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COHEN: Liberals already lost the war on gun control

  • (LISA BENSON / Washington Post Writers Group)

Once, after I had written about gun control, a guy called to differ and said that had the Jews of Germany been armed, the Holocaust never would have happened. That assertion, so ahistorical as to be almost laughable, stopped me in my tracks because it went to the black heart of the gun control debate: It's not about guns. It's about the government.

It's about the government in two respects.

The first is the conviction that guns are needed to protect Americans from their own government. This fear — maybe paranoia is the better word — is embedded in the National Rifle Association's message and in the statements of its officials.

As the Washington Post recently reminded us, shortly before the 1995 bombing of a government office building in Oklahoma City (168 dead), Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, proclaimed that a recently enacted assault weapons ban gave “jackbooted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” He said nothing about pets and daughters.

The second way the gun control debate is about government relates to crime — the belief that the government is either unwilling or unable to protect us.

That this belief seems to have solidified at precisely a time when crime has diminished is both mysterious and frightening. Like almost everything else in America, it has to do with race and ethnicity and the vertiginous feeling that the country is no longer one big extended family but a collection of tribes.

Taken together, what we have is the cratering of liberalism, which is deeply associated with government — its growth, its utility.

All across the nation in recent days, political leaders have declared their intention to rein in guns, but all they have done actually is signal defeat. They have proposed this or that marginal program — something about magazines, something about bullets, something about background checks, something about assault rifles and maybe, just to be truly silly, something about mental health, as if the crazed shooter can be easily Rorschached. (James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora, Colo., shooter, had sought psychiatric help.)

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