The President of the United States Addresses the Nation on Gun Control

By Daniel Kaufman

A fantasy…

ABC News, Special Report, with Pris Pruitt.

Pris Pruitt: We are preempting our scheduled broadcast of Transgender Celebrity Housewives of Color in order to bring you the President of the United States, who momentarily will be giving a speech on the recent mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, which claimed some forty nine lives and left even a larger number of people wounded.  We are broadcasting live from the Oval Office.

[Shot of the Oval Office, empty.  The President of the United States enters the room and seats himself at the desk.]

My fellow Americans,

I speak to you in the wake of yet another mass shooting, the worst in what has tragically become a regular parade of such shootings. These sorts of killings cannot be allowed to continue. The chief duty of government is to protect the lives of its citizens, and it is clear that in this regard we have been woefully derelict.

It clearly would be a mistake to suggest that these kinds of mass murders have just one cause or a single solution. We must address the problem on multiple fronts. But one unambiguous source of the trouble is the easy availability of firearms — weapons that make it possible to deliver a lethal payload, at a distance, and in a very short period of time. We must insure that these weapons cannot be acquired by any legitimate means, and we must insist that those who already possess such weapons turn them in, so that they may be destroyed. To that end, I will be proposing legislation to the Congress that will do the following:

  • Make the sale of any firearm to anyone other than members of federal, state, or local law enforcement a felony.
  • Make the possession of any firearm, by anyone other than members of federal, state, or local law enforcement a felony. Current gun owners will have six months to turn in their weapons, before they are prosecuted under the law.
  • Add additional felony charges to any crime committed with a firearm.
  • Strip states of all federal funding and support, if they permit the sale and ownership of firearms, outside of federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Let’s dispense, now, with the predictable red herrings, arguments, and complaints.

Any legal or regulatory regime relies to a great degree on the voluntary compliance of the citizenry, and there always will be those who refuse to comply. In this case, there will be those who refuse to obey the law, either with respect to purchasing firearms or with respect to turning them in, if they already possess them. But, this represents no reason to reject gun prohibition. Many of the shootings we are talking about were committed with legally obtained guns, and there is no reason to think that the shooters either would have been willing or able to obtain such weapons from criminal sources. The ban I am suggesting will very likely prevent some of these kinds of shootings, and it is always a mistake to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Undoubtedly, one can commit mass murder by other means. The massacre in Oklahoma City was done with a homemade bomb. A man armed with and skilled in the use of a knife can kill any number of people, especially in a confined space. But this, again, is no reason to interfere with efforts to prevent mass shootings. To repeat, it is always a mistake to make the perfect an enemy of the good. And when mass knifings and mass killings by way of exploding fertilizer become as common as mass shootings, we may need to reconsider the legality of these things as well.

Many will cry that this ban violates the Second Amendment. It does not. The Second Amendment straightforwardly provides grounds for arming a citizen militia, in the days when the United States lacked a standing army. These conditions no longer obtain in our nation – we have a standing army and no longer require citizen militias – and thus, the Amendment, as written, is a relic of a bygone past. I am well-aware that our most recent jurisprudence does not support this understanding of the Second Amendment and that our Supreme Court has interpreted it as conferring an individual right to own firearms, whatever the circumstances, but  the Court was wrong. I am more than happy, then, to allow the next Court to deliberate on the issue again, as I am confident it will rule differently. Put another way: to those who want to fight this law, go ahead and sue us. We’ll see you in court.

Hunters will be disappointed that they can no longer engage in their preferred sport, and I sympathize. I propose this legislation, not for reasons of animal but human welfare.  Making headway against the scourge of annual mass shootings is more than worth the price of having to forgo chasing and shooting animals in the woods and around ponds.

Finally, many undoubtedly will appeal to the right to self-defense, and it is an understandable concern. It also gives me the opportunity to engage in what apparently is a much-needed civics lesson.

Our polity is grounded in the Social Contract tradition and specifically, the version found in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. According to that tradition, what justifies political society and provides the ground for political authority is that a rational person would choose them over a life of maximal prerogative and liberty in the State of Nature.

Our natural – God-given — condition is one of maximal liberty and maximal right. In the absence of any third-party authority, we are free to do whatever we like within the Law of Nature, according to which no one may harm another. Because we are rational, we are capable of recognizing other peoples’ interests and autonomy and thus, can understand the reasons for not harming them.The trouble is that some people will choose to harm others nonetheless, and in the absence of any third-party authority, the policing of the Law of Nature falls to the individual, in whom the natural right to enforce it lies.

Locke describes such a situation as, at a minimum, non-ideal, and if one thinks about it, it will be quickly apparent that life in the State of Nature would be one of persistent anxiety, in which the sorts of large scale, collaborative projects constitutive of advanced civilization, which rely on mutual trust, are impossible. The rational person, therefore, will embrace the Social Contract.

The Social Contract involves two basic commitments: a collective agreement on everyone’s part to surrender their right to enforce the Law of Nature and transfer it to a third party – the government – granting it the authority to do so; and a collective agreement that each of us will voluntarily submit to the authority of that third party, in matters of enforcing the law. To quote the relevant section from the Second Treatise of Government:

[T]here is a political (or civil) society when and only when a number of men are united into one society in such a way that each of them forgoes his executive power of the law of nature, giving it over to the public.

This is a collective gamble that we all make. But it is an educated one. A rational one.  And it is hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that they would be safer and freer to pursue their interests, in the State of Nature. But, if, at any point, we are rationally justified in believing this, we have the right to dissolve the Social Contract, its basic rationale having been shown to no longer apply. That is, we retain the right to revolution.

But even in the best of civil societies, we will never be perfectly safe. The outstanding, professional law enforcement we are so fortunate to have cannot protect us from every potential predation, on the part of our neighbors, even if it protects us from most. But it is the best that we can do. There always will be some risk in the living of one’s life, and it is important to understand that it can never be entirely eliminated. And it most certainly cannot be eliminated or even mitigated by the carrying of firearms by private citizens. For to permit this is to undermine the very logic on which the Social Contract rests. What leads us to accept public authority is precisely the fact that we recognize the problem inherent in leaving the authority to enforce the law in private hands. When we permit private citizens to carry firearms and to take the enforcement of the law upon themselves, we undermine the very reasons that led us to this acceptance. If you will indulge me one more quotation from the Second Treatise of Government:

Consider what civil society is for. It is set up to avoid and remedy the drawbacks of the state of nature that inevitably follow from every man’s being judge in his own case, by setting up a known authority to which every member of that society can appeal when he has been harmed or is involved in a dispute—an authority that everyone in the society ought to obey.

To allow private citizens to carry weapons not only increases the likelihood that mass killings like the recent shooting in Orlando will occur, it undermines the very logic on which our civil society rests. As President, my chief duty is to protect American citizens and preserve the integrity of our Republic. And I will press for this legislation with every ounce of energy and conviction that I have, drawing on every resource at my disposal.

God bless the victims of the Orlando shooting and their loved ones and God bless the United States of America.

[The camera pulls back to a wide shot and fades to black. ABC News Special Report returns, with Pris Pruitt.]

Pris Pruitt:  That was the President of the United States, addressing the nation on the Orlando Shooting and on his proposal for a complete ban on all firearms. The President’s speech will be the subject of an hour long edition of Nightline, tonight, with special host and Nightline veteran, Ted Koppel. We now return to our regular programming, Transgendered Celebrity Housewives of Color.





23 responses to “The President of the United States Addresses the Nation on Gun Control”

  1. I’ll comment more later but I would totally watch “Transgendered Celebrity Housewives of Color”.

  2. It’ll never happen, but in Australia they did ban assault rifles outright and haven’t had yearly mass shootings since. Last I heard they hadn’t add on for 15 years or so.. The Aussies can still hunt. Only Sarah Palin needs an assault riffle to hunt. May if “Transgendered Celebrity …” had been on her channel it wouldn’t have gone belly up.

  3. I realize most Americans believe in natural law and natural rights (it’s part of the founding myth) but arguments which appeal to these things – the gun lobby’s or Locke’s – are on pretty shaky ground as I see it.

    But, putting this aside, what seems to me to be the most striking feature of our time is the quite dramatic loss of faith and trust respectively in the political processes and the political elites in the US (and also in Europe). This has implications for gun control – and much else.

    I think it’s often more useful to see politics in terms of faith and trust than in terms of ‘reason’. People have (or lose) faith in the political process; and faith and trust go together. Only when there is a degree of trust can you get positive things done.

  4. Mark: It really doesn’t matter how you “see it” though. This is, as a matter of historical fact, the logic on which our system of government is based. The arguments, then, are relevant.

  5. I agree and empathize with the good intent of the fantasy. Still however, it’s not the majority of non-violent atheists or religious that concern me. Those engaged in acting out violent fantasy will procure or steal their weapons through illegal channels undeterred by more laws.

    I’m also somewhat confident we can’t outlaw gravity:

    “ISIS release horrific video showing bound man being hurled off the top of a building to his death after he was accused of being gay”

  6. wtquinn: I did address precisely the point you mention in your first paragraph.

  7. Hi Dan, this still leaves open the question whether it is all firearms or just those with extreme capacities that would be important to ban. It would also be an interesting alternative if the gov’t simply rounded up for storage all weapons until such a time as whatever underlies the crisis we are facing (people wanting to kill each other) passes. Then people can get their toys back.

    The fact that some countries allow weapons (some even assault weapons) and lack such problems, suggests we need to address something else as well.

    WTQuinn’s comment “I’m also somewhat confident we can’t outlaw gravity” and example of IS throwing people off buildings reminded me of Archie Bunker asking “Would it make you feel any better little girl if they was pushed out of windows?”
    (for clip: )

  8. dbholmes: Yes, i remember that episode. Absolutely hilarious. And also, as indicated in the essay, absolutely fallacious.

  9. dbholmes: As for your other question, given the social contract reasoning portion, I would say it applies to all firearms, not just assault weapons.

    I agree to the social contract, precisely because I don’t trust my neighbor and find it onerous to shoulder the burden of defending my natural rights myself, as I must do in the state of nature. But it is a deal I am only willing to make if all of us transfer that right to enforce the law of nature and that includes transferring the right to the *means* of doing so.

    If my neighbor is going to take up arms, then that is a deal I am no longer willing to make. For I persist in not trusting my neighbor, even while in the social contract. So, I am certainly not going to agree to be disarmed and to forgo my right to enforce the law, if my neighbor isn’t.

    In short, to take up arms in the social contract is to undermine everyone else’s reason for accepting it.

  10. A good “fantasy,” which you are correct in so designating. With 31% of households owning weapons, falling in fact on both sides of the partisan divide, and with the NRA firmly embedded with the Republicans specifically, we can’t really expect Congress (the people who tried more than 50 times to repeal a limited health care law) to actually get something done here, let alone go this far. But “modest proposals” have always been useful for getting people to think about both what can be realistically accomplished, and about what we can change to make “unrealistic” ideas more realistic. Australia did, indeed, take great strides toward this (not, of course, a complete weapons ban, but a decisive reduction of the weapons available to the public). It would be nice to think that America, the nation we think of as being so “great,” the “land of the free, home of the brave,” could accomplish something that Australia accomplished. If wishing made it so… In the meantime, more “tactical” plans to restrict weapons access allowed to certain classes of people (people on the no-fly list; people with histories of hate crimes, people affiliated with known hate groups), and to restrict access to certain classes of weapons and capabilities, are all things this nation, and the states individually, have accomplished and can do again.

    On a final note, for those Second Amendment advocates who try to halt such discussions with the premise that, “we can’t lose our Second Amendment rights, because that right protects us from despotism and the elimination of all our other rights,” I recently crafted this counter-argument:

  11. Although I’m fond of this line of reasoning, aren’t there some presumptions being made about how far exactly the social contract extends? Or maybe the right way to say that is how far a social contract could or might extend? Could not a social contract defend you from some harms, but not others (say, injury due to some on else’s free speech)? I’d propose that the true nature of the contract lies in the wording of our founding documents (ie, the 2nd Amendment) and how we as a society choose to interpret those documents. Perhaps the right way to understand our founder’s intent is to understand that they were building a limited social contract?

  12. Hi Dan, I agree you set out an argument that covers all weapons. I was suggesting that while taking all weapons might be permissible according to that argument, there is an open question if that large a task would be a practical necessity (to end the problem) or possibility (more of a burden than it is worth).

    Also, I don’t necessarily take owning weapons as arming against one another (defending ones natural rights from others). Having spent time with relatives in remote rural locations I have seen their arguable necessity for protection from wild animals who are incapable of joining that social contract and are “armed” (literally to the teeth). This is also something that you usually don’t have time to call the police about. There is no question military grade weapons are not required for such defense. So I see an arguable line drawn on certain classes of weapons that can be used for other, sometimes vital purposes. This parallels the line you have already drawn at things like knives, which have other practical purposes beyond arming against your neighbor to defend ones rights.

    That said, I like how you cut off many potential counterarguments… some of which I would have jumped at. I’m sort of a freedom junkie (libertarian sympathies) and have reflexive tendencies to protect rights. And having witnessed enough failures on the side of professional law enforcement, I am uncertain if I trust them to defend my rights. Kind of nice in theory, but…

  13. I gather the point of the exercise is too imagine the most intellectually satisfying statement a President could make, regardless of the culture or politics. But it is interesting to think of exactly why this would never work and therefore never happen. Obama already takes big knocks for being professorial and (supposedly) condescending. He takes pains to speak idiomatically and simply about “folks” and “Common sense”. If he tried something like this he would be murdered. It occurs to me that for much of America even making an argument on a moral question is slightly rude. That is a matter of personal conviction, with each “person” selecting their more or less freely chosen “conviction, or, worse, it is a matter of “faith”. Both sides are always asserting that their point of view is “obvious” or, again, “common-sense”. They don’t take their views as really needing to be motivated. They just try to find the formulation that is most intuitive and appealing. A “Square deal”, a “new deal”, a “Great society”, a “safety net”, a “nanny state”, “compassionate conservatism” an end to the era of “big government” etc. These are not meant to persuade on the basis of reasons, they are meant to produce a kind of “Aha!” moment in which some view seems right or compelling. This is less aggressive than making an argument, whose purpose is always to compel assent.

  14. Ottlinger: Right. Hence “A Fantasy” at the beginning.

  15. Paul: An interesting suggestion. Certainly, I can imagine social contracts with different *contents* — indeed, the substance of Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s respective social contracts are different from Locke’s. But I’m not sure how one could justify a *partial* one. Locke’s reasoning would seem to suggest A or B, without an ability to hedge. Put another way, I don’t see how one could partially remain in the state of nature, while also being in the civil society — which is what citizens packing heat would be — and retain the compelling rationale that Locke gives, for accepting the social contract.

  16. “Many will cry that this ban violates the Second Amendment. It does not. The Second Amendment straightforwardly provides grounds for arming a citizen militia, in the days when the United States lacked a standing army.”

    Catchy part of the argument but the First Amendment was designed for legal dissent without recrimination for public statements deemed negative by state authority. Fast forward and First Amendment rights were cited for the legal sale of pornography and the mainstreaming of a very profitable pornography industry. All of the same arguments and logic where pornography is cited as the underlying cause for pedophilia, rape etc. apply as when these mass shootings occur. Whether it is the Entertainment Pornography Industrial Complex or the Guns Industrial Complex, the intent of the Constitution has been badly trampled by the forces of industry.

    I think what also gets lost in the gun debate is the American infatuation with property and guns played a huge part in protecting property during the days of expansion. Also witness the private security forces that protect corporations. As they say the country is armed to the hilt and just witness the Orlando Police response with armored vehicles and swat teams which is now the norm for every municipal police force.

    Interesting story also out today about Justice Sotomayor’s very insightful dissent opinion on a case involving profiling of minority’s.

  17. I think the arguments are generally cogent and cohesive.

    Unfortunately, Americans are not by and large a reasonable people.

    We rightfully shy away from considering a ‘national character’ as somehow pathological; but sometimes it just can’t be avoided.

    Americans are proud of their fear; that is unsettling, and makes moving discussions like this to the next level – concrete political campaigning – extremely difficult.

  18. Hi Victor, I disagree with you (rather strongly) on several counts.

    1) “…the First Amendment was designed for legal dissent without recrimination for public statements deemed negative by state authority.”

    This is not an accurate assessment of the totality of the amendment, which also includes items to secure one’s religious beliefs and practices from interference by the state. The idea was to protect one’s ability to think, discuss, and assemble according to one’s interests without interference from the state. Yes that included legal dissent, but also religious dissent and so social dissent (which could involve passively doing what one wants in contrast to what others wish you wouldn’t).

    2) “All of the same arguments and logic where pornography is cited as the underlying cause for pedophilia, rape etc. apply as when these mass shootings occur.”

    Except of course that there is no parallel whatsoever between the relation of pornography to sex crimes and guns to mass shootings.

    First of all, in the case of guns to mass shootings the link is direct and obvious. So the reason to remove them is direct and obvious. The damage comes from the guns. If there was any link between porn and crime it would by necessity have to be indirect, and it is not clear that taking it away would/could have any direct affect on the crimes.

    Second, you are assuming a causative link actually exists between porn and crime. There are no studies to support that, in fact to my knowledge all ones that have been made have (rather famously) found negative correlations. That has been true from the Meese commission reports, which Reagan wanted to use to fight porn, through now.

    Third, what are you going to define as porn? Firearms are pretty obvious. Porn (rather famously) is not.

    Finally, if this is the route you want to go, then logically we should go after all violent entertainment (books, films, songs, video games), which clearly (if we are to believe the link between sex themed entertainment and sex crimes) underlie violent crimes in society. I suppose you could argue that it is the violent entertainment industrial complex which is keeping that going over everyone’s interests, but I sort of doubt that. Just like I doubt there is a Porn Industrial Complex, equivalent to the NRA. These things are rather popular. And if it needs to be mentioned, there is a massive free market in porn, including sexual imagery exchanged between people that make it themselves. I doubt these guys have any industrial power at all.

    3) “Whether it is the Entertainment Pornography Industrial Complex or the Guns Industrial Complex, the intent of the Constitution has been badly trampled by the forces of industry.”

    The concept that porn is what drove the (purported) expansion of free speech to mean more than legal dissent seems a bit stretched. One can argue that porn has taken advantage of such expansion, but that expansion came well before porn became legal.

    And are you suggesting you don’t like/want the broader concept of free speech? Should the gov’t be free to snatch away whatever you are reading or watching, other than protest pamphlets?

    In any case, the porn industry is (contrary to what you just said) heavily regulated. Perhaps more so than gun manufacture, sale, and ownership. This PIC has been extremely unsuccessful at retaining rights and freedoms, compared to the GIC.

  19. dbholmes,

    Understand your points but going back to the early 1970’s before the age of electronic distribution, it was possible to regulate porn which had strict regulations imposed by organized religion and other groups, so your argument against guns is agreeably stronger, especially in light of restrictions being imposed by organized groups to lobby government etc.

    Likewise I can argue that today there is an electronic distribution of firearms via sites like Craig’s list and underground gun dealers who can be contacted via text messages etc. Sadly the proliferation of guns is so widespread now that it would be more plausible to round up the 11 million illegal aliens vs confiscate the illegal guns.

    I personally agree with the argument FOR gun regulations, which could prevent future horrors. My other part of my argument was a hint at factors like the racial divide. Police profiling certainly seems unfair and makes minority people feel like lesser citizens, but most minority crimes are committed against other minority people, so the policies are in place to protect all citizens.

    Nobody is too concerned about regulating the sex entertainment industry but the forces behind maintaining the gun industry for their target market have strong similarities.

    It is a complex situation and I agree that stricter gun laws would be a step in the right direction.

  20. Fantastic! An excellent thought experiment uncovering potential incoherences at the extremes. But this is the best we have since it is not possible to do much experimentation on the various proposals.

