Since when have personal guns been used to defend political liberty?
Piers Morgan is the most unlikely campaigning journalist. The smooth-faced Morgan, who arrived from Britain to replace Larry King as CNN’s chief celebrity interviewer, can, if pushed, engage with serious guests on serious topics. But, as someone who cut his teeth writing showbiz tittle-tattle for Rupert Murdoch, he seemed more at ease pitching softball questions to boldfaced names plugging their latest products.
What a difference a massacre of children makes. After a frivolous November guest list that, despite the presidential election, included Mike Tyson, Kitty Kelley, Oliver Stone and Tyler Perry, among other gossip column fodder, he turned to a subject that celebrity interviewers keep well away from because, even in the wake of another mass killing, it is so painfully pointless to raise: gun control. And in doing so, Morgan found his voice. Americans have become so weary at the grip the NRA and other gun industry lobbyists have on the gun debate that the simple horror and amazement Morgan expressed on hearing of the Sandy Hook bloodbath came as a refreshing surprise. What sort of country, he asked, cannot defend its schoolchildren from mad people with automatic weapons? What has to be done to bring the repeated slaughter of innocents to an end?
For his pains, Morgan attracted a full magazine of gun nuts, including one Alexander Emerick “Alex” Jones, a self-described libertarian, “paleoconservative” and “aggressive constitutionalist” who once ran as a Republican in Texas House District 48 (facing certain defeat, he withdrew before Election Day). He believes George W. Bush was behind the September 11 attacks and Bill Clinton plotted the Oklahoma City bombings. He was so incensed that Morgan dare use his First Amendment rights to ask an awkward question about guns that he is demanding the president deport the chat show host for sedition. To find a more invidious example of muddle-headed, brazen hypocrisy, you have to go back to 2009, when anti-government Tea Party activists held up placards screaming “Government Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare.” Being a good Fleet Street tabloid editor, Morgan promptly invited Jones to make his case on Piers Morgan Tonight.
The result was a priceless boost to the gun control lobby. Jones, who caused an altercation on his flight to New York by insisting he keep his shoes on going through security, arrived in a belligerent mood. A broadcaster in the hate-radio tradition of Father Charles Coughlin and Rush Limbaugh, Jones spouted a well-rehearsed recitation of petty grievances, conspiracy theories and wild claims. At one stage he even challenged Morgan to a fistfight. Morgan, being a true Brit, kept a stiff upper lip throughout. You don’t have to be a trained psychoanalyst to recognize that Jones is suffering from deep-seated paranoia and anger management issues. When rational people demand that gun purchasers be screened for mental illness, it is scary, aggressive oddballs like Jones they have in mind.
In the midst of his rant, Jones said, “The Second Amendment isn’t there for duck hunting. It’s there to protect us from tyrannical government and street thugs.” This is a recurring theme among those who believe the Founding Fathers intended to protect the owners of machine guns that would be more at home in Helmland than in Hartland, Connecticut. Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, who believes the remedy for massacres such as Sandy Hook is an armed guard on every school gate, holds a similarly paranoid view of the government’s malign intentions. In 1995, on Meet the Press, shortly after anti-government militiamen bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, including 19 children, LaPierre described FBI agents as “wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” who wanted to “attack law-abiding citizens.” That candid outburst caused George H.W. Bush to renounce his NRA membership, and LaPierre has since been careful not to let slip his private feelings about the threat government poses to individual liberties.
Jones and LaPierre are representative of a wider group of Second Amendment defenders who believe that government of any sort threatens their absolute freedom to act absolutely as they wish. Fear that federal agents would come calling inspired the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and his co-conspirators. He, in turn, admired the anti-government stance of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993, who armed themselves to the teeth to avoid being charged with sexually abusing children and other serious crimes. After fighting off federal agents for 50 days, 76 sect members and their children died in a fire rather than turn themselves in.
Jones’s point – echoed by endless similar extremists who earn their living by stoking the fears of the impressionable – is belied by history. In the 250 years of the American republic, the government has sometimes overstepped the line between liberty and authoritarianism. And such despotism has come from the most unlikely sources. Woodrow Wilson’s clampdown on those who opposed America’s intervention in World War One was a shameful display of big government overreach. So, too, was Franklin Roosevelt’s rounding up and imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many who are anxious about the diminution of civil liberties find the Patriot Act, hastily passed after the September 11 attacks, too oppressive. But in each case relief from tyranny has not come from those with arsenals in their homes against the day the black helicopters arrive but by the patient, laborious, often tedious acts of patriots working through the democratic system.
Some advocates of small government would be horrified at the suggestion that they are on the same continuum as the killers who declare their hatred of government the reason they go on a killing spree. Others, proponents of libertarian chic who express anti-government views to shock and scandalize their moderate neighbors, may be aware that they are playing with fire. It adds a dangerous edge to their humdrum personas. The American way is to choose not to be administered too closely by the state and to leave as many aspects of life as possible to private enterprise rather than big government. But a line has to be drawn and defended when the routine denigration of government begins to threaten lives.
We may have reached that Rubicon at Sandy Hook. The impetus in the wake of the Newtown massacre to reform our gun laws to continue to protect hunters, sportsmen and those who would protect their households from intruders while keeping rapid-fire weapons away from the delusional and the deranged is now a live issue. Pressure on the president and Vice President Joe Biden, who has been tasked to come up with a way forward, can be exerted by those, like Morgan, who find themselves at the eye of the storm. He may not welcome the notion, but Jones, in his strange way, is keeping the subject alive.
And there is a part to be played by those who control the media that gun owners watch. To quote LaPierre out of context, “Too many in the national media, their corporate owners and their stockholders act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators.” After Sandy Hook, Murdoch declared that something must be done, and fast, to avoid a repetition. He ordered the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, stout proponents of small government, to make gun control a top issue. If he genuinely wants to ensure that this time there will be sensible reforms, he will direct his employees at Fox News to lead the campaign to change attitudes toward a more responsible approach to gun purchase and ownership. So far, that leadership has not been evident.
Corporations, advertisers, retailers and investment managers also have an important role. Money talks more eloquently than a thousand chat show hosts. The decision by Cerberus, spurred by revulsion and sympathy, to sell the company that made the assault rifle that killed the Sandy Hook children offered a novel way forward. Similar acts of ingenuity are needed to ensure that the slaughter of the 20 children and six adults who died in Newtown just before Christmas amounts to more than just a passing phase in the news cycle.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: A row of shotguns are seen during the East Coast Fine Arms Show in Stamford, Connecticut, January 5, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri