Commentary Magazine


Pat Toomey and the Zero Sum Gun Game

The Washington Post has an interesting background piece detailing the process by which a hard-core conservative Republican like Pennsylvania’s Senator Pat Toomey became a co-sponsor of a gun legislation compromise. According to the Post, the keys to Toomey’s decision were the relationship he developed with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and the input of a new lobbying group backed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Toomey appears to have done an intense study of the issues surrounding the push for gun control after the Newtown massacre with the intent of finding a legislative idea that could be seen as a response to the incident that would also protect the rights of gun owners and the Second Amendment. The result was the proposed amendment to the gun bill being proposed by Democrats that will expand background checks for purchases while also limiting the ability of the government to interfere in legitimate exchanges and sales, as well as providing other provisions that would benefit gun owners.

But that hasn’t protected Toomey from a storm of abuse from pro-gun groups as well as some Republicans who have come to see the tussle over guns as one more zero-sum game between the two parties in which the only possible outcome is that one side wins and the other loses. Seen from that perspective, any compromise on guns, no matter how anodyne in nature or insignificant in terms of its impact on Second Amendment rights, must be resisted not just because it might be the first step on a slippery slope toward abolition of gun rights but because it could be considered a victory for President Obama.

I sympathize with those who see the liberal exploitation of Newtown as unscrupulous and agree with their conclusion that none of the possible legislative options on guns—up to and including the ones that Toomey opposes, which seek to ban certain types of rifles or ammunition magazines—will do much to prevent another such atrocity. But the willingness of some partisans to treat even ideas about background checks that polls show have the support of approximately nine of out of 10 Americans as something that must be rejected simply because the president and his liberal backers want it is neither good policy nor good politics.

It may well be that the entire discussion about guns in the wake of Newtown can be put down as merely another attempt by politicians to look as if they are doing something about problems that are basically beyond their capacity to address. Events such as Newtown are more the product of mental illness and inadequate security than our gun laws. But there is no denying that after such events the public wants politicians to act as if they are concerned. That usually leads to legislative mischief, and many of the Democratic proposals pushed by the president and Vice President Biden fall into that category as well as not doing much, if anything, to reduce gun violence.

Yet even if we concede that much, the only way one could categorize the Manchin-Toomey proposal as an attack on the Second Amendment is by putting it in a context in which any legislation must be stopped simply because the president and liberals want to pass something. While one can understand the partisan impulse behind such thinking, acting on it isn’t a theory of responsible government. Legislators are justified in trying to stop proposals that undermine liberties even if they are popular. But what Toomey is proposing is merely an attempt to provide a rational response to a national furor that is both constitutional and consistent with the principle of limited government.

It may well be that if Manchin-Toomey is passed—something that is by no means certain even in the Senate, let alone the House of Representatives—that liberals will seek in the future to ban more weapons and ammunition and chip away at the Second Amendment in ways that those who back this proposal will oppose. But the idea that all legislation about guns must be opposed in the same dogged manner that pro-abortion groups fight parental consent or bans on infanticide-like partial birth procedures simply because they fear it will lead to a complete ban on abortion is neither rational nor a path to gaining more support.

When Toomey says he doesn’t think requiring a background check to prevent criminals or the mentally ill from obtaining legal weapons is gun control, he’s right. It’s not. If pro-gun groups can live with existing background checks on purchases in stores, then there’s no reason why they should see similar procedures at gun shows or on the Internet as a threat to their rights. Nor should they be under the impression that opposing such relatively inoffensive measures will expand the ranks of Second Amendment supporters.

Toomey’s conduct in this matter has been consistent with his scrupulous approach to attempts to expand government power. Whether or not his compromise becomes law, Toomey hasn’t done himself any political harm or undermined support for gun rights. But those who think gun rights can be best defended by seeking to spike Toomey-Manchin may discover that stands that are not reasonable and so distant from mainstream opinion aren’t going to help their cause. 

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