    It is hard for us to be sure what the writers of the constitution really had in mind. Were they afraid of what their own government could do to them in spite of the checks and balances? – power always corrupts. Were they concerned about enemies, foreign and domestic? There certainly was very little protection on the dangerous frontier, one had to survive on one’s own. Some even have suggested the Second Amendment was necessary to pacify the slaves.

    Here is another fantasy illustrating perhaps some modern day paranoias:

    In late 2008 President Alice Gore was looking at a severe banking crisis looming in days. The housing market was crashing and the banks did not have enough reserves to cover their losses. Gore called in the Secretary of the Treasury, Bernice Sanders, and aging Chairperson of the Fed, Pauline Volcker, in an urgent meeting. Sanders made an impassioned argument against a government bail-out of the greedy, super-rich of Wall Street. Such an action, she said, would be “protecting the interests of vulture funds at the expense of the children and poor people”. This would betray the promises that Gore had made to Occupy Wall Street and his socialist base during the tough campaigns against George Shrub and Darth Cheney.

    Despite Volcker’s dire warnings, the government decided not to provide emergency funds to the banks who abruptly stopped lending to each other. China started dumping dollars whose value plummeted to all-time lows, with interest rates quadrupling overnight. The US government couldn’t service its own debt. Checks were not being honored and Americans had to stand in line at ATMs where a $10 limit was in effect. Credit card purchases were suspended. Disorderly crowds invaded shops and supermarkets, taking what they wanted as police stood idly by (cf. Venezuela today; Ferguson, Mo a few years back).

    Gore reversed his decision in 14 days, flooding the banking system with billions of newly printed $$, but the damage was done. A semblance of law and order returned slowly over a period of months. The only ones who survived reasonably well were ‘preppers’ who had hoarded food and supplies and were sufficiently well armed to protect themselves from marauders. Many others had lost virtually everything.

    To many owning lethal weapons symbolizes their independence, self-reliance and willingness to protect what is theirs. Banding together with trustworthy neighbors is an important, albeit somewhat primitive, survival strategy, with some risks attached. Trusting in and depending on a vast, faceless, bureaucratic apparatus would not be wise by their lights.

  21. Correction: Gore reversed her decision..

  22. labnut

    Bravo. I loved this essay and agreed with the overall tenor. You made an important point that we, as society, have relinquished the powers of retribution, instead trusting to the rule of law to protect us and exact retribution. We are no longer a vigilante society and thus have no need for weapons. I live in a region with more than 50 homicides per 100,000(compared to 1/100,000 in the UK and 5/100,000 in the US) so I say this with some trepidation, but still I believe this.

    While I agree with what you said I am concerned by your omissions. Nowhere do you address the root causes of the problem. You are dealing only with the symptoms. You may put a Bandaid on a boil but it will still suppurate. When your President delivers his speech he better have in place all the measures that address the root causes.

    I have my own thoughts about the root causes but, for the moment, I want to make an appeal that we develop a mindset that looks beyond symptoms and instead actively searches for root causes. Throughout my corporate life I have found this same problem wherever I look, a short term, quick fix mentality that applies Bandaid solutions and never searches for root causes. Unsurprisingly, the solutions are only temporary, the problem again and again rearing its ugly head.

    To be fair to you, I know your essay is intended to be a provocative conversation starter which should, in the discussion, expose deeper insights. Make no mistake, I believe we should apply the Bandaid to the boil, but at the same time we must lance the boil, treat with antibiotics, locate the source of the infection, eradicate that, educate the patient and improve both his nutrition and environment.

  23. “We are preempting our scheduled broadcast of ……”……That could be the key to the essay or we are a nation of consumers from all forms of physical property to entertainment. What role does property play in the desire to protect and defend, which may be a more unique American phenomena originating with the frontier? Interestingly Europe was more rife for socialism because of their history but now that their systems have been strained by the influx of foreigners and imbalances between the industrialized and non-industrialized states has lead to the BREXIT and threats by others to exit the EU. What this has to do with weapons in the U.S. does relate to Trump’s campaign to wall off not just Mexico but essentially South America since many from Central America have crossed into the South West. In other words the gun debate is more deeply rooted in sovereignty and property.