Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Gun Control: The New Abolitionism?

Dec 19, 2012

Gun Control: The New Abolitionism?


Guns and violence are “a deep illness in our society,” columnist Frank Rich opines. “There's only one other malady that was so deeply embedded into the country's DNA at birth: slavery. We know how long it took us to shake those shackles. And so ... overthrowing America's gun-worship is not a project that will be cured in a legislative session; it's a struggle that's going to take decades.”

I wonder if Rich is too pessimistic. He assumes that the gun-control issue is now where the slavery issue was in perhaps the 1820s, when the abolitionist movement was just beginning to gather steam as an organized Protestant reform effort. But that doesn’t seem a fair comparison.

There has already been a well-organized, well-publicized gun control movement in the U.S. for decades. And it has already had a brief era of great success, in the early 1990s: the Gun-Free School Zones Act in 1990 (revised 1995), the Brady Bill in 1993, and the 10-year assault-weapons ban in 1994. That era was followed by a strong and relatively successful reaction from anti-gun-control forces, leaving us now with a common but mistaken impression that most Americans have always been reactionaries on this issue.

If the analogy is to the slavery debate, it might be more accurate to think of 2012 as akin to 1852. In the preceding years pro-slavery sentiment in the South, and the pro-slavers’ political clout in Washington, had grown much stronger. Then Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s epochal novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared. The immensely popular book, and the many dramatizations of it that were quickly produced, gave powerful new energy to the anti-slavery movement.

Although historians are supposed to refrain from predicting the future, there is no rule against imagining hypothetical possibilities. So I’ll suggest, with lots of qualifiers, that it’s possible that the dreadful murders in Newtown might turn out to play a role in some way akin to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Who would have thought that Barack Obama, so deeply immersed in such delicate negotiations about taxes and budget, would run the risk of publicly advocating specific gun control measures: banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and requiring background checks before all gun purchases. Granted, they are popular measures, as Obama himself admitted.

But there will be plenty of pushback from the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups, who have proven very effective in the past. So the president knows he is taking a considerable political risk.

In fact, if the 1850s is the appropriate decade for comparison, it’s a safe bet that the movement Obama has now joined will suffer losses in the near future. The anti-slavery movement was shocked by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the ensuing battle over “bloody Kansas,” the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and the hanging of John Brown for raiding the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal in 1859 (just to name the most influential events).

Yet each of those shocks ultimately had a similar effect to the shock we received when all those little children and their teachers were killed in Newtown. They redoubled the commitment of reformers to create political change, and therefore they heightened the tension between the opposing political forces, a tension that ultimately led to massive change.

So the lesson of the 1850s is that no one event is likely, by itself, to transform public attitudes and policies. But a series of events, each one profoundly shocking, can have that effect. When the first of those events occurs, no one can know for sure that it is the first of a history-changing series. That’s something we can only know in retrospect. But we can know that change does sometimes happen in a series of spasmodic leaps.  

There’s one more interesting parallel to consider. Throughout the 1850s, the total abolition of slavery always remained a minority view. The history-changing events of the decade never made the abolition of slavery a broadly popular opinion. The broad wave of support, spurred by every tragic turn of events, was for “free soil”: banning the extension of slavery to places it was not already legal.

That was clearly Abraham Lincoln’s position, the major plank on which he won the presidency.  Only under fierce pressure to win the Civil War did he become “The Great Emancipator,” the prophet of total abolition.

Similarly, there is no serious talk now of a total ban on the sale and/or possession of guns in the United States. Barack Obama knows it would be political suicide to endorse such an extreme position, just as Lincoln knew in the 1850s that total abolitionism would be political suicide.

But the lesson of Lincoln’s career is that political issues and causes have a life of their own. Once you join or endorse them in even a partial way, there’s no telling where you might end up. The fates forbid that we ever have to endure anything remotely like the bloodshed of the Civil War, for any reason, including the eventual banning of guns. But even without violence history can lead us to very unexpected outcomes, sometimes in very sudden leaps, as we are learning right now.

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