Gun Control and the Unconstitutioned

The latest attempt to politicize a shooting has Hillary Clinton promising to impose new gun control provisions by unilateral executive action.

This echoes President Obama’s vow, in the previous go-around on gun control, to do the same, which made no difference. Nor will it make a difference this time. The specific executive action proposed by Clinton—an attempt to redefine who qualifies as a “gun dealer” for regulatory purposes—is either an executive rewrite of existing law or a meaningless duplication of existing law—depending on how far she were to take it.

But it’s clear that this is not meant as a serious proposal. It is meant to position Hillary Clinton to the left of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. It’s boob bait for the opposite of Bubba.

There’s no rational reason to believe that she can remotely deliver on this promise. But the repeated use of this technique by Hillary, and by President Obama, is a sign that it is a calculated appeal to a certain kind of people: those who are willfully ignorant, or at least willing to suspend disbelief, about the limits imposed on politicians by the Constitution.

This is not just ignorance of a specific constitutional clause or principle, though there’s plenty of that. When Adam Gopnick takes to the New Yorker to argue that “regulating guns in individual hands was one of the purposes for which the [Second Amendment] was offered,” for example, he didn’t bother to ask what the Founding Fathers thought. Or to consider how many state constitutions at the time contained guarantees explicitly naming the individual right to bear arms, in the words of the standard formulation of the day, “for the defense of themselves and the State.” (Sanders take note: that’s from the constitution of Vermont, written in 1777.) Or that the Second Amendment was written by people who had just made a revolution started by volunteers who kept muskets in their homes. Then there is the popular claim that gun rights were an institution of the racist South—which ignores the fact that most of the early history of gun control in America consisted of racist attempts to disarm free blacks.

But this is about more than denial of the Second Amendment. It’s denial of the entire idea of a constitution, of a government with set procedures and limited powers. The people to whom these kinds of promises are meant to appeal are the unconstitutioned. It’s a term I coined in a similar context a few years back, as an analogy to the term “unchurched,” which describes people cut off from any form of organized religion. The “unconstitutioned” are cut off from any concept of organized government. It’s not just that they have not been educated about the provisions of the Constitution. It’s that they don’t grasp constitutionalism. They don’t see government as a specific set of institutions with limited powers proscribed by law. They see government as magic box that gives you good things.

The Trump phenomenon has demonstrated that there is a certain audience for this on the right—the temptation to believe that we could Make America Great Again if we just elected a savvy deal-maker who doesn’t care about offending people. But the more natural constituency for a magical view of government is on the left, which is more broadly and deeply committed to the idea that government can provide us, somehow, with everything we want. So it’s natural for them to adopt the attitude that anything we can imagine might be good—for example, the fantasy that the entire nation would be peaceable if we just confiscated everyone’s guns—can just be done, and all it would really require would be a single presidential decree. And if it isn’t being done, it must be because the people in charge are too mean-spirited or timid to do it. It can’t be because of any practical or constitutional limits.

Hence the spectacle of Matthew Yglesias in Vox praising Hillary Clinton because she is “clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas,” and in “a reality in which any policy gains [Democrats] achieve are going to come through the profligate use of executive authority…, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned.” He calls this “America’s moment of permanent constitutional crisis.” But when you say that, you’re supposed to be trying to resolve the crisis, not make it worse by hailing a politician’s “willingness to push harder than the typical public figure against existing norms.”

Unfortunately, this outlook is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people are ignorant of or hostile to the Constitution—and to the entire idea of constitutionalism, of a fundamental law that limits the executive—then at some point it really will become irrelevant.

Ultimately, this is about gun control, just not in the way the left thinks. It’s not about controlling guns used by individuals for self-defense. It’s about controlling the guns arrayed against us by our own government. Because without constitutionalism, those guns go unregulated and uncontrolled.

All the more imperative to preach the gospel of a government of laws and induct more of the unconstitutioned back into the American creed.

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