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Shotgun News, February 1, 2006, pp. 28-29

"The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good"

I received a letter from a reader a while back complaining that the various columnists who write for Shotgun News never have anything bad to say about George Bush. I confess--while I have written a few columns that have criticized some of President Bush's actions, you won't find a lot of columns by me attacking him. This isn't because I am 100% happy with him--but because of that phrase at the top of the column--one that I am sure that you have seen before.

Voltaire (a writer of whom I don't generally think very highly) made this observation a couple of centuries ago. In brief, it means that if you insist on getting a perfect solution to a problem, you will likely end up with something that can't be implemented. A perfect handgun weighs nothing, has no recoil, a ten-inch barrel for high accuracy, and a 30 round magazine. Oh yes, the barrel retracts when not in use to one inch long, so it fits in your pocket. You can wait for someone to make the perfect handgun--but in the meantime, you will be unarmed. It is better to have an imperfect handgun with which to defend yourself, than to wait for a handgun that may take centuries to develop.

The same thing is true in politics--and human foibles are even more of a limiting factor than engineering compromises. During the 2000 election campaign, President Bush said the right things about the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms--and the wrong things about assault weapons. Some gun rights activists were very upset with Bush about this, and insisted that they would not vote for him for that reason. But what, realistically, was the alternative? Al Gore--who said the wrong thing about not only assault weapons, but the Second Amendment, and the right to keep and bear arms, as well. Our choice was someone who seemed to be partly on our side, and someone who was completely against us.

In 2003 and 2004, when gun control advocates were trying to get the 1994 federal assault weapons ban renewed, President Bush kept insisting that he would sign such a bill, if it ever reached his desk. Again, gun rights activists with rather short memories decided that this made Bush the enemy of gun owners. But while Bush said that he would sign an assault weapons ban renewal bill--oddly enough, he never got the chance. Republicans in the House of Representatives made sure that this never happened. I rather suspect that Bush shed no tears about this.

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency prohibited refugees from possessing guns within a trailer and RV park known as "FEMA City."1 After some complaints and threats of legal action, FEMA backed down from this absurd and unconstitutional demand.2 I've had readers suggest that Bush is the enemy of gun owners because of FEMA's actions. While I don't want to suggest that President Bush is never responsible for the actions of his underlings, let's be realistic--it's a big government, with more than a million employees. I rather doubt that President Bush knows what each and every worker in the federal beehive is doing.

Do you remember the "negligent marketing" lawsuits against handgun manufacturers? In the second Clinton Administration, Smith & Wesson actually caved into lawsuits filed by local governments around the country and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. There was reason to think that if the cost of defending these ridiculous lawsuits continued, the rest of the handgun industry was in danger of either going out of business, or making the same deal that Smith & Wesson had--which would have largely ended sales of handguns to civilians.

If you haven't been following this matter, these lawsuits have ceased to be a problem. Why? Because shortly after President Bush took office, the federal government stopped assisting in these lawsuits. This year, after an enormous struggle, Congress passed a law that declared that if a gun works, and is criminally misused, it is not the fault of the manufacturer, wholesaler, or retailer. If you think that President Bush isn't sufficiently on the side of gun owners, ask yourself what the situation would be today if Al Gore had won the 2000 election.

Let me repeat myself: the perfect is the enemy of the good. It would have been very satisfying to see President Bush, during either the 2000 or 2004 campaigns, give a passionate defense of the right of the people to keep and bear arms, explain that assault weapon misuse was grossly exaggerated, and that such weapons are the category most clearly protected by the Second Amendment. It would have been exhilarating, positively giddy to watch--much like going to a party and having a few too many drinks. The day after the election of President Gore or President Kerry would have been the hangover.

I know that many gun rights activists don't like to hear this, but much of the population only grudgingly supports the right to keep and bear arms. You win elections by getting all the following groups into the same line:

  • principled supporters of the Second Amendment;
  • people who hate "assault weapons" (but aren't sure what they are) but recognize that handguns, hunting rifles, and shotguns are okay;
  • people who hunt (but don't much like handguns or assault weapons);
  • people who think hunting is barbaric--but insist on the right to defend themselves from predators.
  • Highly principled defenders of a position are important, but they usually do not win national elections.

    Gun rights activists need to start thinking about the 2006 election. In most Congressional races, there won't be much of a contest. Members of Congress who choose to run for re-election are pretty much guaranteed to still be there in 2007. If possible, you need to be involved in the primary elections--in whichever political party you have registered. There are pro-gun Democrats out there, and there are anti-gun Republicans, too, and we really want the pro-gun candidates to win the primary elections. The ideal general election is one where voters get to choose from a pro-gun Democrat and a pro-gun Republican. (I live in Idaho--many voters here get to choose between two candidates, both A-rated by the NRA.)

    If you don't have the time or energy to be actively involved in a campaign, or getting to know the candidates, pay attention to NRA ratings and endorsements. When NRA surveys candidates for public office, they are looking at more than just this campaign's speeches--they are looking at previous votes by a candidate--and they are often in a position to know what someone really thinks when the microphones are turned off. There are some wily politicians out there who tell the masses what they want to hear--but in private, admit on which side they stand. If NRA endorses Ms. X for a Congressional seat--even if Ms. X isn't as strongly pro-gun as Mr. Y--it is either because Mr. Y doesn't stand a chance of getting elected, or Ms. X is a lot more pro-gun in private than she dares to be in front of a bunch of reporters.

    In the 2006 elections, we need to look carefully at our choices--and not let "the perfect be the enemy of the good."

    1 Susan Jones, "Guns Banned at 'FEMA City' Outside Baton Rouge,", October 10, 2005., last accessed December 21, 2005.
    2 National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, "FEMA Changes Gun Policy in Temporary

    Housing Units in Louisiana," October 24, 2005,, last accessed December 21, 2005.