealed-carry cards.’ There’s this whole libertarian structure that’s entirely antithetical to the communitarian, civic-republican world that gave us the right to bear arms.”
As an alternative, Cornell suggests that in the wake of the Newtown attack, a smart antigun strategy would be to revive the actual intent of the Second Amendment in both legal and political debate. “My pitch has always been, Let’s shove the Second Amendment down their throats. Let’s have mandatory inspections of firearms in homes. You want to claim that you’re a well-regulated militia? Well, we’re going to inspect your firearms every six months, like George Washington wanted.”
It’s hard to argue with such measures as one ponders the moral and social vacuums created by the libertarian mythology of gun rights—and that continue to seduce firearm enthusiasts such as Adam Lanza’s late mother, Nancy. “The one thing you can clearly say is that there had been one homicide in Newtown, Connecticut, in the previous decade,” Cornell says. “And that this woman, who had been sucked into this sort of John Lott, slightly apocalyptic, arm-yourself-to-the-teeth fantasy world, brought a lot of very high-powered weapons into a home with a very troubled young man, and did not lock them up. Responsible gun owners know you do not do that. I was trolling through some of the gun-blog posts, and there the line is that, ‘She was entitled to buy those. That was her right.’ And that’s the kind of language that we need to contest.”
But that language will only ratchet up as the NRA’s leased mouthpieces in Congress stand their ground and chant their tireless refrains about the grave threats to our freedoms to bear firearms. The future owners of the Bushmaster rifle company—er, excuse me, the Freedom Group—will certainly see to that.
Chris Lehmann is the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket Books, 2011), a senior editor of The Baffler, and an editor of Bookforum.