Re-reading the essay today is – to quote the great wordsmith Yogi Berra – like déjà vu all over again.
Had I not known the essay was published in 1970, I would have thought it was published last week.
Even writing in the wake of the Gun Control Act of 1968, Hofstadter begins by decrying America’s weak gun laws and noting that it is the only modern industrial nation to “agonize at length about its own disposition toward violence.” He continues:
“Many otherwise intelligent Americans cling with pathetic stubbornness to the notion that the people’s right to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm safeguard of democracy—without being in the slightest perturbed by the fact that no other democracy in the world observes any such ‘right’ and that in some democracies in which citizens’ rights are rather better protected that in ours, such as England and the Scandinavian countries, our arms control policies would be considered laughable.”
Through the body of the paper he makes reference to facts and interpretations that are eerily familiar to anyone observing the culture wars over guns today.
- He noted an annual rate of gun homicides in Britain, with its more restrictive gun control policies, was 0.05 per 100,000 compared to 2.7 per 100,000 in the United States.
- He recognized “the extraordinarily efficient lobby of the National Rifle Association” during the debates over the Gun Control Act of 1968. Later he laments, “American legislators have been inordinately responsive to the tremendous lobby maintained by the National Rifle Association, in tandem with gunmakers and importers, military sympathizers, and far-right organizations.”
- He observed that the country “is afloat with weapons—perhaps as many as fifty million of them—in civilian hands.
- He compared the United States not only to Britain, but also to Australian, Canada, and Japan, in terms of gun homicide and suicide rates.
- He argues that the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States “was a collective, not an individual, right” (“Plainly” so, in his words).
- He criticizes “the idea that popular access to arms is an important counterpoise to tyranny,” scandalized that “the American historical mythology about the protective value of guns has survived the modern technological era in all the glory of its naïveté.”
- There is more in the essay than this, but nothing that could not be read today as a current assessment of the American gun situation from a liberal perspective.
As the French would say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Or, to cite the Tanakh,
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.