A War of All Against All

It's probably not shocking that Mother Jones would find much to expose inside the National Rifle Association. What is surprising is that the Republican Party has allowed its majority in the House to do the radicalized NRA's bidding. Specifically, in March, the House voted overwhelmingly to repeal the assault weapons ban passed in 1994.

Vice President Gore subsequently said the Republican leadership has "an IOU to the NRA," a shorthand the National Rifle Association finds both accurate and pleasing. Accurate because in 1994 the NRA was the top PAC donor (primarily to Republicans), and is on track to double its record $5.3 million this electoral year. Pleasing because the NRA leadership can show it's donors that their dollars count. Meanwhile, the rest of the country is treated to the spectacle of a Republican Congress calling for unlimited access to assault weapons as a prescription for personal safety.

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"My wife lives alone five days a week in a rural area in upstate New York," Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) yelled at Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), nephew of John and Robert, just before the vote. "She has a right to defend herself when I'm not there, son. And don't you ever forget it. Don't you ever forget it!"

Let's distinguish between rhetoric and symbolism. Both Democrats and Republicans exaggerate the efficacy of the ban and the dangers posed by its repeal. Rep. Solomon and his wife already own five rifles, none of which are in danger of being confiscated. Meanwhile, many varieties of assault weapons are still easy to purchase because of limitations in the legislation. But with this vote (and similar votes, for example, to abandon environmental protection), the Republican majority has declared it no longer represents conservatives.

Conservatives of various stripes share a belief in limited government because they disdain human perfectibility. Most attempts to improve the human condition, they think, are doomed. The father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, wrote in 1790 in his Reflections on the Revolution in France: "We have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion."

According to Burke, the state and the status quo deserve respect because they contain the accumulated wisdom of the past. Radical liberty should be feared because individuals lacking proper respect for the past are unlikely to fulfill their obligations to the future. To Burke, society is "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

This fear of unbridled individualism was articulated even earlier by the philosopher to whom modern American conservatives trace their moral and political thought. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes theorizes that in the "state of nature," individuals would continually engage in a "war of all against all." They therefore pool their authority into a sovereign, whose main job is to secure "the common peace and safety."

The assault rifle celebrates the war of all against all. So do armor-piercing bullets and nontraceable gun powder, both advocated by the NRA and its representatives in Congress. Somehow, fighting for "cop killer" armaments has become a badge of bravado. The state -- and even order itself -- have been transformed into the enemy. Laissez-faire has evolved into lock and load.

Of course the Republicans don't have a monopoly on selling out their party's deepest principles. The Democrats, in their quests for campaign cash, often render their votes unto the corporate lobbies and forget they are supposed to represent working men and women. This bipartisan abandonment of core values contributes to the creation of what progressives call "a predatory society" and what conservatives call "the mob."

Sensible conservatives and progressives have common reasons to fear the decomposition of American society. If the middle class continues to shrink, and if the rules of behavior become increasingly survivalist, the ensuing crossfire won't recognize political affiliations or disengaged bystanders.

The opposition to such an embattled world thus needs to be broad -- drawn from the ranks of conservatives and progressives, the secular and the religious, the rich and the struggling. A healthy respect for American tradition mandates that individualism be a given, but that it can be guided. In what direction? Towards accountability.

Opening the market for assault weapons is an admission of failed accountability, and a recipe for increasing mayhem. On this basic point, marksmen, pacifists, and everyone in between can surely agree.

Let's distinguish between rhetoric and symbolism. Both Democrats and Republicans exaggerate the efficacy of the ban and the dangers posed by its repeal. Rep. Solomon and his wife already own five rifles, none of which are in danger of being confiscated. Meanwhile, many varieties of assault weapons are still easy to purchase because of limitations in the legislation. But with this vote (and similar votes, for example, to abandon environmental protection), the Republican majority has declared it no longer represents conservatives. Conservatives of various stripes share a belief in limited government because they disdain human perfectibility. Most attempts to improve the human condition, they think, are doomed. The father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, wrote in 1790 in his Reflections on the Revolution in France : "We have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion."

According to Burke, the state and the status quo deserve respect because they contain the accumulated wisdom of the past. Radical liberty should be feared because individuals lacking proper respect for the past are unlikely to fulfill their obligations to the future. To Burke, society is "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

This fear of unbridled individualism was articulated even earlier by the philosopher to whom modern American conservatives trace their moral and political thought. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes theorizes that in the "state of nature," individuals would continually engage in a "war of all against all." They therefore pool their authority into a sovereign, whose main job is to secure "the common peace and safety." The assault rifle celebrates the war of all against all. So do armor-piercing bullets and nontraceable gun powder, both advocated by the NRA and its representatives in Congress. Somehow, fighting for "cop killer" armaments has become a badge of bravado. The state -- and even order itself -- have been transformed into the enemy. Laissez-faire has evolved into lock and load.

Of course the Republicans don't have a monopoly on selling out their party's deepest principles. The Democrats, in their quests for campaign cash, often render their votes unto the corporate lobbies and forget they are supposed to represent working men and women. This bipartisan abandonment of core values contributes to the creation of what progressives call "a predatory society" and what conservatives call "the mob." Sensible conservatives and progressives have common reasons to fear the decomposition of American society. If the middle class continues to shrink, and if the rules of behavior become increasingly survivalist, the ensuing crossfire won't recognize political affiliations or disengaged bystanders. The opposition to such an embattled world thus needs to be broad -- drawn from the ranks of conservatives and progressives, the secular and the religious, the rich and the struggling. A healthy respect for American tradition mandates that individualism be a given, but that it can be guided. In what direction? Towards accountability. Opening the market for assault weapons is an admission of failed accountability, and a recipe for increasing mayhem. On this basic point, marksmen, pacifists, and everyone in between can surely agree.