Gun control is an emotional issue. I don’t really understand why that should be so, yet many educated people are, so to speak, up in arms to control guns and see the roadblock to sensible measures as the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
First, I should first ask why was it written.
The American Revolution had long simmering causes well listed in the Declaration of Independence, but the fighting was triggered by a British attempt to seize a store of arms and ammunition being collected by local militias. In short, the war began when the government tried to disarm citizens. The Founders considered this important because it was only by the power of citizens able to arm themselves independently of state authority that the revolutionaries were able to take an initial stand against the British. The Revolution could never have gotten off the ground if the colonists had not had recourse to their own weapons. Ultimately, of course, they had to form an army with all the usual military hardware, but they could not have begun without recourse to personally owned weapons.
The fundamental purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to ensure that that recourse could not be taken away. In the Declaration of Independence we read,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”
Abraham Lincoln described the Constitution as a frame of silver for an apple of gold – the golden apple being the Declaration of Independence. The purpose of the Constitution is to provide an operating framework for the principles in the Declaration of Independence – hence the inclusion of the 2nd Amendment.
Second, I ask what are the arguments against it.
Some argue that the “well regulated militia” phrase means that the states’ National Guard takes care of having a “well regulated militia” so the people don’t need weapons. However, the Guard is an organ of the state. It is also an organ of the federal government as the federal government has the power to nationalize the Guard.
Perhaps the best example of this took place in September, 1957 when Governor Orval Faubus ordered his state National Guard to “Preserve the Peace” by turning away black students who were attempting to integrate into Little Rock’s Central High School – and so used the Guard to suppress civil rights. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by federalizing the entire Arkansas National Guard and then used it to protect the black students integrating Central High School. But Eisenhower’s action also illustrates how the states can be disarmed of their own troops by the federal government.
Some argue that while the 2d Amendment might have made sense two centuries ago, when communications and travel were slow and many people lived on or near dangerous frontiers, but that it makes no sense today in an age of instant communications, rapid mobility, and organized police forces.
The problem with this argument is pithily expressed in the saying, “When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.” Human nature has not changed in two centuries and we still have crime, home invasions, pathological behaviors, criminal gangs and, unlike the old frontier, drugs to exacerbate matters, and of course, acts of terrorism. Some areas today are as dangerous or more so than the old frontier.
The “unalienable Rights, [of] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” must entail the right of the individual to protect and defend them. To have the right to life is meaningless if we do not own ourselves. Liberty cannot exist if we do not have the freedom to make choices and make use of our abilities and own, use, enjoy – and protect – such property as our abilities enable us to create or acquire else liberty and life become empty concepts.
Some argue that the development of democratic forms of government such we and European countries have, render this part of the Declaration, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it” obsolete and hence, the 2nd Amendment. After all, the heads of state and members of the legislatures are all elected by the people. What could go wrong?
Everything. Adolf Hitler was elected to the chancellorship of Germany – then he made himself a tyrant. Here in America, we’ve seen a steadily growing mistrust of the federal government and faith in Congress has drifted to an all time low. A majority of American think the country is headed in the wrong direction – led by people they elected and yet don’t trust. Having a representative government does not change our human natures and rule out greed, power hunger, elitism, bribery, hatred, resentment, envy, fear, or panic. The right combination of human weaknesses and circumstances have caused any number of representative governments to morph into tyrannies, from ancient Greek democracies to, famously, Germany with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and Russia with the overthrow of the Kerensky republic in the Bolshevik revolution and more recently still Venezuela.
One would have to believe that even though we are as human as Germans and the ancient Greeks, it is impossible for our representative government to fail even as, paradoxically, a majority of Americans fear it might.
Another argument is safety – anything to end gun violence. In effect, this argument necessarily claims that safety is more important than liberty. But eliminating guns from citizens does not eliminate predators, terrorists, or psychotics. Moreover, to the degree that restricting or banning citizen access to guns might crimp criminal access, the effect would be the same as Prohibition – instead of an instant booze black market, the instant expansion of the arms black market – a boon to drug cartels and gangs. Norway’s extremely restrictive gun laws did not prevent Anders Breivik from obtaining arms and killing 69 and wounding 110 in 2011. It’s easy to legally obtain and carry a gun in Houston, but very hard in Chicago, yet Chicago has the higher murder rate.
Thanks to media interest, we are familiar with terrible mass shooting events, almost all of which took place in “Gun-free Zones.” What we are not familiar with are multiple instances where a putative mass killer was stopped by an armed person – sometimes an off-duty cop, sometimes a citizen with a carry permit. This is probably because the casualty counts are very low, usually no more than one or two, sometimes zero, and so don’t generate wide media interest. Comparing the successful and unsuccessful mass shootings it is clear that in the presence of a crazed shooter, one is much safer behind an armed citizen than behind a Gun-Free Zone sign.
As best I can tell, none of the major arguments against the 2nd Amendment hold water. So, I ask, why are many folks against gun ownership? Admittedly unscientific research from casual conversations, listening to the news and reading history, yields some possible answers.
One, some folks are uncomfortable with guns in a way or to a degree that raises an emotional barrier to the logic of self defense and the second amendment.
Two, some folks are overly focussed on safety, as the culture has trended, erecting an emotional barrier to the logical need of balancing risks and costs. There are probably no social policy options that are totally risk-free. These folks are rather like helicopter parents who are unable to balance immediate anxieties with the broader welfare of their kids.
Three, human nature being what it is, some folks are simply engaging in moral posturing – being “anti gun” as a way of claiming an imaginary moral high ground.
Four, and perhaps worst of all, some folks are ideological statists. Statism is the antithesis of the principles in the Declaration of Independence and seeks to justify supremacy of the state over the people which logically entails ensuring the population cannot resist (and which historically has always been the case). Statism naturally exploits the other folks – the uncomfortable, the fearful, and the posturers.
In effect, I have been coming to the conclusion that guns in private hands are not the problem. But if they aren’t what is? Growing up in the 1950s, there were guns in my house and in my friends’ houses. We played cops and robbers and cowboys and indians with very realistic toy pistols, schools were not gun-free zones, the NRA was not a bad word, there were shooting clubs for kids, no one worried about these things and people weren’t being shot right and left. Today, all these things seem to cause concern. Perhaps we need to look at what’s changed since then to cause this concern – diagnose the disease, not assume a symptom is the disease.
Guns designed for hunting or simply for target shooting can also be used to kill people. All other guns – the majority, world-wide – are designed to kill people. Imagine a world without guns – none, anywhere. No problem – that was the world 700 years ago. Armies slaughtered each other with swords, spears, clubs and arrows. Robbers and bandits, used the same weapons on their prey. Kings tried to ensure that peasants didn’t own bows and arrows or swords for the same reason modern tyrants have invariably disarmed the citizenry. Our problem is not guns, any more than it was bows and arrows 700 years ago. Our problem is human nature, which has not changed and that we have not built a culture that minimizes the development of the depravities in human nature and maximizes the development of the better angels of human nature.