Once, after I had written about gun control, a guy called to differ and said that had the Jews of Germany been armed, the Holocaust never would have happened. That assertion, so ahistorical as to be almost laughable, stopped me in my tracks, because it went to the black heart of the gun-control debate: It's not about guns. It's about the government.
It's about the government in two respects. The first is the conviction that guns are needed to protect Americans from their own government. This fear — maybe paranoia is the better word — is embedded in the National Rifle Association's message and in the statements of its officials. As The Washington Post recently reminded us, shortly before the 1995 bombing of a government office building in Oklahoma City (168 dead), Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, proclaimed that a recently enacted assault-weapons ban gave "jackbooted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure and kill us." He said nothing about pets and daughters.
The second way the gun-control debate is about government relates to crime — the belief that the government is either unwilling or unable to protect us. That this belief seems to have solidified at precisely a time when crime has diminished is both mysterious and frightening. Like almost everything else in America, it has to do with race and ethnicity and the vertiginous feeling that the country is no longer one big extended family but a collection of tribes.
Taken together, what we have is the cratering of liberalism, which is deeply associated with government — its growth, its utility. All across the nation in recent days, political leaders have declared their intention to rein in guns, but all they have done actually is signal defeat. They have proposed this or that marginal program — something about magazines, something about bullets, something about background checks, something about assault rifles, and maybe, just to be truly silly, something about mental health, as if the crazed shooter can be easily Rorschached. All this and nothing about the core problem, which is handguns. They have remained out of bounds although they account for the vast majority of the 100,000 or so annual shootings — an astounding one million gun deaths since 1968.
The liberal agenda once included confiscating handguns and abolishing the right to own one — never mind the right to carry one at all times. In his book, Living With Guns, Craig Whitney excavates the fact that in 1969 a presidential commission called for the confiscation of almost all handguns — and the prosecution of those who would not comply. The commission was headed by Milton S. Eisenhower, the brother of the former president and no one's idea of a left-wing radical.
Much has changed since then. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a respected anti-gun group, used to be called Handgun Control. The name itself shows how far things have come. The goal of handgun control, not to mention elimination, is now out of the question. The Supreme Court's 2008 Heller decision certainly put it out of reach, but even before that, a Milton Eisenhower-type call to seize all the guns would have been met with derision. The once sturdy and sensible liberal goal had become an embarrassment.
The gun argument has drifted so far to the right that the question now is whether employers can prohibit their employees from bringing a gun to work. The NRA's remedy for school shootings is to arm teachers and security guards so that any school hallway could become a latter-day O.K. Corral.
For liberals, the debacle has been complete. A conservative response to liberal remedies proved overwhelming. With the Supreme Court's permission, America armed itself — the 24 million handguns cited in the 1969 Eisenhower report is now much greater, a danger posing as a deterrent, and the Second Amendment is more strictly interpreted than even the First. (You can't yell fire in a crowded theater, but you can bring a gun into it.) The guy who thought armed Jews could have prevented the Holocaust is the fringe no longer. Now, it's the rest of us.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.