American politics have long been rife with deployment of guns, large and small, so much so that this nation arguably was founded, shaped and advanced as much by ordnance as philosophy. So the debate, now current, at the State Capitol in St. Paul over whether legally armed citizens should be allowed in that building’s hallowed halls brandishing holstered side arms represents only the latest chapter in our history, not a new one.
Yet take comfort that dueling has fallen out of fashion.
History buffs will recall that on July 11, 1804, the sitting vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, and the nation’s former secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, resolved their long-running quarrels through the sights of Wogdon dueling pistols. When the air cleared — between them the two had participated in about a dozen previous duels — Hamilton lay mortally wounded, a murder for which Burr was later indicted, but never convicted — an important distinction, as Bill Murray reminded us in the movie “Stripes.’’
For perspective, note that Minnesota is one of only about a dozen states that allow handgun packing in their statehouses. Count Texas among these also, though curiously during a recent spat over abortion legislation there, guards at its Capitol confiscated tampons as possible threats to lawmakers’ safety, while waving through without worry our old pals Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. Go figure.
In Minnesota, where authorized handgun carriers must notify State Capitol security of their intent to carry at the statehouse, the issue is more clear-cut — kind of.
Here, gun advocates rightly make the point that certain among them have been approved by the state to carry handguns in public, and that the people’s chambers should not be exclusionary as a destination in which this right can be exercised.
Opponents, meanwhile, counter that firearms, whether concealed or exposed, lugged into the Capitol are intimidating, if not utterly wacky, and therefore undercut, or possibly undercut, the free exchange of competing ideas whose proper resolution is impossible when one side battles with words, while the other fights with words and, if only by their presence, our old friends Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.
As the novelist Chuck Palahniuk said, “Everyone smiles with that invisible gun to their head.’’
But there’s a bigger issue.
The Minnesota Capitol, a wondrous, historic structure now undergoing a $272 million facelift, is and always has been a fortress without protection. Most days there’s no guard at its doors, not even a moat or helium-filled balloon in the shape of a German shepherd.
Granted, it’s cool that schoolchildren and other gawkers can come and go freely without having their backpacks scanned and their shoes removed. But it’s not very smart policy, and it invites trouble, particularly at a time when, as the front page of this newspaper reports nearly daily, anything goes.
The point is, if we’re going to debate Capitol security, and propriety, then relativity of threats, and problems, should be considered.
Even if, as gun opponents assert (weakly), handgun carriers at the Capitol might gain undeserving consideration of some viewpoints, and/or might implicitly threaten opponents, thereby undermining the Capitol’s long-practiced decorum and even-handed consideration of divergent opinions, by far the greater worry among Capitol regulars and visitors should be that the building isn’t secure.
In this way, Minnesota’s most important structure presents itself to the public differently than most other major businesses (including the Star Tribune) and institutions (think courthouses) in the Twin Cities.
It’s this that should be of far greater concern to the citizenry and especially legislators than the statistically nonexistent “threat’’ posed by legal owners of legal guns legally carried, in the Capitol or elsewhere.
That said, gun advocates should know that the public’s good will on this issue is finite, that most people in this state don’t carry handguns, don’t want to carry handguns, and aren’t comfortable seeing others with handguns, perhaps especially in public meetings where fair play is expected to be — and must be — the governing principle.
So in the end, should handgun advocates insist their rights supersede all others in all instances, the salvo that could ring loudest from this debate is the sound of gun owners shooting themselves in the foot.
Burr did in fact outduel Hamilton.
But in the end, the onetime vice president of the United States ended up a political nobody who was later tried for treason and died in relative obscurity.
Hardly the victory he envisioned.