Following the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, it seemed we were doomed to have the gun-control conversation all over again. The tragedies between then and now have only intensified the debate, and I don’t believe we will ever be free of this, because it is a conversation about balancing values, and the empirical evidence for how each value functionally works varies widely, even year-to-year.
Very little good data exist on the affect of the presence of guns on the decrease of crime or the protection of citizens. Some studies seem to claim that guns make quite a large positive difference; others seem to dismiss this claim. And the number of shooting deaths of innocent people and the degree to which the media publicizes these deaths vary from year to year.
The way that our news functions also plays a role in this. Bad news makes for good newscasting, and since a very large percentage of newscasters hold a particular political ideology, they tend to report when people use guns badly. For example, very few Americans know that an off-duty cop with a gun helped defend citizens from a gunman in a Salt Lake City mall in 2007. Five people were killed in the attack, and there’s no way of knowing how many people were saved.
There is a cultural narrative about the badness of guns, and circumstances that confirm the narrative tend to get reported while others don’t. Plus there is the more empirical problem that when guns stop crime, there is no news. For example, when crimes don’t happen because of the potential that a gun exists in a home or in a vehicle or on a person, there is literally nothing to report. Crime was stopped, but there are no data to tabulate. The presence of guns creates an unknown number of false negative data points. It enables the perceived notion that guns make no difference, when in fact they do.
One can argue that the unknown data of false negatives are very small. That’s possible. But we can’t argue as if we know. And it doesn’t seem crazy that in a country with 90 million armed citizens, there may be a false negative that exceeds a handful of events, even offsetting the argument from the deaths in the recent school shootings. There is an empirical problem here that’s very difficult to sort out.
In another sense, all of this is entirely beside the point. The right to keep and bear arms in American culture comes from a political notion of the maintenance of freedom. We easily forget this since most of us haven’t taken American history since about the third grade. The founding fathers included most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights to ensure that government tyranny, similar to that of colonial Britain, would never have the advantages it had during our revolution. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, the right not to be unreasonably searched, the right not to quarter soldiers – and of course, the right to keep and bear arms.
Keeping and bearing arms has three political purposes:
1. It gives us the right to maintain our own lives. The government cannot force us to hand over the right to defend our own lives, therefore each individual has the right to keep and bear arms.
2. It allows the maintenance of liberty and pursuit of happiness. Guns are kept in order to resist an outside force that would seek to take away our liberty or ability to pursue happiness. This force may be another citizen, but more likely it would be a foreign government or our own domestic government.
3. It supports the sovereignty of the individual states. In the second amendment, it was understood that the American military would be primarily formed through state militias, supplemented by a Continental Army that was federal in nature, though supported voluntarily by the states. Each state would have its own army, and each state Army would be generally comparable to the Continental Army of the federal government. The militia system would mean that the federal government would never have sufficient military force to impose its will on the states without their consent. The state militias therefore stood for the freedom of the nation to repel foreign attackers, but also stood for the maintenance of state sovereignty if the national government exceeded its constitutional authority laid out in the Constitution’s enumerated powers.
Therefore, concerning the third political purpose of the second amendment, we have confused the issue when we move toward a professional military and away from state militias, and we undermine the Constitution’s understanding of how a military should be constituted in a nation made up of united states rather than a single national Commonwealth. Forgetting this has made the relationship between the phrases of the second amendment “difficult to interpret.” Once we made this confusion and the federal government, as opposed to states, started raising armies, the whole reason for the second amendment got confused, and that confusion has been accelerating ever since.
Even aside from the discussion of a militia in the second amendment, the three political purposes of the second amendment remain. None of these purposes go away because somebody misuses gun rights to kill others. That is a crime, and we need to seek constitutionally valid methods for preventing, limiting, prosecuting and punishing crime. The only other valid option is for us as a nation to amend our Constitution, something I certainly do not support.
Once we understand the historical purposes of the second amendment, two things can be discerned.
1. None of these three purposes have changed in the present world.
2. Citizens need not only the right to hunting rifles but to arms of military capacity. (I know this second point is controversial, but it follows deductively and clearly from the second amendment’s purposes. If we are to bear arms to resist an internal or external military, then our arms should be military capable.)
Concerning the first point, it does not seem time has lessened the maintenance of personal defense or the need to be prepared for an internal or external attack on our liberties. Personal behavior in the United States seems to be getting more volatile, not less. Economic times are difficult, and the incentives to commit crimes are increasing, not decreasing.
Further, there is political fomenting towards class warfare, which often results in inter-class violence. In protests about different kinds of legislation in the past few years, especially on the political left, the revolutionary language of the ’60s, and even of the communist and socialist movements, has been repeatedly invoked. So far, this has not resulted in significant violence. The protests have been very angry, but also very peaceful. However, it is very easy to overlook the capacity for violence in peoples who would seem otherwise peaceful. The step from angry protests to actual violence is a short one for the human spirit, and this should be obvious to all of us unless we plug our ears to the repeated voice of history. We are no more domestically safe than anyone was in 1780.
External to the United States, we have many potential foes. Our standing army is quite small in comparison to the standing army of China, for example. When you add in unknown possible alliances within Asia and the former Soviet bloc, it seems very unwise to me to believe that our standing professional army would be immediately up to the task if we ever had to defend our homeland against a massive attack. Such attacks are always “inconceivable” until they happen, and so the argument that such an attack is inconceivable is easily rebutted through the testimony of history. Even in the present we are struggling to provide enough personnel to cover two small wars, and the present political discussion is to further decrease military funding, not increase it.
In the homeland, our government has never been larger, nor has it ever had more authority. Our laws have never been less objective, and we’ve passed an increasing amount of legislation giving certain groups rights over other groups without reference to the impartiality of law. Our laws are becoming increasingly more complex, meaning that almost everybody can be prosecuted for something, offering the government an enormous amount of control over people’s lives through explicit or implicit blackmail. It does not seem obviously plausible to me that we should be increasingly trusting of our federal government (run by either party) to respect our rights. I’m not saying the government will take our rights, but the status of our rights in relationship to our federal government is not in a better, more trustworthy position than in 1780. If we understand a) human nature b) the momentum of bureaucracies, and c) the political implications of the general belief that government should “create a better life for us,” giving them a mandate to structure and engineer our lives, then it seems quite foolish to believe our liberties will be respected in the “progressive” engineering of the “good society.”
This is not to say that the Connecticut shooting and others like it are not important. They are important. They are tragedies. Yet attempting to prevent such tragedies by removing something extremely important to the maintenance of liberty was a price our founding fathers were not willing to pay because they had seen the greater tragedies of tyranny and war. This is the reason there is a second amendment, and this is the reason many millions of Americans own firearms that aren’t for hunting. And relinquishing this right is a price I am still unwilling to pay, nor will I ever be so long as human nature remains as addicted to power as it is to safety. And neither the emotional pleas of legislators nor the self-important demagoguery of jurists will intimidate me from the obvious demand of duty in the maintenance of human freedom.