H. L. Mencken, America’s greatest writer of popular non-fiction c. 1910-1940 (George Santayana being the nation’s greatest producer of elitist non-fiction prose during that period), was never impressed with the broad run of journalism or politics. He scorned the usual manner of reform as “Uplift,” and denied that it did much actual lifting up.
This you can witness in this criticism of gun control, from the 1920’s. In “The Uplifters Try It Again” (Baltimore’s The Evening Sun, November 30, 1925), Mencken demonstrates his understanding of what law and its enforcement is, actually, rather than the fairy dust version promoted by his competition in the word biz.
This essay is worth studying. Mencken takes something familiar to us even unto this day, and shines some light:
“Crime statistics,” it appears, “show that 90% of the murders that take place are committed by the use of the pistol, and every year there are hundreds of cases of accidental homicide because someone did not know that his revolver was loaded.” The new law — or is it to be a constitutional amendment? — will do away with all that. “It will not be easy,” of course, “to draw a law that will permit exceptions for public officers and bank guards”—to say nothing of Prohibition agents and other such legalized murderers. “But soon even these officials may get on without revolvers.”
As elsewhere, his contempt for the journalist-as-savior is obvious. Mencken considered most journalists messianic mountebanks — just as were most politicians. Actually, the passage under attack hailed from The Nation, a magazine he praises in the general. But in this essay he takes as an exception, for, as he sees it, it is a grand example of a lapse at The Nation:
Ever and anon, in the midst of its most eloquent and effective pleas for Liberty, its eye wanders weakly toward Law. At such moments the old lust to lift ’em up overcomes it, and it makes a brilliant and melodramatic ass of itself. Such a moment was upon it when it printed the paragraph that I have quoted. Into that paragraph — of not over 200 words — it packed as much maudlin and nonsensical blather, as much idiotic reasoning and banal moralizing, as Dr. Coolidge gets into a speech of two hours’ length.
It is obvious that Mencken had mastered the invective. (I quote only a few snippets, even from this one essay.) But what of his argument? He has one. “The new law,” he writes, would have but one “single and sole effect”:
to exaggerate enormously all of the evils it proposes to put down. It would not take pistols out of the hands of rogues and fools; it would simply take them out of the hands of honest men. The gunman today has great advantages everywhere. He has artillery in his pocket, and he may assume that, in the large cities, at least two-thirds of his prospective victims are unarmed. But if the Nation’s proposed law (or amendment) were passed and enforced, he could assume safely that all of them were unarmed.
Mencken was the chief critic of mere “good intentions” of his day. And he saw the problem everywhere, for there are what we now call “unintended consequences.”
The real victim of moral legislation is always the honest, law-abiding, well-meaning citizen — what the late William Graham Sumner called the Forgotten Man. Prohibition makes it impossible for him to take a harmless drink, cheaply and in a decent manner. In the same way the Harrison Act puts heavy burdens upon the physician who has need of prescribing narcotic drugs for a patient, honestly and for good ends. But the drunkard still gets all the alcohol that he can hold, and the drug addict is still full of morphine and cocaine. By precisely the same route the Nation’s new law would deprive the reputable citizen of the arms he needs for protection, and hand them over to the rogues that he needs protection against.
This is a logical position. It is still controversial, however.
Recently, on Facebook, I linked to a graph on unbiasedAmerica.com:
I framed the graphed information in this manner:
Perspective helps. Which is one reason I don’t think anyone, right or left, should be talking about chucking constitutional rights right after a still comparatively rare shooting.
A friend of mine, a journalist, responded:
Who’s talking about chucking the second amendment? That’s an invention of the NRA. All the serious suggestions I’ve seen are for things like waiting periods, background checks, linking databases, studies, gun safety equipment, and so on. It’s akin to someone in the 1970s saying, “What do you mean all cars must come with seat belts? Everyone! They’re trying to outlaw cars!”
Why is it OK to have traffic laws, food safety laws, zoning laws, rules for air traffic controllers, law enforcement officers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, while gun ownership must be the one area where there can be no rules at all? There seems to be some kind of collective hypnosis on several areas in the U.S., but this one is the most baffling to me.
I reacted, briefly, in a number of ways, and friends and followers on Facebook leaped to respond, as well. First, about the Second Amendment:
Lots of people talk about getting rid of it. Most are a tad quiet right now, and cover their beliefs, because after Heller, it is “not serious” to go all the way.
We have plenty of gun rules right now, and most of them are not very effective. For obvious reasons.
