Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Rising Power, Part 1: Understanding the "Third Side" in the Long Gun Registry Debate

I've been following the “debate” (largely in the media) regarding the abolition of the long gun registry here in Canada. I've been much more interested in the debate itself than its outcome, as it's been really interesting to watch some of the tactics which have been employed by all sides to the debate. I was about to write “both” sides there, instead of “all”, but caught myself. That's because I believe, based on what I've been seeing, that there's another point of view which has started to creep into mainstream Canadian politics, albeit in a confusing sort of way.

The Registry Debate: The Usual Cases Against the Registry

The long gun debate has largely been fought by those for the registry (albeit in many cases, for working to improve the registry) and for those who want it abolished. It's in the case made by those who want to see the registry dead that I think we are beginning to hear more from a third group of Canadians, who are staunchly opposed to the registry.

Typically, opposition to the registry has coalesced around two issues. One is the economic issue (“the registry is a waste of money” either now, or in the past, or both). The other is a little more subtle and difficult to explain, but largely has to do with the notion that long gun ownership is a part of a rural-based Canadian heritage in which law-abiding long gun owners are being treated as second class citizens for having to register guns and/or are misunderstood by an urban, anti-gun “elite”.

It's easy to see why the Conservatives would oppose the registry, given the above arguments. As the Conservatives like to claim that they're the party best suited to fiscally manage the country (despite significant evidence to the contrary), it's plain to see that the economic argument holds traction with the party. Further, since the Conservatives power base is in rural Canada, again it's sensible that the Cons would be against something which is a perceive threat to rural lifestyles.

The NDP fell victim to the rural/urban split within its own caucus, which supplied fodder for the media (and the Conservative Party) over the past few weeks. At the end of the day, the NDP looked extremely silly and incoherent, having most of its members vote in favour of keeping the registry, while some other members did not. This after a few agonizing weeks of watching individual NDP MP's explain to the media why their flip-flop on the vote was “principled”. Some of these verbal contortions of reality made for an interesting read, but at the end of the day, this handful of rural NDP MP's were needed to save the registry, which was the outcome that Jack Layton wanted and needed.

The point here is that the NDP fell victim to the second main argument put forth by gun registry foes, that about rural lifestyle and tradition.

A New Reason: the "Third Side" Enters the Debate

What I noticed in the online debate is that a third reason for killing the registry was being proffered by Canadians, and started to pick up some real legs in the mainstream media. It even elicited some brief comments from MP's. It's this “third side” of the argument against the registry which I found to be the most interesting, and one which Greens need to be aware of. Greens need to understand where this argument is ultimately coming from, not because of the long gun registry, but so that we can better understand why an increasing number of Canadians do not share our values, or in some cases, the values of the other mainstream Canadian political parties.

As far as the long gun registry debate went, the “third side” put forward the following argument in opposition to keeping the registry. You may have read about this as well. Concerns were being raised by some that, if the government knows that you have a long gun or guns, because you have been legally forced to register those guns, it will be easier in the future for the government to confiscate those guns from you. Some commentators pointed to what's happened in Britain and Australia to support this argument (although I haven't looked into whether history in the UK or Australia supports these claims).

These anti-government “third side” arguments were often dismissed as being from paranoid people who fear the government for whatever reasons (such as involvement in criminal activities). Even during the long gun debate, people who opposed the registry were, in some cases, quick to call out supporters of the “third side” argument. And in some cases, third side commentators lashed out at other anti-registry foes, calling them “government dupes” or “puppets of the ruling Conservative Party”. I sincerely wish that I had kept references to some of these comments so that I could provide them to you here, but I haven't, and therefore you may take my analysis with a grain of salt. But it's what I saw.

"Third Side" Concerns

So you have some people out there in the blogosphere who are concerned that the gun registry might actually make life easier for the government to ultimately confiscate legally owned guns from private citizens. Clearly, they have part of point: if all guns are registered in a government directory, it would be easier for the government to show up on your doorstep and demand you make available all of your legally owned weapons. It's the second part where things might fall apart for some people: why on earth would the government want to confiscate legally owned guns?

Supporters of the “third side” argument were often not clear about this, in many cases writing as if the reason was self-evident. I'm sure that to many commentators it's very clear and obvious why the government would want to take away their guns, even if its not at all clear to many of the rest of us. It might be easy to dismiss anti-government commentators as being paranoid and involved in conspiracy theories, but it would be imprudent to do so. Especially for Greens.

