Yep, change the subject!
How does a man who entered the White House vowing to restore science to its proper place tell us that gun control is the answer to terrorism?
After all, California already has strict gun control, as does France, which just had its second terrorist massacre this year. Not to mention that the one time when terrorists with assault rifles and body armor were foiled, it was because an off-duty traffic cop in Garland, Texas, was carrying a gun—and used it to shoot the two heavily armed Islamists before they could kill anyone.
Or that “common sense gun control” would have done nothing to stop Richard Reid (the unsuccessful shoe-bomber); the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston (pressure cookers) or the 9/11 hijackers (box-cutters). Maybe the president should be demanding common sense pressure-cooker control.
Yet while the critiques of the president’s antigun pitch are correct, they are also beside the point. Because liberal calls for gun control aren’t about keeping guns from bad guys. It’s what you talk about so you don’t have to talk about the reality of Islamist terror. And focusing on the weaponry is part of a liberal argument that dates to the Cold War, when calls for arms control were likewise used to avoid addressing the ugly reality of communism.
Understand this, and you understand why Senate Democrats reacted to San Bernardino by putting forth antigun legislation. Why the New York Times ran a gun control editorial on its front page, and the Daily News used its own cover to feature the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre underneath San Bernardino killer Syed Farook—labeling them both terrorists. And why President Obama used Sunday night’s address to whine about those resisting his call for gun measures that would not have stopped any of the shooters.
Put simply, today’s liberalism cannot deal with the reality of evil. So liberals inveigh against the instruments the evil use rather than the evil that motivates them.
Not that there aren’t measures society can embrace to keep the innocent from being shot and killed. The best example may be New York City from 2002-13, during Ray Kelly’s last stint as police commissioner, when the NYPD was bringing the murder rate to record lows through America’s most effective gun-control program: stop-and-frisk.
This was gun control for bad guys, under the theory that when you take guns away from bad people—or at least make them afraid to carry guns on the street—you reduce shootings. But it was savaged by liberals. Because they don’t want just the bad guys’ guns. They want yours.
So they demonize guns while fighting approaches that try to identify threats, whether from mentally ill individuals such as Adam Lanza, who went on a murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, or terrorists such as Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. Surely the key to distinguishing between the millions of law-abiding Muslims and those who mean us harm is intelligence.
Nevertheless, the urge to blame the weapon has deep liberal roots. It was particularly pronounced in the latter years of the Cold War when Ronald Reagan was president.
Even as Reagan was applying the pressure that would ultimately bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989—from arming the Afghan resistance to supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement to rebuilding America’s defenses—liberals derided him as a warmonger. Two things especially irked them: He’d called the U.S.S.R. the Evil Empire, and he was skeptical about arms control for the sake of arms control.
So when the Gipper walked away from the 1986 Reykjavik summit because Mikhail Gorbachev insisted his price for a nukes deal was the end of missile defense, Reagan was derided as a dunce. But his decision proved one of his finest moments: Scarcely a year later the Soviets caved and Mr. Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Bad regimes are like bad guys in this respect. They’ll take a deal they know has no teeth. But they will accept a genuine arms reduction only when the good guys put them in a position where they have little or no choice.
This helps explain why, for example, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi turned over his entire nuclear program to George W. Bush—and why the Iranians happily agreed to a deal with President Obama that puts them on the path to a bomb.
Meanwhile, we’ve just endured what may be the first successful ISIS-inspired attack on the homeland. And like her former boss, Hillary Clinton is demanding the government “take action now” on guns.
Back and forth it goes. Instead of debating the antiterror policy of the past seven years—the wisdom of ending the National Security Agency’s metadata program, whether ISIS can be knocked out without any ground troops, how the lack of nerve on Syria fed this mess, or whether Islamist terror can be defeated so long as our leaders refuse to call it by its rightful name—we’re all arguing over gun control.
Then again, if you were Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton, isn’t this the debate you’d prefer?
Write to McGurn@wsj.com