Thinking about gun control issues, one thing that’s occurred to me is how I wish conservatives had the same kind of relationship with the Second Amendment as they do with the First.
Here’s what I mean. When it comes to pornography, card-carrying conservatives have found a free speech issue of which they are unafraid. Supreme court opinion over the last half-century has decisively stood with the porn industry, declaring that most attempts to curtail or check it fall under the condemnation of the First Amendment. Now get this. Most social conservatives have not responded to this thinking by arguing that there isn’t any conflict between free speech and laws against porn. On the contrary, they’ve argued that “free speech” in the First Amendment is not an absolute, self-interpreting idea, and that there is an ontological dissonance between porn and the speech that the Constitution envisions.
In other words, social conservatives have responded to decades’ worth of jurisprudence with increasingly moral arguments that reframe, in response to a cultural crisis, what we assume about the nature of the First Amendment’s subjects.
Now, I don’t have any pet policy on guns. I didn’t grow up around them, but I didn’t grow up hostile to them either. Gun control is one of the few issues on which I am genuinely indecisive. But it’s fascinating to me how the conservative relationship to the First Amendment is unlike its relationship to the Second Amendment.
When it comes to bearing arms, many conservatives are both unflaggingly literalistic and relentlessly pragmatic. “Bearing arms” is given a maximally broad meaning, and on the other side, this broad meaning creates a hopelessly deep and complex situation for anybody who’d want to, say, regulate ownership of certain kinds of weapons. This is the opposite of what social conservatives do in the porn debate. When talking about smut and the First Amendment, conservatives bring a moral evaluation of the problem into the debate and insist that our understanding of the Framers’ intent be modified by this evaluation. When talking about the Second Amendment, conservatives simply say that the words themselves are impenetrable.
I think this double standard is unfortunate on a couple fronts. First, progressives are understandably cynical when conservatives appeal to moral conditioning of jurisprudence on certain issues (porn, pro-life, etc), yet condemn this approach on guns. Second, conservatives have found themselves without a robust moral political vision of weapons and self-defense, which means that the debate over guns has fallen almost entirely among predetermined tribal camps (thus, social conservatives are at the mercy of the Republican Party, which, let’s just say, struggles to represent the conservative worldview).
Worst of all, this mentality has left conservative Christians without a prophetic moral vision on guns, which means that many evangelicals have simply mined the libertarian camp for talking points, not realizing the fundamentally sub-Christian commitments that often attend them. The recent interest in some quadrants of progressive evangelicalism in Christian pacifism serves, among other things, as a rebuke to the mindless, Trump-empowering pipeline between evangelicalism and GOP platform. If Christian witness can revolutionize our vision for what “free speech” means, it ought to at least have a chance to do the same for our firearms.