There has been a growing anti-government movement throughout the world in the last decade. In the past, if you were involved in an anti-government movement in the United States or even Canada, you may have belonged to some sort of rural survivalist militia, living off the grid, stocking guns and ammo for a time when it was needed. In the U.S., many people are very familiar with the notion of upholding and protecting the Constitution at all costs, and especially that part of the Constitution which refers to protecting the nation from all threats, foreign and domestic. For some people, it's no great leap of faith to believe that enemies of the state may be the very same people voters elect to high office, especially since, seen through a particular and increasing popular lens, the actions of the state have brought significant disaster to the state itself.

What's changed in the past decade or so is that these points of view are no longer limited to the ultra-right wing gun-toting survivalists (ok, admittedly, they never were: the left also produced its own anti-government agitators, who likely received more press, but were less apt to quote the U.S. Constitution as source material for their anti-government rationale). Today, anti-government sentiment is starting to go mainstream, thanks in part to the internet. What's also starting to happen is that people are getting confused about where and with whom they might actually stand on specific issues, as right wing political parties and the mainstream media have started to capitalize on this dissension. And here I clearly am referring to the rise of Tea Party politics in the United States.

But the Tea Party is not speak with a coherent voice, despite the fact that the right-wing has been trying to harness their energies. Indeed, there are many within the Tea Party movement who have expressed dismay that elements within the Republican Party have been trying to co-opt the movement. Wasn't the Tea Party, after all, intended to have an anti-establishment focus?

A Canadian Context

Now, you may be saying, “Sure, Steve; but that's in the States. What does this have to do with Canada?”. Well, as much as Liberals, the NDP and Greens demonize the Conservative Party of Canada as being the Republican Party of Canada, the truth is more subtle and not nearly as monolithic. There are certainly elements within the Conservative Party who would be quite comfortable joining the Republicans if they ended up south of the border, or even joining the Tea Party movement. And many of those elements have risen to positions of power. But the Conservative Party, like all other parties, is comprised of people who hold dissenting views. Recall that the Conservatives came together as a result of a “merger” between the Canadian Alliance (formerly Reform) and the Progressive Conservative parties. To this day there remain some progressive voices in Conservative Party, in some cases as a result of history, and perhaps for reasons related to desiring to be in power as well.

What you're not likely to hear from Conservatives, who are currently governing this country, is that the government has any intention of confiscating people's guns. It's one thing to want to kill the registry in the name of economic or rural tradition arguments. It's another thing completely to postulate that the registry creates a tool which the government can use to seize private property, and particularly that property which citizens might otherwise use to defend themselves from agents of the government (such as the police or whoever they might be).

Lessons for Greens

One of the lessons which Greens need to take away from the long gun registry debate is that the voices of the “third side”, which may be variously (and incorrectly, I believe) labelled as “anti-government” or “libertarian” are starting to receive some attention in the mainstream media. Certainly an increasing number of people are starting to raise their voices in this way, believing that they have a civic duty to get their message out. These people have looked around at the world, scratched their heads because they don't understand how our governments could have got us into the mess that we're in, and instead of incompetence, they see something a little sinister.

Why knowing this is important for Greens is that many who are starting to subscribe to this “sinister motive” approach are put climate change and the rise of Green politics on the “sinister” side of the ledger. It's something that I think we need to be aware of, and maybe concerned about, as countering the "sinister motive" hypothesis isn't going to be easy. First, though, a better understanding of who these people are and what they believe in is essential, especially if you're going to be out knocking on doors for the next election campaign.

When you run into anti-government comments, it's best to question in your own head what is motivating the commenter? Are they dissatisfied with a current governing party, or are they dissatisfied with government in general? And if in general, why, specifically, are they concerned?

Depending on the individual, you may have a great opportunity to turn someone on to the Green Party. In some cases, though, you'll be completely wasting your time. A quick question back at the resident regarding whether they believe human-made climate change is actually just a government conspiracy might give you a quick answer, but I'm not sure that's the best way of approaching a potential voter at their door.


Rural said...

I think, I sort off, maybe, agree with you Steve! To put it succinctly it is about those who feel that our civil liberties and indeed our very democracy is at risk from the increasing “control” being exercised by governments and the decreasing “control” over their destiny being felt by the citizens. Despite focusing on such issues in my blog I am still not 100% sure whether it is real or perceived, but am never the less very concerned about the lack of real debate and consensus seeking on these and many other similar issues. It cannot be forgotten that rural Canadians are no less a minority than some other more vocal groups and are increasingly seeing their lifestyles and incomes under attack with little support from government. The gun thing is more of a symptom than the real issue.

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