“Do you have standard-capacity magazines in stock?” The salesman at the San Diego GlockStore just laughed.
Late last month, federal judge Roger T. Benitez struck down a California law in place since 2000 that banned the sale of gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds. The next day, San Diego firearms owners were jamming the phone lines of every gun store in town, desperate to lay hands on the larger, freshly legal pistol magazines before the People’s Republic of California pulled new shenanigans and made them illegal again.
When Gunfighter Tactical on Miramar opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday, the line at their front door stretched around the building. They were sold out within the hour.
In his decision, Benitez excoriated California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the state for “turning the Constitution upside down” with the magazine restrictions. Benitez said, “Individual liberty and freedom are not outmoded concepts.” The question will likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court, one of several California gun control laws headed there. Hence the hurry: Within a week, Becerra won a fresh injunction banning standard-capacity magazines again while the ruling appeals.
Ownership of the not-tiny magazines amounts to a symbolic gesture a much as a practical improvement. None of the patrons standing in line evinced a professional need for a 15-round (or more) pistol magazine. These were not police officers or career criminals expecting a shootout against a well-armed adversary at any moment. They are mostly law-abiding, duly registered private owners with a few extra dollars to spare and an urge to own something exotic in their state, something on the edge of illicit.
As they bagged their purchases, they joked about sticking it to Beccera: “Every time the cash register rings, a gun grabber somewhere loses his wings … and his s–t.”
Guns Kill People But They’re Not Going Away
Firearms advocates and firearms controllers talk athwart one another most of the time, with one side shouting “Fascists!” and the other shouting “You want children to die!” There’s really no point outlining the back-and-forth for the thousandth time, so straight to the chase: Yes, firearms kill an alarming number of people in the United States every year, a great number by accident or suicide.
Yes, a great number of already enacted and newly proposed restrictions on firearms are staggeringly unconstitutional and effective only at irritating responsible gun owners while the irresponsible and the criminal flout them. Nothing short of a thundering authoritarian disarmament of the entire country is likely to substantially reduce death by firearms, and such a “solution” presents existential dangers of its own. In the end, America’s dilemma with gun rights will remain what it is for the seeable future.
Manifestly, no other constitutional right has been manhandled like the Second Amendment. Consider this hypothetical for perspective: a black American who wants to exercise his 15th Amendment right to vote finds out he must complete a weekend voting responsibility class and obtain an up-to-date voting license. He must undergo a background check before every vote he casts. He must wait ten days after filling out the ballot to turn it in, lest he mark his ballot in anger.
He must show two different forms of identification when he arrives at the polls. If his family believes he is unfit to vote, they can disenfranchise him with a phone call. If he gets diagnosed with a mood disorder or beats his wife, he can never vote again.
Such an outrage would, of course, trigger the American Civil Liberties Union apocalypse: “Voting is this man’s right, and these rules are a violation of his dignity and privacy!” Yet mutatis mutandis, California gun owners put up with just such absurdities in infringements on their gun rights.
Gun Privileges vs. Gun Rights
Well-meant wisdom engendered a confusion in American cultural attitudes toward firearms in the later 20th century. The bilateral consensus was that no adult should be able to procure a semi-automatic at the corner store as though he were buying cigarettes: “Give me a Milky Way, a pack of Camels, and throw in a Ruger SR9c 9mm and some cartridges. Neighbor’s getting on my nerves…”
Firearm owners acquiesced to escalating regulation of their right to keep and bear arms from an abundance of caution. Somewhere along the way, the whole culture began to view firearms as a privilege, like driving a car or practicing medicine, rather than a right, like voting or freedom of speech.
The Overton Window shifted, and a great misunderstanding evolved. Now, predicated mostly on their cultural intuition, gun control advocates feel entitled to regulate away firearms for social engineering, as they might cars with bad fuel efficiency, or doctors who overprescribe opiates.
On the other side, firearms advocates have unwittingly accepted gun control’s terms of debate by justifying themselves with statistics and stories of good guys with guns—in all cases arguing and begging for their rights as though they were privileges. Judge Benitez is spot on: the discussion has turned upside down. The Founders would never have justified or bargained. They would have slung their muskets, filled the Capitol Mall, and explained to Congress how it was going to be if lawmakers wanted to keep playing at government: “Our rights came before you bunch, and they will be here after.”
Rights are not a question of common sense or rhetoric. Rights are not a question of social engineering or social optimization. Pace Benitez, rights are not even a question of statistics about how many rounds one really needs to stop an attacker. Rights are not a question at all.
Rights are answers—uncommon, counterintuitive answers to timeless human problems that transcend fashions and centuries. In particular, the Second Amendment is an answer to that unfortunate, perennial human question: “What are you going to do about it if I take away your so-called rights?” Civil conflagrations and oppressive governments all over the world demonstrate that the Second Amendment is a hard-won answer that must be freshly remembered.
Anything worthy of the name right is a private matter, living within every citizen, not displayed in a government building for public perusal and debate. Like voting, the right to keep and bear arms should not deign to justify itself publicly, only assent to universally acknowledged boundaries: “A citizen cannot vote twice, and he cannot own a rocket launcher. So agreed.”
Gun rights supporters must recall the dignity that comes with their private right and cease bargaining. The answer to the question “Why do you even need a 15-round magazine for your Glock if you’re not a police officer?” should be “None of your business.” It’s time to turn the Constitution and the argument right side up again, to stop explaining and instead demand an explanation: what happened to a fundamental American right?
The conventions of privacy are coming apart in the West at an astonishing clip. Private and public are collapsing to a singularity. Oversharing has become the national pastime. The erosion of faith, technological surveillance, and evermore state intrusion into family life wash away the underpinnings of post-Enlightenment individuality more and more every day.
George Orwell worried in “1984” that totalitarianism would end all privacy. The equation seems to run in reverse, too: loss of privacy breeds totalitarianism, a society full of fussy laws to protect overexposed citizens from one another, as civility deteriorates and citizens become perpetual children. The Framers understood that the Enlightenment ideal of privacy was grounded neither in nature nor history and would not survive on its own unprotected.
If Western private life is to continue—what Judge Benitez calls “individual liberty and freedom”—Americans must not surrender their ability to set boundaries and hold them.
Alec Cameron Orrell is an essayist with a background in classics, patristic theology, complex-adaptive strategy, and investment analysis. He attended St. John’s College and lives in Los Angeles, California.