A recent flurry of
nearly identical editorials in American newspapers conveys the
degree of fluttering endemic in dovecotes everywhere in the wake of
the Justice Department’s new statement of position on the Second
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The New York Times
and Washington Post have viewed with alarm, displaying an
almost pathetic degree of panic at the thought that lawmakers might
once again have to start taking that pesky “shall not be infringed”
The dominant culture of the American national media knows what it
believes about guns. Firearms are evil juju that have the power to
induce murderous violence in otherwise normal human beings. Firearms
owners are all either ghetto drug dealers whose idea of the good life
is a drive-by a day, or else tractor-cap-wearing rural sociopaths jes’
itchin’ to shoot up a schoolyard. Firearms-rights advocates are a
tiny nut-fringe of reactionary wackos barely one step from blowing up
a federal building. Gun-control boosters are virtuous crusaders
animated by selfless love of children and small fuzzy things. There
will come a day when all guns are banned, hallelujah, violent crime
will plummet, and we can stop being embarrassed for being
Over the last thirty years this mythology has grown so thick, so
armored with smugness, that the dominant media culture is normally
incapable of noticing mere facts that happen to contradict it. Gary
Blank: Guns and Violence In America should have put paid the
demonization of gun owners back in 1993. John Lott’s 1998 book
More Guns, Less Crime demonstrated that civilian firearms
dramatically reduce crime and violence. And Sanford Levinson’s 1989
Embarrassing Second Amendment began a wave of legal scholarship
that established what is now called the `Standard Model’, that the
Second Amendment does indeed protect an individual citizen’s right to
That smugness has been shook, badly, by three different
events of which the Justice Department’s finding is only the most recent.
The media panic we’re seeing is a cumulative result of all three.
First there was Michael Bellesiles’s exposure as a fraud. His book
Arming America won the Bancroft prize and gushing encomiums
from the dominant media culture when it purported to show that the
armed and self-reliant American frontiersman was a myth — that the
gun culture of the U.S. postdates the American Civil War and was alien
to the framers of the Constitution.
Alas for the bien pensants of the world that the book
turned out to be a tissue of lies, invented but nonexistent evidence,
and willful misquotation of existing evidence. A fabrication, in
fact, so egregious that it has induced the National Endowment for the
Humanities to open its first official fraud investigation in thirty-seven
years. Suddenly the fraud claims gun-rights activists had been making
for years about other anti-gun scholarship (such as the infamous
study) were no longer so easily dismissible as paranoid ranting.
But worse was to come, on September 9th 2001. Because Al-Qaeda’s
ability to turns airliners into weapons of mass destruction using
nothing but carpet knives illustrated in the most dramatic possible
way the folly of believing that a disarmed world is a safe one. All
the “security” that kept civilian firearms off airplanes did was make
terrorism easier for the determined few who could smuggle weapons on
Many tides turned after 9/11, and not the least result of it was
a huge groundswell in popular support for civilian self-defense and
firearms rights. The
Pink Pistols and chapters of the
Second Amendment Sisters on college campuses previously known
as strongholds of anti-firearms politics became impossible to ignore.
The new wave of popular pro-gun agitation could not be forced into the
“right-wing kooks” box so beloved of the dominant media culture.
It’s no wonder the Justice Department’s endorsement of a
pro-gun-rights brief in “Emerson vs. U.S.” has the mavens of the
dominant media culture feeling faint and panicky. One of the pillars
of their world-view (up there with the unquestionable sanctity of
environmentalists, say, or the importance of `diversity’, or the
superior virtue of the putatively oppressed) is creaking. Those loony
gun nuts night turn out to be (a) right on the facts, (b)
overwhelmingly popular, and (c) backed up by the Bill of Rights, the
Justice Department, and the Supreme Court, after all!
If the Supreme Court grants certiorati on the Emerson case, we can
expect the dominant media culture to get its knickers in a knot so
complicated it would baffle an algebraic topologist. Because given
the composition of the Court and the tenor of the times, the result
might well be a dramatic rollback in the reach of firearms regulation.
Gun-rights advocates can hope that laws touching the Second Amendment
may in the future have to pass the same strictest level of scrutiny
as laws touching the First. A wave of lawsuits successfully striking
down state and local gun laws under the doctrine of incorporation
could well follow.
The closest historical precedent for what may be about to happen is
the rediscovery of the First Amendment in the early 20th century.
Before 1919 speech advocating unpopular ideas could be made a
punishable offense. Oliver Wendell Holmes created the doctrine,
since become sacred to the dominant media culture, that unpopular
ideas demand the most constitutional protection, and that
the press has a broadly privileged role under that shield.
There is irony in the fact that, having benefited from the
reassertion of the first article of the Bill of Rights, the dominant
media culture should so be resisting the second.