William McGurn, who regularly writes a column called “Main Street” in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, has a rather weird view of evil. In his column titled “The Liberal Theology of Gun Control,” he postulates that an evil can exist that does not manifest itself in the real world. The hidden premise—that Islam is inherently evil—does not appear in the article, which has as its subject the excoriation of liberals for thinking gun control would have prevented the terrorists attacks in San Bernardino and Paris.
He expresses liberalism’s approach to gun control as a skeptic might approach a theology: “Put simply, today’s liberalism cannot deal with the reality of evil. So liberals inveigh against the instruments of evil rather than the evil that motivates them.”
The logic is ridiculous because it assumes that evil is something concrete that exists apart from the actions by which evil manifests itself. But if you think of evil actions but do nothing, how is your evil a problem to anyone else? It’s when you commit evil actions that society will consider you evil.
Thus, anything we can do to stop evil actions stops evil. The San Bernardino suspects had legal access to guns, which they then illegally modified. While no one would aver that greater gun control laws would have necessarily prevented the San Bernardino killers from acting, it certainly would have slowed them down, and perhaps made them come out of the closet and thus be identified by the authorities. And we can be certain that stricter gun control would have stopped some would-be terrorists.
McGurn also errs in assuming that all liberals want to do to fight terrorism is establish stronger gun control laws. That is a fallacious reading of the record of statements by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. military and security officials, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Implementing stronger gun control laws is a small part of the package that liberals propose to fight terrorism, almost an afterthought.
Stopping terrorism is also not the only reason to establish stronger gun control laws. In the United States, statistics demonstrate that we have relatively little to fear from the terrorist, but much to fear from the legal gun owner who has an accident, the child or other family member who uncovers a loaded gun and the run-of-the-mill criminal who can purchase a gun at a gun show with no waiting period. It’s a simple fact: the fewer the number of guns per capita in a society, the lower the rate of death and injuries from guns.
His assertion is completely false that in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, the entire public discussion is about gun control. He’s confusing San Bernardino with the mass murders in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Tucson, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Charleston, Pittsburgh and Columbine. After Bernardino, the news media is focusing on Obama’s performance, what we knew and didn’t know about the terrorists before the shooting, refugees and Donald Trump’s awful statements about not letting Muslims in the United States.
A number of almost comic rhetorical flaws mar McGurn’s article, except for those who enjoy finding logical boners. For example, he says that tough gun control laws did not prevent terrorists from inflicting mayhem on Paris and San Bernardino. McGurn scores a two-fer for stupidity with this statement: 1) While it’s true that California and France have stricter gun control laws than other municipalities, both, and especially California, are part of larger geographic zones where in which one can travel without constraints, and in which gun control laws are much looser. 2) No one has said stronger gun control would have prevented the San Bernardino or Paris murders. What liberals and progressives are saying is that controlling gun sales will reduce the total number of terrorist attacks using guns.
McGurn makes a weird historical comparison which hides the fact that the two assertions in the comparison are fallacious. He states that liberals today are calling for greater gun control instead of fighting ISIS, just as liberals called for greater gun control during the Cold War instead of fighting communism. While it’s true that many progressives both today and in the past have called for gun control, it’s also true that most American progressives on domestic issues have also been hardline on military issues. From Truman, Johnson and Humphrey to Obama and Clinton, Democrats have taken a hard line in foreign affairs while supporting gun control at home. Richard Nixon could hardly be called a wimp in foreign affairs, and he was in favor of outlawing handguns and requiring licenses for hunting rifles.
To the degree that it reflects current right wing thinking, the scariest part of McGurn’s article is his underlying premise about evil, that it is an essence and not a type of action. In McGurn’s world view, the only way to free ourselves of the threat of terrorism is to kill everyone who has evil thoughts. I don’t believe that McGurn expects our security forces to begin reading minds. I’m thinking that he believes he knows an evil person (which is different from an evil doer) when he sees one.