Commentary Magazine


Gun Control and American “Givenness”

The New York Times reports that gun-control advocates are not dissuaded by their recent failure to get first a gun ban and then a background checks bill passed. They are pressing on with attempts to further regulate gun ownership. As I noted and as the Washington Post explained, Americans basically came to see the Toomey-Manchin bill as representative of the fight to restrict gun ownership, and the attempts by the government to impose such restrictions unnerved them. This bothers supporters of gun control for cultural reasons, and I think it’s worth explaining where gun-rights supporters are coming from.

In February, Timothy Noah wrote a perceptive column about how liberals were no longer always talking about liberal policies in “non-liberal language.” But gun control was an exception. “Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not,” Noah wrote. “But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.”

Noah’s column was headlined “How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’,” and the example of gun ownership as the outlier–gun owners are the real “real Americans” no matter how many, or how few, of them there actually are–is instructive. As anyone who has been told by gun control supporters that tyranny is not on the agenda and therefore the Founders’ concern for the right to bear arms is just a bit dated can attest, concern about the slippery slope argument on guns is downright puzzling to the left. But it’s actually much easier to understand than it seems.

Exactly 60 years ago, in the April 1953 issue of COMMENTARY, Daniel J. Boorstin wrote an eloquent essay that sheds light on this issue without actually discussing gun rights. The piece was titled “Our Unspoken National Faith: Why Americans Need No Ideology,” and it was adapted from his then-forthcoming book The Genius of American Politics. The purpose of Boorstin’s essay, as indicated in the title, is to explain why Americans have developed such successful political institutions without a tradition of impressive modern political theorizing. Americans are, Boorstin noted, surprisingly uninterested in political philosophy for a country that has experienced such magnificent political achievement.

Boorstin’s aim is to explain what he calls “givenness,” briefly defined as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us.” There are three aspects to American “givenness,” according to Boorstin. First, that our values are a gift from the past; second, that we continue to receive our values as a gift from the present; and third, a belief in the continuity of American history, which helps explain how his first and second parts of “givenness” can coexist. “Our feeling of continuity in our history makes it easy for us to see the Founding Fathers as our contemporaries. It induces us to draw heavily on the materials of our history, but always in a distinctly non-historical frame of mind,” he writes.

We haven’t felt the need to invent mythical American prophets because that’s how we see our Founders. And we haven’t felt the need to develop a uniting political theory because we believe the nation was founded on an already complete theory that we happily accepted. One major reason for this is the recency of our founding. Boorstin calls us “primitivistic” in comparison to Europeans, who–for obvious reasons–don’t see themselves in their earliest settlers.

This explains the left-right divide over constitutional interpretation. Both liberals and conservatives have taken to claiming their constitutional righteousness in terms of its “originalism.” Neither side’s leading judicial theorists, however, tend to argue that it doesn’t matter what the Founders thought at the time. “We are haunted by a fear that capricious changes in theory might imperil our institutions,” Boorstin writes. “This is our kind of conservatism.” Later, he adds: “What need has either party for an explicit political theory where both must be spokesmen of the original American doctrine on which the nation was founded?”

Boorstin admits that the second facet of “givenness” is vague, but it boils down to accepting that our founding value system is being constantly upheld and reinvigorated by the simple experience of American life. And here he quotes Frederick Jackson Turner writing about the idealized American frontierland and how we translate that into our value system. Turner’s quote, in turn, provides some perspective on Noah’s remark about “real Americans”:

The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

Indeed, Boorstin notes that we admire not extraordinary men but men “who possessed the commonplace virtues to an extraordinary degree.” The third facet of “givenness,” continuity between the first two, is both a goal and a fact of life–though this, too, has much to do with America’s youth and is probably far from a given if the United States reaches in the future the age that Europe is now. American political convention has an authenticity, Boorstin writes, guided by “the axiom that institutions are not and should not be the grand creations of men toward large ends and outspoken values; rather they are organisms which grow out of the soil in which they are rooted and out of the tradition from which they have sprung.” He concludes:

Our history has fitted us, even against our will, to understand the meaning of conservatism. We have become the exemplars of the continuity of history and of the fruits which came from cultivating institutions suited to a time and place, in continuity with the past.

How this applies, precisely 60 years later, to the gun debate is twofold. First, liberals have been frustrated by the fact that lower population states, in conservative and gun-friendly regions of the country, hold disproportionate sway in the Senate thanks to each state having the same number of senators, and thus votes. But they should also keep in mind that this doesn’t bother others nearly as much because these states, as we see from Turner’s description of the frontier in American consciousness, hold disproportionate sway over much of America’s national and cultural identity. Guns are only part of this, but a recognizable part.

Second, unlike many other policy fights, gun rights have special resonance because the right to bear arms is written explicitly. We can, and do, argue over whose right that is and what arms they may bear, but few rights were so clearly declared to exist or jealously guarded by the Founders as this one. And that helps explain how Americans can simultaneously support universal background checks in theory yet seem to suddenly get cold feet when it is time for Congress to vote. They don’t take it lightly when their rights are on the table. That may be frustrating for lawmakers, but it’s part of the genius of American politics.

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