Commentary Magazine


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Political Debate As Theater

I’ve been critical of CNN’s Piers Morgan in the past, but his interview with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was quite good and enlightening. I say that because both men laid out reasonable arguments to support their case. 

Mr. Morgan, in response to Gingrich’s concern that politicians should not be in the business of deciding how to “permit” Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights, pointed out that Gingrich himself believes the same thing. That is, Mr. Gingrich agrees we should ban automatic weapons–which means he agrees the government ought to be in the business of drawing lines and granting, or not granting, permission to use certain types of weapons.

On the flip side, Gingrich pressed Morgan on why he doesn’t advocate banning handguns, since the overwhelming number of gun-related homicides in America are caused not by “semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons” but handguns. And Gingrich, while conceding that he believes automatic weapons should be banned for civilian use, argued that we should be very cautious about extending to government the power to ban yet more weapons; that this step will embolden the government to further restrict the right of Americans to bear arms.

The weakest ground for Gingrich, then, was when the argument was narrowly focused on explaining why Americans should have a right to own a weapon that fires 100 rounds per minute if Americans are already banned (with some exceptions) from owning automatic weapons like machine guns. The weakest ground for Morgan was in not following the logic of his own assumptions, which would lead him to ban handguns if he could, and in not admitting how little the world would change if he got his ban on so-called assault weapons. 

As a general matter, the intensity of this debate is wildly disproportionate to the practical effects of its outcome. What we’re really talking about is precisely where to draw a line everyone concedes needs to be drawn. And whether or not we draw it where Piers Morgan wants it or Newt Gingrich wants it, it’s unlikely that very many, if any, lives will be saved. It strikes me that this is something too many people on both sides of this super-charged debate–starting with the president–won’t acknowledge.

I recognize that there’s a certain emotional satisfaction in pretending that one is either standing in solidarity with grieving parents or defending the sanctity of the Second Amendment. But that’s really not what’s happening here. It’s a public policy debate that will have very few ramifications in the real world. There’s an element to theater in this whole discussion that should end, but probably won’t.