November 3, 2006

Charlton Heston, this election’s most prominent non-player

I have come today to announce the unexaggerated demise of a once all-important issue. We sizzle with excitement on the eve of one of the most important elections in, well, two years, and look at them doggies go! Ads spray like fan-struck fecal matter, coating our weary republic with fresh layers of bullshit, each stratum flavored with vague traces of an actual political issue. The pundits are abuzz with conceptual debate, citizens eagerly adorn themselves with election-season red or blue, and erudite policy debate wafts through Starbucks cafés around the country.

Election season is indeed in full bloom. Yet I can’t help but notice that something is conspicuously absent from this year’s festivities: Charlton Heston.

It is almost impossible to fathom, but it seems that gun control has seen its last days as a big-ticket issue for elections. This is in no way to suggest that the issue has fallen out of favor with the Republicans’ largely gun-toting constituency. It merely reflects the fact that the Democrats have moved on to issues that actually mean something.

We can’t attribute this silence on weapons to distractions posed by Iraq. Issues of a smaller geopolitical importance are becoming voting issues—for example, in Missouri, stem cell research is the issue that pundits predict will draw voters from their cozy cabins. Rather, it seems that the silence on gun control is the result of Democrats finally realizing that no one actually gives a shit about gun control because, frankly, it is irrelevant.

One of Bill Clinton’s first and most significant legislative successes was the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which prohibited nineteen different types of assault weapons, amongst them the M-16 and AK-47, which are typically employed in wartime. In the months leading up to the ban, market prices for these weapons skyrocketed, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report, fueling hopes that the prices would channel most of the existing assault weapons into the hands of collectors. Furthermore, since 1993, gun-related violence has plummeted, prompting widespread speculation that Bill Clinton was, in fact, Jesus.

Yet avid fans of Steven Levitt, our Jesus, know that there is more than one theory on why violent crime in general has taken a nosedive since 1994. Further, while gun-related violence dropped, the number of deaths per gun-related incident remained unchanged, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), which was the reason the ban came about in the first place.

The most damning criticism leveled against the ban, however, was the report that it didn’t actually ban assault rifles. It banned nineteen specific types of assault weapons, but that didn’t stop several imitation or “civilian” versions of the banned weapons from being sold freely, according to the DOJ report. In effect, the law banned “Old Spice” brand body soap, but not Walgreens’ “High Endurance”-—in the same arresting red bottle with the same vaguely masculine odor.

If this hole-ridden piece of legislation was the best that a Democratic president and Democratic congress could pass in 1993, then gun control is a serious waste of time as a political issue. Gun control can only work as a total prohibition, wherein the price of guns in general becomes so high that only the most polished mafiosos can own one, or perhaps a more stringent registration system, though there is scant evidence that registration systems actually limit gang violence.

I am not pro-gun, and I am not arguing against further gun-control legislation; I am merely providing an explanation for the issue’s disappearance from the national stage. It is a matter of who makes the loudest noise. The liberals have largely stopped caring about gun control, and are moving on to more important issues like stem cell research, while any type of broad weapons ban would be a sure sign of the apocalypse in the red South.

Finally, we must consider if it is really worth changing the Constitution in order to accommodate legislation whose benefits are questionable at best, since more extensive weapons bans would run contrary to our second Amendment right to bear arms. Removing a fundamental right is nothing to be taken lightly, should be done so only if the benefits are permanent and far-reaching. Though many in the intelligentsia roll their eyes at the possibility that we might need weapons to resist our own government, the founding fathers wrote that clause in our Bill of Rights for a reason. Indeed, we are currently fat and happy, and the idea of revolution and turmoil is farfetched at best. But have we forgotten the nationalist rhetoric that followed 9/11? Do we not remember that opposing the president’s absolute power, in those months, amounted to political suicide?

Demagogues and dictators can arise in all forms of government—just throw a pinch of disaster into a churning pot of desperation, and the fall of democracy isn’t unimaginable. (I am in no way comparing the president to a dictator I am merely demonstrating that the ideals of democratic debate can disappear very fast.) As Machiavelli claims in his Prince, a government best preserves itself by arming its citizens. What more powerful deterrent could there be to coup than having to go through Iraq—times 15?

I would never, ever suggest actually passing legislation for “just in case the apocalypse comes”—type moments. But before we discard one of our ten fundamental rights as citizens, we had better be unshakably certain that the benefit of doing so overwhelmingly justifies toying with the most successful governmental charter in the history of the world.