Left and right must agree on this: Public order is the government’s job

Can we agree that though police and the criminal-justice system are imperfect, the alternative to a government monopoly on keeping law and order — armed chaos and disorder — is far worse?

Apparently not on the extremes of the right and left that dominate the political debate. The pragmatic middle makes more sense — but will pols heed its message?

During COVID, when everything fell apart, it was the left that first ceded the public sphere to lawlessness. The May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police was horrific — and public protest (though it violated COVID guidelines) was justified.

But riots, vandalism, property theft and the wholesale takeover of urban public spaces, from Minneapolis to Seattle — including New York’s City Hall Park, commandeered by the “Defund” movement — were not.

The left encouraged violent rampaging. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, which argues that America’s main founding principle was slavery, put it, “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.”

Many on the left excused the breakdown in public order.
AFP via Getty Images

Then-candidate Joe Biden read the public mood better, saying that “burning down communities and needless destruction is not” peaceful protest. But from Seattle’s “autonomous zone” to excuses for gang-led smash-and-grab robberies, Democrats failed to quickly reassert basic order.

People with options have thus retreated from the country’s largest cities, by nearly 2% last year — with San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles leading the population decline.

If Democrats won’t commit to maintaining public order — not when it’s easy but when it’s hard — they play into the hands of the extreme-right, armed-to-the-teeth survivalist crowd. That is, the crowd that sees Kyle Rittenhouse, a minor who illegally obtained an AR-15-style rifle to protect private property and then killed two people in the chaos that ensued, as a hero.

Then-candidate Joe Biden condemned the rioting and looting.
AP

Indeed, when it comes to who should maintain basic order in public spaces — the citizenry, by enacting laws and empowering police to carry them out, or armed mobs — the extreme right is no better.

Guns in civilian hands are not shorthand for law and order. The proliferation of guns, including long guns, in Republican campaign ads is a poor development.

That so many people increasingly feel the need to be armed represents a failure of law and order. Republicans should be arguing for a return to assertive, effective law enforcement to prevent crimes and consistent prosecution to incapacitate criminals — not for everyone to be toting a semi-automatic weapon.

NY Gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin has criticized red-flag laws.
Dennis A. Clark

This issue will be increasingly relevant to New York if the Supreme Court declares the city’s gun laws unconstitutional. But we don’t have to wait for that to happen to acknowledge that the country’s gun problem is the city’s gun problem.

Save for the new and growing scourge of “ghost guns,” every illegal gun that an NYPD officer must risk his life to seize started off as a legal gun somewhere else, as Mayor Eric Adams constantly notes — stolen, sold or transferred from a supposedly responsible custodian who failed to safeguard a dangerous weapon.

The Democratic Party has moderates. Adams knows that the answer isn’t an armed urban citizenry; he is trying to reassert public law and order.

Most voters agree with middle positions. Voters want the criminal-justice system to deter and prosecute crime and thus keep public order.

And they want basic restrictions on the firearms that have the most capacity to cause death and destruction within minutes — and cause so much public fear and anxiety that even more people respond by arming themselves, an escalation of weaponry that has no happy ending.

Where are the Republican moderates? There’s no reason to delay a congressional vote on provisions such as raising the age of semi-automatic long-gun ownership to 21 and no reason not to have a full and fair debate — and then a vote — on re-restricting high-capacity and high-velocity weapons and magazines.

No, such provisions won’t solve all problems. They’ll solve some.

The fact that so many such weapons are in circulation isn’t a reason to delay; it’s a reason to act quickly.

Yet Rep. Lee Zeldin, the likely Republican nominee for governor, has demagogued even on red-flag laws. As Tom Suozzi, a fellow New York congressman and Democratic candidate for governor, notes, “It’s that type of . . . posturing that stops us from getting commonsense [national] gun legislation passed like [universal] background checks.”

America has big problems. They won’t be solved if both the left and the right give up the notion that the government must maintain a monopoly, albeit an inevitably flawed one, on armed force. A heavily weaponized civilian populace is a failure, not a goal. 

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Nicole Gelinas