Fire doesn't burn people. People do.
That was one of my tweets as I listened to eight Republican hopefuls for the U.S. Senate engage in a debate recently. Each was trying to stay as far to the right as the other. Each was seeking to genuflect as flexibly as the other before the sportsman's culture and the fear of crime. Each was seeking to outdo the other in rejecting the very premise of the question: Are there any restrictions on firearms that you could support?
Short answer: No way.
So I tweeted that I hoped no one had a flame-thrower on them, but that, after all, it's people, not flame-throwers, who incinerate people.
Moments later the hotel fire alarm went off, for a reason never discerned. It turned out that several people in the room were following my tweets. "It's the flame-thrower," someone said, and there was laughter.
We were yukking it up about the modern American conservative fear of political repercussion for restricting any conceivable kind of weaponry.
There is no expressed federal prohibition that I can find against your possessing a flame-thrower. There are prohibitions against your possessing a weapon of destruction that would spew poison. But a flame-thrower, while availing itself of a propellant, actually emits flame, which can have a non-lethal function, like a charcoal lighter or a match.
So the Republican gun advocates, taken to their logical conclusion, defend your ability to possess a flame-thrower if you can get your hands on one, maybe surplus from Vietnam, where they loved that smell of napalm in the morning.
It's not the owning of it. It's only the criminally intended use of it. You see. Or not.
That's the same logic by which gun rights extremists oppose restrictions on the manufacture and distribution of automatic assault weapons suitable for urban gang warfare to enforce the drug culture. It's not that the gun is designed to fire in a way that enhances the multiplicity and efficiency of human killing. It's that the gun's function is irrelevant until a person engages that function.
So the credo becomes that we should let the gun go free, because that's what the Second Amendment requires, and arrest the user, but only after he has deployed a weapon we made readily available to him to render a person or persons dead.
For that matter: It's not big old jet airliners that kill. It's Islamic extremists whom we've trained to fly these big old jet airliners but not land them who kill.
Again, you see. Or maybe you don't.
Maybe a plane has valuable public use that you can't quite equate to an old boy's right to have a flame-thrower propped up in the corner of his closet.
Maybe you understand that our founders did not know about flame-throwers, rocket launchers and automatic assault weapons when they phrased our Second Amendment.
Maybe you understand the compelling logic that the First Amendment guarantees free speech, but that you can't yell "fire" in a theater, unless, I suppose, someone exercising his Second Amendment rights actually has propelled fire in your direction.
All of that is to call attention to the latest example of the absurdity of modern conservative devotion to, or political fear of, gun libertarianism.
Even two usually reasonable Republican senators, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, were arguing this veritable pretzel of logic a few days ago: We should restrict Miranda rights to persons on a terror watch list, but we should not restrict the rights of these persons to acquire firearms or attendant gadgetry, because that, you see, would be an ominous infringement on a treasured American liberty.
You have the right to a silencer, but not to silence.
John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.