Sunday, November 28, 2004

Undervalued: Self-control and Restraint

As the title of this entry indicates, two other qualities I value are self-control and restraint.
I did not always value these. When I was a young man, I considered them almost irresponsible. I felt it a duty of an intelligent, thinking adult to take strong positions on social movement.
Today I could still argue that it is a responsibility of the intellectual to espouse extreme positions, because they inevitably will be watered down by society.
Taking that view, it becomes a badge of honor to offend.
Looking around, I can see evidence that many share that intellectual position: Firearms advocates, some rappers, talk-radio hosts, gay-marriage proponents, those on both sides of the abortion issue, etc.
And yet, more and more I see the value of finding common ground, of looking for positions that I share with people I consider my philosophical "foes". And it's hard to find common ground when you are haunting the extremes.
Let's look at a few of the issues I mentioned just above.
I'll start with firearms, because that's an issue where the extreme positions offend me. I no more consider it a basic right to carry a gun than I consider it appropriate for a 5-year-old to drive a car or engage in sexual activity.
And yet, while I would guess that better than 90% of my fellow citizens would agree with me on the rights of small children, I know that, even among my close associates, views of gun control are widely varied.
To many, the second amendment of the US Constitution symbolizes a right to personal freedom that is threatened by any attempt to legislate controls.
Does that position make sense?
I think it's important to look at the firearms issue from many angles.
I would guess, for example, that a majority of us support the rights of hunters to shoot for sport. I would guess most of us believe equally strongly that use of firearms in commission of crime is a deadly wrong.
So given this strong common ground, why is it so difficult to craft firearms legislation that satisfies both the imperatives embodied in both of these statements?
Looking at a less emotionally-charged issue, I would guess that most American adults believe driving a car to be a basic right. And yet we accept without discussion limits on that freedom: We support licensing of drivers, the minimum age requirement, and the stripping of licenses from drunken drivers.
Why is the situation so different for firearms?
We seem to have been driven to the extremes despite the fact that I suspect a majority of us would support a middle-ground solution: Licensing of firearm owners, a minimum age and proficiency requirement, background checks to ensure that a prospective licensee does not have a record of using a firearm in commission of a crime.
Is the right to gun ownership so much more basic than the right to drive that we should support licensing for the one but no restrictions on the other?
I can understand the worries of those who believe that any restrictions on gun ownership are the start of a "slippery slope" that leads to a total ban -- I tend to feel the same way about restrictions on abortion rights, an issue that similarly polarizes people.
Proponents of gun control need to open a dialogue that truly reassures gun-rights advocates that they understand and support the use of firearms by licensed adults for sporting activities, for home and personal protection, and other reasonable purposes that take the sting out of licensing requirements.
How do we do that?
I'm going to have to spend some time working through that issue.
But I believe here -- and I'll include both gun ownership and abortion in this statement -- that the intellectually satisfactory solution is one that argues for reasonable restrictions.
Self-control and restraint are both qualities we strive to teach our children (Remember that I believe my most important designation is as a parent). The best way to teach is by example. We can begin to set the example for teaching self-control and restraint by looking at our position on the controversial issues of firearms, abortion, and other emotionally ripe issues.
I'll have much more to say on this.