“Harrison Bergeron” is a short story by Kurt Vonnegut that’s often taught in literature classes. The title character is a handsome, athletic, talented, and physically powerful man living in a society where equality matters more than anything else, to the point that it’s enforced by physically handicapping anyone with superior traits or abilities. The beautiful are made ugly, the strong made weak, the intelligent made stupid, and so on.
One day, Harrison Bergeron breaks free of all of his handicaps and threatens to become a tyrannical dictator. “I am the Emperor,” he exclaims on national TV. “Everybody must do what I say at once!" Whereupon the government’s Handicapper General steps in with a shotgun and shoots him dead.
Millions of high school and college students have been taught to see this story as an allegory about communism and its enforced comradeship on an ideologically level playing field. They’ve learned that social “equality” is a lie exposed when the government stamps out a people’s uprising by bringing in firepower that only the government can legally possess.
Millions of Gundamentalists will look at that explanation and nod emphatically — See? That’s what we’ve been talking about all along. Can’t let the government be the only one to own guns, because this is what will happen.
But it’s not that simple, because there are two parties involved in the conflict. The government owns the gun that is the great equalizer, but a deranged tyrant who represents the people is prepared to throw those people into a system even more oppressive than the one they’re in.
Had he not been stopped, who knows what the self-proclaimed Emperor tyrant might have done. He could have been a horrible racist and ordered that 600 black men be given syphilis injections without their knowledge. Or that 75,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry be relocated to military internment camps without being charged for a specific offense. Or that 6,000 poor white hillfolk be involuntarily sterilized to prevent unwanted “feebleminded” offspring.
Or he might have decreed, in the name of science, that 800 poor white expectant mothers must unknowingly ingest radioactive iron, so that their in utero babies could become experiments to see if and when the isotope breached the placenta. And further ordered that half a million citizens, both military and civilian, must participate in nuclear tests and have the health effects of the tests kept secret or deliberately understated.
Maybe he just would have ordered the passage of corporate-drafted midnight legislation that circumvents every process by which laws should be crafted in public view, for public comment. Or signed a National Defense Authorization Act allowing 300 million citizens to be detained indefinitely, without charge, in annihilation of their Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.
All of those examples are real-life American tyranny in action. And all of them constitute some scary-ass crazy shit that should never be allowed to happen in a democracy. But do we blame “the government” for the tyranny, or the individual people (i.e. men) who made the calls, signed the orders, wrote the laws? At what point does an elected citizen, or a recruited soldier, shed identity and responsibility as an individual and become The Government?
Maybe the questions are purely academic, and that’s why a look at any gun forum online finds hundreds of thousands of patriots worrying, not about divisions between the individual and the state, but about creeping tyranny. They worry, not because it could happen, but because it’s been happening.
On that point, I have no argument with any of my fellow gun owners on the hard-right side of the opinion spectrum.
But if I add that I choose to have faith in my country just a little while longer, that I can still hope for the best while preparing for what I see as a slim possibility of the worst, that I’ll hold off on joining the Condo Commando platoon for now, I meet sneers and derision from the hardcore gun crowd, many of whom are happily preparing for a preferably impending worst — to actively wish for it, so that they can lead their troops into a long-fantasized battle that they will surely lose.
God forbid that rational gun owners suggest becoming allies in working together to smash indefinite detention laws and government annihilations of privacy. Throw the word “rational” (or its evil twin, “responsible”) into any conversation, and my Gundamentalist brothers and sisters hear “restrict” and “repeal” instead. Then they respond with this kind of online reply, offered to a mother who admitted that guns made her fear for her children:
If you somehow manage to repeal the second amendment and take away our natural right to own a weapon, do you not understand that we will respond with appropriate force? Don’t you understand that the military is on our side? Don’t you realize that federal agents and cops won’t enforce your wanna-be tyrant wishes? For now, we fight with words, votes, and emails. But know this: you are a kitten tugging on a lion’s tail, and one day our conscience will call us to put aside our immense restraint—and your petty god complex will find real and tragic consequences.
A moment of analysis is called for here. Besides threatening to kill a mother who shared her fears—not to kill her now, of course, because he’s being patient, but to kill her later when God calls him to launch his wet dream of a civil war — Colonel Comment has fallen into a pit of contradiction triggered by careless definition:
He needs his military rifles and his hoarded cache of maximum-damage ammo because the government is coming to take his guns.
Yet he claims to have the military and police on his side.
So who’s coming, exactly?
500 mostly-geriatric members of Congress? Nine Supreme Court Justices? The Attorney General? The President?
The black-clad secret storm troopers of the United Nations, because the Colonel’s police and military allies will just lay down their arms and let a mixed battalion from Portugal, Pakistan, and Peru take over the United States?
There it is again: the need to distinguish between a government and a group of specific individuals.
Frankly, it’s awe-inspiring that less than two percent of the individuals making up the American population—represented by a “grass roots” organization led by a millionaire shill for the gun industry who’s either certifiably insane or just a brilliant actor — can hold the United States government hostage to its will. What the NRA has done to the nation, and to all of us whether we own guns or not, will go down in history as a model for staging the world’s bloodiest slow-motion coup d’état.
All it takes is one individual government representative, at any level between an obscure town council member and the White House press secretary, mentioning guns in anything less than glowing terms, and the NRA’s goals are instantly fulfilled. Every military-style rifle and customizing part gets bought up the moment it comes off the factory line. Every round of ammunition in the nation sells out overnight. Prices for everything skyrocket, and the armament industry falls to its knees in adoration and gratitude.
For nine months after the December 2012 kindergarten massacre in Connecticut, I couldn’t find a single .22 or .38 bullet for sale south of the Canadian border. I could find plenty of it above the border, i.e. in Canada, but going up there to get it and bring it back to the States would require paperwork and permissions — those unforgivable invasions of privacy and displays of government “nanny state” interference that Americans simply will not tolerate. Up yours, Canada, we don’t need your stinkin’ ammunition.
A country with more than a quarter-billion guns, 89 guns per hundred people, and not a single goddamned bullet to be found because the paranoid hoarders convinced by the NRA that they’d never be able to buy another round —
— were guaranteeing that no one else could ever buy another round.
The rest of the gun-owning community would just have to sit there with empty guns and wait while the madman militia stocked itself to the bursting point with more rounds of ammo than any civilized society ever purchased in peacetime. The earth would split into chunks of melted asteroid before those rounds were spent, but by God, one of those chunks would have an Everest of metal ammo cans stacked up on it from some asshole’s fallout shelter, and those cans would say MADE IN THE U.S.A. on their sides as the rock hurtled through space. Greatest and grandest to the end.
Luckily, there were no tyrants or governments that needed stopping, or we’d all have been screwed.