Why the War on Guns has Failed

Jonah Goldberg
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Posted: Dec 16, 2015 12:01 AM
Why the War on Guns has Failed

In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, liberals are in a total panic over guns. The New York Times broke a 95-year precedent to editorialize about gun control on its front page. But the Times seems restrained compared with the full-on meltdown at the New York Daily News, which has taken to calling the head of the NRA a "terrorist."

I have no desire to rehash the all-too-familiar debate over whether such policies would have their intended effects or whether they'd pass constitutional muster. Let's just stipulate I am skeptical on both counts.

But it is worth contemplating why the gun-control movement has been such a complete failure. And it might be constructive to compare the war on guns to a regulatory war liberals actually won: the war on tobacco.

For a long time, smoking cigarettes was seen as even more American than owning a gun. Hollywood's golden age is like a celluloid smoking lounge. The opening scene of "Casablanca" is a close-up of an ashtray with a lit cigarette. The camera pans out and Humphrey Bogart takes a nice long drag.

Cigarettes, much like guns, were deeply tied to notions of masculinity -- remember the Marlboro Man? But they were also symbols of urbane sophistication, for men and women alike (Marlene Dietrich in "Morocco," Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"). James Bond was a chain smoker. In the books, he smoked 60 a day. Sean Connery cut back, just a bit, for the movies.

Now, cigarettes are so widely reviled that the MPAA includes smoking along with violence and sex in its warning language.

There are, of course, a great many reasons why we've seen such a remarkable shift in such a short span of time, though medical science is probably the biggest. But there's another factor that doesn't get its due. Smoking was, until recently, a very bipartisan habit. City mice and country mice alike would walk a mile for a Camel.

The universality of smoking made it possible to proselytize against it without unleashing a full-blown kulturkampf. Sure, conservatives and libertarians complained -- often correctly by my lights -- about lost liberties, but an attack on smoking, backed up by solid evidence, didn't simultaneously feel like an attack on one cultural group by another.

Because nonsmokers knew smokers, the war on tobacco could be fought face-to-face in our homes, businesses, movie theaters, planes, trains and automobiles. And when nonsmokers pleaded with their friends and loved ones to give up tobacco, they at least understood the appeal of smoking. Cigarette America wasn't a foreign country. You can't say the same thing about Gun America.

My wife grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, where gun ownership was nearly as common and natural as snow shovel ownership. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I never knew anyone who owned a gun. When my mother was an auxiliary mounted policewoman, she was not permitted to carry one.

The absence of guns in urban liberal environments leads to a kind of Pauline Kaelism. Kael is -- apocryphally -- credited with saying she couldn't believe Richard Nixon won the election because she didn't know anyone who voted for him.

Likewise, many urban liberals only hear about guns when they're used in crimes, and simply can't imagine why anyone would want one. As a result, they're tone-deaf in their arguments.

Even worse than the tone-deafness is the arrogant condescension. In the 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama tried to explain why some rural voters were not supporting him, he infamously said that it was out of bitterness -- a bitterness that caused them to "cling" to their guns and their religion. Obama has been trying to unring that bell ever since.

To urban liberals, guns are like cigarettes -- products that when used as intended only hurt or kill people, and that are also low-class and crude. The Second Amendment, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote, is "the refuge of bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches."

Such smugness doesn't help, but the real reason the war on guns has been such an abysmal failure is that guns and cigarettes aren't alike after all. You can't hunt or, more importantly, defend yourself or your family with a cigarette. That's why, in the wake of San Bernardino, millions of Americans didn't think, "We've got to get rid of guns." They thought, "Maybe I should get one." I know I did.