Fool responsibility

One word that gun control advocates love is responsibility.  I’m frequently told that limits on magazine capacity, on design features, and on quantities of ammunition a person can buy are examples of holding gun owners responsible.  But this is a dangerous distortion of the word itself and of our status in society.

Our word, responsible, comes from medieval French and ultimately from the Latin word that also gives us “respond.”  The concept here is being answerable or accountable for something.  The association of this word with notions of trustworthiness came in the late seventeenth century.

We hear this word all too often in the speeches of politicians who tell us in practiced tones of remorse that they take responsibility—or full responsibility—for something that has drawn the unwanted attention of voters.  Take as an example of this Hillary Clinton’s statement of responsibility regarding her e-mail server.  In cases such as that, I have to wonder what is meant by taking responsibility.  Sometimes, the politician will resign or drop out of the race, but as Clinton illustrates, the typical attitude is that we are supposed to return a show of forgiveness for a show of guilt and let the matter go.  Responsibility in her case apparently doesn’t include taking herself out of the running because of what she admits was a mistake.

As George Orwell observed decades ago in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” our communication is debased for many political reasons, commonly to blind us to wrongdoing or to sweep us along into a belief in the inevitability of a candidate’s winning office.  Does this abuse translate into ordinary usage?

During the holidays of late fall and early winter, we’re reminded by sellers of alcoholic beverages to drink responsibly.  As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the history of adult drinks in this country has parallels with attempts at regulating firearms.  In the example here, the word, responsibility, sounds like language inspired by lawyers precisely for the purpose of avoiding being held responsible for the actions of others.  Our litigious culture has obliged many to adopt various formulae to reinforce what should be obvious—fundamentally, one person is not responsible for the actions of another.

Certainly, we can say that if I hand car keys to someone who is stumbling about and reeks of bourbon, I share some of the fault if he goes out driving and causes death.  But a brewer or distiller that sells their product honestly—the label says exactly what’s in the bottle—to adults who aren’t in any way disturbing the peace has engaged in a finished transaction.  What the buyers do later is entirely their own choice.

But how can we be held accountable for what we haven’t done yet?  The word that ought to be used regarding the ownership or use of products that bring with them an element of risk is wisdom.  The same is true about the exercise of rights.  Limiting what we are capable of doing isn’t responsibility.  This is especially the case when the possible uses are many and most of those will harm no innocent person.  Telling me that ten rounds is the most I’m allowed to have in a magazine is not asking for responsibility from me.  Nor is it an example of asking for wisdom.

The problem from the perspective of those who wish greater control is that wisdom is hard, if not impossible, to mandate.  We can punish people for their bad acts and take steps toward making them pay back for the harms they’ve done.  By contrast, we can only state what we believe is wise in our exercise or use and leave people free to choose for themselves what they will do.  The essence of gun control is a suspicion of freedom, a belief that people have to be steered by their betters into making approved decisions.  When we understand this, we can see that their usage of “responsibility” is in fact a wholesale rejection of what the word means.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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