NRA monument

The issues that dominate discussion in the mainstream media are seldom economic red meat – the real underlying economic challenges of – but are mostly the issues that divide people ideologically and distract the public from the real areas of economic focus that occupy Washington behind the scenes.

The False Dilemma of Gun Ownership

Gun ownership and regulation is a case in point. First, both sides have their rights and wrongs. Gun owners are right to point out that gun ownership has been upheld in constitutional law to be a basic civil freedom. Proponents of regulation are also right to point out that unregulated gun ownership is not a constitutionally guaranteed right and that the “right to bear arms” is explicitly tied to “a well regulated militia.”

Both sides should be glad to know that courts have upheld the spirit of the constitution by interpretation by affirming the right to ownership of certain arms, including hand guns and rifles, while restricting access to other weapons by civilians, as such decisions are within the scope of constitutional law.

And both sides should also be aware that the right to gun ownership is actually one of the few issues that both parties strongly agree on.  The influence of the gun industry lobby cannot be underestimated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has received NRA funding and this appears to have influenced his own judgement on the issue, which is why government is unlikely to take even the steps that the public supports, as recommended by the executive branch under President Obama.

As an Independent, I believe the most important data points are not the political rhetoric, but the facts and figures that can lead to a reasonable discussion that takes into consideration rights and responsibilities. The current proposals enjoy wide support for embracing that principle of balance, and skew markedly in favor of gun rights over responsibilities. 

And this balance is understandable since the U.S. is not Australia, where guns were banned outright.

The Cultural And Historical Foundations of Gun Ownership

The cultural foundations of the issue go back as far as the Civil War, and gun ownership is a deeply emotional cultural touch point closely tied to the American self-image of individualism and states rights. Another deeply ingrained American cultural touch point is community, compromise and shared responsibility, which explains why the extremist sentiments of the NRA are supported by such a small minority. 

The Founders Were Not Monolithic: While the “Founding Fathers” are often dragged into the debate, two historical facts are worthy of note. First, they were not monolithic, but represented divergent opinions on various issues. 

The Historical Background of the Second Amendment: The historical background of the Second Amendment was not protection against tyranny, as it is often misrepresented by anti government extremists today.  In fact, James Madison included it as a compromise to fulfill two concerns of the time.

The first concern was the desire to keep the US out of international wars by preventing the formation of a Federal standing army. In retrospect, as soon the military became tied to big business, it quickly became the most bloated military in human history, without regard to defense of the nation, but rather in pursuit of US economic and geopolitical interests. 

The second purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to provide cover for the Southern states whose slave owners lived in fear of uprisings and retaliation by their large slave populations. Militias didn’t last long, however, as the average citizen had little interest in guns, even when they were given away. Gun ownership did not in fact become widely popular until after the Civil War, when rebels refused to submit to the notion of a Federal government.

Politically, one important insight into today’s political divide is that the red states are basically the former slave states, and the blue states are the former free states. It’s interesting how the states rights vs Federal government rights issues have divided along these lines, during the civil rights era as well as the 2012 election. This is likely to change as the demographics of the country change, with Texas and Florida becoming “blue states,” for instance.

The Underlying Economics

Economically, even as the culture evolves, however, the biggest threat to democratic institutions is not the government, but corporate control of the institutions of government. This is the real core of the economic issue today, and gun ownership is a distraction from that. 

There is little reason for government to fear the extremists who arm themselves with assault weapons: first, they are a tiny minority; and, second, recent historical incidents, such as Waco, show that they are the easiest to put down.

The real threat of tyranny comes from the gun manufacturers themselves, along with big oil, big phrama, big agriculture, and other economic oligarchies. These are the forces that limit economic opportunity and use government as a means of redistributing wealth to a very greedy 1%. This is, of course, well documented, and emerges in the economic statistics that have skewed in their favor particularly since the Reagan administration, resulting in an erosion of individual rights in favor of a new “corporate personhood” model. 

Jefferson was a leading proponent of the creation of economic opportunity that has led to a middle class, and explicitly warned against oligarchy. By “middle class,” I mean the working class, the 99% of us who struggle to earn a living through wages or small business ventures, and seek to improve our economic viability in a system that is strongly tilted in favor of large corporate shareholders.

Jefferson himself was not wealthy and would today be considered upper middle class. Land was cheap and he owned land, but he, like George Washington died in debt. There were some quite wealthy interests during the time, but they fled for Canada during the Revolution.

Both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt helped to create the middle class in America, through antitrust regulations, highly successful social welfare programs, and support for labor rights. As all three of these initiatives began to come under attack, the erosion of the middle class is the natural result, as is well evidenced in economic statistics of the past 5 decades – roughly since Reagan, as every administration since his time has been pretty much dominated by corporatist policy. President Obama has taken baby steps toward restoring the middle class, but Congress has managed to restrain meaningful reform and the kind of stimulus that economists indicate is necessary to revive a declining middle class. 

Whatever one’s natural inclination on the liberal to conservative axis, it pays to put aside such ideological concerns in favor of a study of the pragmatic economic issues that underlie American institutions and shape the economic conditions that lead to the creation of economic opportunity and equality. Seeing things in the context of money provides a much more accurate picture of the underlying trends than just looking at the political and ideological rhetoric, which essentially obscures the underlying historical trends.

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The Economics of the Second Amendment False Debate