And yet I do not think those obvious reasons are very obvious to my critic. He wanted to make the context regulation in general, of which he is an enthusiast, while I tried to steer the discussion back to the topic of crime stats and secular trends, especially now that gun crimes are going down, over the long run:
Much of quality regulation is security theater, and much of it was enacted not to improve quality but to reduce competition. There is an extensive economic literature on this subject.
I don’t believe everything the government tells me. Much of what it does, even in good intent, goes horribly wrong — see the War on Drugs, for example.
I went on, saying that “We have actual gun warfare in cities where they [guns] are illegal,” to which my friend responded with a correction:
There are no U.S. cities I know of where guns are illegal. Some do have strict restrictions, which is what I think you’re referring to. But those cities take those measures for a reason, precisely because they’re so violent. Study after study says Chicago, for example, would be even more violent without the restrictions, and that the guns used there come from other parts of the country with more laissez faire gun laws. Chicago can’t control its borders the way a country can.
My friend will not mention, apparently, that the violence in those cities is almost wholly a factor of African-American poverty and the War on Drugs. The idea that these unnamed “studies after studies” can accurately predict the counterfactual strikes me as absurd. There is a lot of evidence to the contrary, for example (again) the secular trends in America outside our hellhole inner city bastions of chaos and “welfare.” What is the trend? As guns increase in private hands, violence goes down. At the very least, all violence has gone down.
But more importantly, there is what gun controls actually do: prevent some people, who are law-abiding, from acquiring, owning, or carrying guns, while letting some others do so, because of special privilege or because they have special connections. Or because they go outside the law to obtain the weapons they want.
Recently in Britain, an MP was shot. Though there was a lot of hysterical political manipulating of the story, I saw not one example of a big deal being made of gun control. Why not? Oh, right: Britain already has gun control — a sweeping crackdown that did, in fact, take guns out of private hands — and yet the malefactor somehow had a gun.
Consider the tale of John Stossel, who tried to exercise his right of self-defense by personal armament — that is, get “permission” (which is something a person with rights does not need — in New York. He was insulted, sent through a Kafkaesque paperwork nightmare, given the runaround, made to cough up fees, and provide an essay why he needed to carry a sidearm.
The fact that he regularly got death threats from leftists was not enough. He was denied.
It is only the extremely well-connected who get such permits. In New York. Or Chicago. Which leaves only criminals and high mucky-mucks able to defend themselves. (People like Trump and Hillary.)
Why my friend does not see this — why he does not get that regulation such as he wants does not have the univocal effect that he supposes; why he does not recognize that regulations like this have been around for a long, long time, and have been ineffective; why he does not see them as inadvertently (?) racist and elitist at core, I do not know.
He is a journalist. A successful one. Respected. I expect such people to be skeptical at heart. But they are only selectively, as I challenged him:
If the government licensed journalists, regulated who could and could not blog, or require waiting time for background checks before writing about politics, I would hope you would have the sense to see how these regulations infringed on the First Amendment.
He did not respond to this challenge, other than say he was glad not to live in America any longer. Or recognize that the failures of one set of gun “controls,” when they lead to worse conditions (as they always do), only snooker the credulous into believing that more regulation is necessary. And thus laws multiply. And, as Tacitus and other ancients made clear, the more the laws, the more corrupt the state.
As John Stossel noted in his program devoted to idiotic regulation, after he failed to get a concealed carry permit, the system that “regulates” such activities was shown to be corrupt — cops even went to jail. A week after our Facebook exchange, this news story hit the wires:
Yes, an outspoken and politically powerful California politician, well known for his anti-gun (I mean, “reasonable gun control”) advocacy, was caught in the underground gun-running business. Transporting the very kind of guns he said “shouldn’t exist.”
Talk about Bootleggers and Baptists! In Leland Yee, they were one and the same!
Just like in the War on Drugs, the War on Guns leads to more violence, more death of innocents, and a culture of corruption, in politics and policing.
I understand why not very bright common folk — Mencken’s “booboisie” — might think gun control would work. But why would a smart, skeptical journalist be so snookered? It stretches the credulity.
Oh, until you recall Mencken and his criticisms of his own industry, of the messiah complexes of too many journalists. Then it all makes sense, I guess.
If you have not read Mencken before, the essay discussed here is a good start. But there is a great wealth of writing by him available, and most of it is great. Try A Mencken Chrestomathy, or the Prejudices.
I wrote a foreword to an early book of his, available, I think, on iTunes, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, as ebooks. It may not be the best place to start in the Menckenian oeuvre, but it surely provides a key to his life mission, and his character: