For the second time in American history, a legally defined form of property has become the source of intense political conflict. To illustrate the remarkable similarities between a current controversy and another one nearly two centuries old, let us follow the example of first-year economics textbooks and describe a generic form of property: widgets.
A political crisis has arisen over widgets because different regions of the United States see them completely differently. In one, an almost unanimous opinion holds that widgets are sacred private property guaranteed by the Constitution, in which the federal government has no right to interfere. In the other, widgets are regarded as a danger to life, health and morality. As the conflict over widgets escalates, the two sides take more and more extreme positions. The pro side begins to argue that widgets are not only convenient, but necessary; the cons claim that they are a stain upon the nation. Both regions pass state laws reflecting their points of view, but the permeability of borders within the United States means it’s hard to make these laws fully effective. And because both sides want their view of widgets to prevail nationwide, the issue eventually reaches the Supreme Court.
In the 21st century, widgets are guns. In the 19th century—with due respect to those involved, who were people, not things—widgets were slaves. To be sure, the issues are not entirely comparable. Although guns kill more than 30,000 Americans a year, according to the CDC, they are not doing the harm that slavery did. But, while we all agree now that slavery was evil, we violently disagree about guns. The history of the two issues has many parallels, and points to the terrible difficulty of reaching a consensus.
The history of slavery from 1789 to 1862 is much more complex than most people realize. The Constitution effectively permitted slavery, though it never referred to the institution by name and included a provision allowing the regulation of the slave trade after 20 years had passed. Many states in the North abolished slavery in the wake of the revolution, and many southerners, including slaveholders, expected it to disappear. But the picture changed after the advent of the cotton gin, the technology that shifted the economics of slavery by creating incentive to expand the institution rather than letting it fade. The new shape of the conflict was clarified in 1820, when Missouri sought admission to the Union as a slave state.
In the debate on Missouri, southerners for the first time began to argue that slavery was a positive good reflecting a true superiority of the white race and that the federal government had no power to prevent its spread. They were not altogether successful. Missouri was admitted with slavery, but the Missouri Compromise banned any new slave states north of Missouri’s southern border. During the next 40 years, southern claims steadily escalated. By the 1850s southern politicians were arguing that slave property must be protected not only in new territories, but even within states that had abolished it. And when Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived with his master for several years in a free state, the Supreme Court in 1857 not only refused his claim, but endorsed the idea that Congress had no right to restrict slavery anywhere.
Meanwhile, abolition was gaining ground in the North. The Dred Scott decision spurred the movement forward precisely because it suggested that the free states might not have the power to remain free. And that, in turn, moved an Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln, to argue in the next year, 1858, that a house divided against itself could not stand, and that the nation would have to become all one thing or all the other.
While the gun issue has taken much longer to mature, its outlines are extraordinarily similar. The Bill of Rights, in the Second Amendment, did protect a right to bear arms, although it did so within the context of the perceived need for “well-regulated” militias. Just as it was once reasonable to expect slavery to fade away, it once seemed likely, as militias were replaced by the organized national guard, that widespread private gun ownership would be increasingly restricted. Both states and the federal government passed numerous restrictions on firearm ownership, some of which were approved by the Supreme Court. Marshalls in the late 1800s forced cowboys to check their guns when they came to town, and Tommy guns were banned in many particularly violent regions in the 1920s. By the time the 1950s rolled around, guns were not a hot-button political issue in the U.S.
A series of events in the 1960s served as the stakes-raising cotton gin of the gun controversy. A succession of political assassinations, of figures including John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., led to calls for even tighter control, which in turn provoked a more powerful backlash from the NRA. That organization widened its role from a defender of hunters to an advocate for the right to own firearms. And while the gun controversy does not divide on regional lines as rigidly as the slavery one, it does have a powerful regional dimension. Both sides are also escalating the fight, with some arguing that the nation must become all one thing or the other: no restrictions anywhere or extremely strong ones everywhere. On Dec. 4, in response to new waves of mass shootings, the New York Times put the NRA’s fantasies into print, arguing in a front-page editorial not only that sales of assault weapons had to be banned, but that the many thousands of them already in private hands had to be given up. On the other side, at least one Congressman has already argued that his open-carry right should automatically extend throughout the United States as well, and such a case may reach the Supreme Court sooner or later.
The gun question is one of several huge issues, including immigration, global warming and the role of the federal government, that have divided us into two nations with very different views of how we should live. That is what has made this the fourth great crisis of American national life, parallel to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Depression and the Second World War, as I discussed last week. And now the question, once again, is whether we can find a way out of this conflict that does not involve a new civil war. Finding a peaceful way forward will be an enormous task for whichever candidate wins in 2016. Any President who could do so would earn a place alongside Lincoln and FDR.