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Observation Post: Individual Liberty vs. Public Safety—Our Distorted Thinking About Gun Control

By Philip C. Winslow

Image credit: Andy Choinski

Shortly after a teenage gunman murdered seventeen people and wounded seventeen others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, I thought back over some American history and my own familiarity with guns, and wrote here on Beacon Broadside that

“In 1970, historian Richard Hofstadter popularized the term ‘gun culture’ in writing about how Americans’ resolute possession of firearms dated back to colonial days, when farmer-settlers lived on a wild frontier, and the founders feared a standing army as an instrument of government tyranny. Political beliefs, he wrote, held that ‘The American answer to civic and military decadence, real or imagined, was the armed yeoman,’ in the militia system.

“But, Hofstadter asked, two hundred years on and with the frontier long gone, ‘Why is the gun still so prevalent in a culture in which only about 4 per cent of the country’s workers now make their living from farming . . . Why did the United States alone among industrial societies cling to the idea that a substantially unregulated supply of guns among its city populations is a safe and acceptable thing?’”

By 1989, nearly twenty years after his essay, gun violence was at “sustained, frightening levels,” I wrote, citing statistics and media coverage from that year.

Now, more than half a century since Hofstadter’s searing analysis, the level of gun violence has mushroomed from frightening to terrifying: In 2020, more than 45,000 Americans died from firearms-related injuries. That year, gun injuries became the leading cause of death among children and adolescents.

The public health crisis has gone way beyond the historical question of living on the frontier with a potentially tyrannical government waiting to suppress individual liberties.

A number of Americans still do worry that government, almost surely a Democratic administration, is waiting to “take away our guns.” That is an overheated fantasy. It will not happen, no matter what government we have. Meanwhile, we arm up, buying more weapons by the year, encouraged by gun makers who realize that, because the weapons are well-made and durable, sales campaigns need to juice the people’s desire for more.

Time and again, a judge will ask a trial participant, or a police officer will ask a suspect: “Why did you have a gun?” The usual sullen answer is: “It’s my right.” If anyone appears to stumble at the synapse between “why?” and “my right,” gun absolutists quickly respond the way this one did right after Parkland: “Whether some weapon increases or decreases average safety is irrelevant to its effectiveness as a self-defense tool.”

There begins the infinite queasy-making loop, from which there is no ready escape. For adherents, the argument has expanded from “It’s my right” to “I’m American and I do what I damn well please and nobody tells me what to do.”

At the core of what’s killing us is the question of how, or even whether, to balance individual liberty and public safety, two concepts that ought to work well together in a functioning democracy.

Along with the Second Amendment and frequently waved like the bloody shirt is District of Columbia v. Heller, the US Supreme Court’s 2008 decision that enshrines the right of the individual to own a gun. But Heller added a caution, which is seldom mentioned publicly:

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Politicians, on guard against their own extremist flank, insist the focus should be on mental health and background checks—both desirable but of limited utility—and they promise to “harden targets,” such as schools and hospitals. When did schools, hospitals, and other public spaces become “targets” that need to be hardened? Quite some time ago, really, but that is wide of the point. Closer is the robotic perseverance of American gun manufacturers and the gun lobby, which together have badly distorted our ability to think clearly.

Individual ownership and open carry of guns will not decrease in the near future. If it does happen it will not be because of government action. It will come from clear thinking and a spirit of compromise that’s hard for us stubborn, distrustful Americans.

Despite predictions that our society may already be broken beyond repair, a return to common sense may still be possible.

Not until we balance defending individual rights with protecting the public good can we abandon the assault-style rifles and battlefield ammunition and reduce the slaughter in our classrooms and grocery stores. That would be an unprecedented show of rugged togetherness.


About the Author

Philip C. Winslow has been a journalist and foreign correspondent for more than forty years; he has worked for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto StarMaclean’s Magazine, ABC Radio News, CTV News, and CBC Radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and spent nearly three years living in the West Bank. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth.