(Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote last summer after the Aurora, CO theater shootings which described my views on gun control. It’s as relevant today, after Newtown, as it was then. I propose banning assault rifles and handguns, but it should be pointed out, that doing so would not necessarily prevent tragedies such as Aurora, or Newtown.)
I heard it mentioned several times while surfing the Sunday morning political commentator gabfest shows (July 22, 2012). The blood in Aurora, Colorado had hardly dried before the political hacks, always prepared to ensure a good tragedy doesn’t go to waste, immediately set out to score points in the gun control debate.
Commentators who actually thought they were defending the right to keep and bear arms claimed that if theater patrons had been armed, they could have prevented this tragedy. Really? So, instead of citizens having a right to keep and bear arms as the Second Amendment provides, they have a duty to do so, and at all times, including at a movie theater? So it was their fault for failing to arm themselves? How utterly ridiculous.
Let’s just follow this idea through to its logical conclusion. The alleged shooter was said to be in possession of two semi-automatic pistols, a shotgun and an AR-15 rifle, the last being the civilian version of the military’s M-16, that without modification fires only semi-automatically, meaning the trigger has to be pulled each time a round is fired. The military version has a fully-automatic mode, which allows a shooter to empty a thirty round magazine in only a few seconds with a single, constant squeeze of the trigger. On semi-automatic mode, blasting through a thirty round banana clip would take maybe 3-4 times as long, but still could be done in less than a minute. The shooter’s AR-15 allegedly jammed, preventing the carnage from being even more severe. I can personally attest, as can anyone else that’s served in the military since the adoption of the rifle during the Vietnam War, the AR-15/M-16 is quite prone to jamming. There was even developed for the rifle an anti-jam rod that when pushed, quickly clears the jammed round. Perhaps the shooter, as smart as he apparently was, had still neglected to do his homework on the vagaries of his chosen assault rifle. And make no mistake, the AR-15/M-16 is an assault rifle. It is not for hunting. In fact, the round developed for it is specifically designed to wound, not kill, because in battle, a wounded combatant is better than a dead one. Wounded combatants require the enemy to devote resources to their care. Dead ones don’t. But the design of the round doesn’t explain why over 50 were wounded, and only twelve killed. Neither the rifle nor the round were designed for close, i.e., within a few yards, combat, but a rifle that’s good out to about 400 meters will certainly wreak havoc at what amounts to point-blank range.
But if life is a Hobbesian war of all against all, as is implied by defenders of the Second Amendment in their argument transforming the right to keep and bear arms into a duty to do so, how could anyone have possibly acquired the means to individually protect themselves? Would the theater in Colorado been safer had all its patrons also arrived with AR-15′s and Glocks and shotguns? Where does it end? With everyone toting anti-tank weapons? Fifty caliber machine guns on the roofs of cars?
I remember a few years back visiting a local sporting goods retailer. It sold all kinds of hunting and fishing gear, but I figure it made most of its money selling guns. Lots and lots of guns. I would visit the store to purchase flies for my fly-fishing hobby (fly-fishing is a bit of a different challenge in Alabama than it is in the Northeast and West where it first gained popularity). The fly lures were next to the gun counter. I will never forget the day the guys at the gun counter were bore-sighting a fifty caliber rifle, the same caliber as the Browning M-2. The M-2, or “Ma Deuce” as it’s known, is a fifty caliber machine gun that has seen more military service than perhaps any weapon. It was the main armament on fighter jets in World War Two, and was also deployed on the turrets of tanks and in the beds of Jeeps and other troop carriers; later, it was deployed on helicopter gunships and HMMV’s, among others. Originally fielded towards the end of the First World War, the weapon is still actively deployed the world over.
The size of the fifty caliber round (almost half a foot long as it’s loaded into the weapon, with a bullet a half-inch in diameter) means it is most emphatically not a hunting rifle. A direct hit to the torso of a deer from a bullet a half-inch in diameter would blast a hole in it so large that there would be only the idea of a deer left. The bore-sighting at the store was not of a fifty caliber machine gun–it was just a single shot rifle. But what possible good is a single-shot fifty caliber rifle? To blast your neighbor’s car to smithereens? (The M-2 is primarily used against lightly-armored vehicles in the military, i.e., aircraft, troop carriers, etc.) But there the gun counter guys were, getting a fifty caliber rifle ready for some Southern white redneck with enough money to be foolish, who perhaps was clinging a bit too closely to his guns and religion. The store catered to the Southern white upper middle class that populated the area in which it was located. I just shuddered at the thought of what the yahoo of a customer might do with his purchase as I paid for my purchase of lures designed for the relatively benign pursuit of catching with a fly rod the bass, crappie and bream that populate Alabama’s freshwater rivers and lakes.
The founding fathers of the US felt the state to be at least as dangerous as the wilderness and the native populations they were attempting to tame and subdue, so provided Constitutional protections against state tyranny through what is commonly known as the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment being the one that provides for the right to keep and bear arms.
At the time of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, political power was dispersed among the various state governments. There was no inkling that the Bill of Rights applied to prohibit state governments from imposing gun ownership limits on their citizenry. In fact, the Bill of Rights did not apply to limit state government action until the adoption of the 14th Amendment shortly after the Civil War. The text of the Second Amendment reads as follows:
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.
The Supreme Court recently elected to ignore the context provided by the introductory clause, “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” in ruling that the Amendment provides an individual right to keep and bear arms that can’t be infringed by state, local or federal governments, and does not depend on membership in a state militia (See District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago, 2010). The Supreme Court was doing in each case as it always does, balancing the political expediencies of the day against an archaic civil covenant to arrive at a politically palatable, yet at least superficially legal and constitutional, justification for their ruling.
But let’s disregard the politics of the day and put the Second Amendment in its proper historical context. What exactly did “…the right of the people to keep and bear arms…” mean at the time it was written? What are the only arms the Constitution’s framers could possibly have had in mind in 1789 when granting that the right to keep and bear them could not be infringed? A cumbersome, agonizingly tedious to reload, musket or long rifle? Perhaps a sword? Maybe a cannon, if the most expansive reading of arms is imagined. Yet a single man armed with an assault rifle amply supplied with ammunition can inflict more carnage today than a company of men armed with muskets and swords, or even cannon ever could. The effective range and rate of fire of an AR-15 far exceeds that of a sword, musket or cannon.
What were the founders trying to protect against with their inclusion of the Second Amendment? Because the various states, with their well-regulated militias made up of part-time soldiers responsible for bringing their own weaponry to battle, had coalesced to overthrow the tyranny of British rule a bit over a decade before, the Amendment was surely directed, at least in part, to ensuring a future capacity for similar actions. But it must also have been intended to protect against the possibility of tyranny by the federal government that would be formed upon the Constitution’s ratification. It should never be forgotten that the Bill of Rights, each article of which operated to limit federal power in some way, embodied a compromise between Federalists (who were for a strong central government) and Anti-Federalists (who were opposed), a compromise which was necessary to secure ratification of the Constitution.
The Amendment should also be viewed in the context of the physical environment in which it was ratified. In the late 1700’s, the Appalachian mountain range served as a rough demarcation line between settled and frontier America. The push westward over the mountains, which was only then beginning to gain purchase, was a private enterprise, most often preceding any advance by the government. The frontiersman had no choice but to arm himself against the hostile environment, both natural and manmade. It was hardly likely any government could have meaningfully prohibited or confiscated arms on the frontier. Expressly protecting the frontiersman from government interference in his ability to defend himself was a tacit acknowledgement of the government’s incapacity to provide the defense of his person and property, which is ever and always the raison d’être for which governments are constituted among men.
But constitutional arguments grow wearisome. Instead of arguing over whether a particular aspect of the social contract should be adjusted for the good of the society, as it is presently configured, they mainly resolve to what a bunch of men, admittedly quite wise for their times, believed was best and proper in the premises for a socio-economic system that bears only passing resemblance to that of today. And the Constitution is like the Bible, providing in its ambiguity ample support for practically any social policy argument that could be contrived. Colorable arguments relying on biblical authority could be easily contrived to justify genocide. The present Administration seems to think it has constitutional justification for summarily executing its own citizens. And because living according to constitutional or biblical tenets is a lie people like to believe about themselves, legions of rabbis, priests and judges are constantly swinging like trapeze artists through the vast thickets of logical conundrums that reconciling the ancient with the near requires.
Why not just disregard the Constitution, and figure out what solution would be best in the premises? Morality is always subjective and situational. Social morality asks the question of what is the best action a society should undertake if it wants, as equitably as possible, to maximize the survival and propagation imperatives of its members. Is social welfare maximized by allowing gun ownership among the members of a society? What are the costs? Are they outweighed by the benefits? Taking as a given that not all weapons will be allowed (nuclear warheads, attack submarines and tanks, among others, come to mind), what sort of guns might be allowed such that benefits to ownership are maximized while potential costs are minimized?
When the right to keep and bear arms meant not much more than a musket with a roughly one-minute per round rate of fire of rather limited velocity and range the cost/benefit calculus overwhelmingly favored allowing citizens to keep and bear arms. It is a quite different thing today when it empowers some yokel in Central Alabama to buy a weapon so powerful that it can’t even be safely fired except at a military style firing range. It’s hard to imagine that much more than hunting rifles and shotguns would fit the bill for arms that offer maximum benefit with only minimal potential costs. Except perhaps in some remote parts of Alaska’s northern wilderness, hunting is no longer necessary to put food on the table, but it still is a sport with valuable traditions worth preserving. And most hunting rifles and shotguns have very limited reloading capacity—six or seven rounds at best—nothing like the thirty round clips of an AR-15, or even the fifteen rounds in a Glock handgun.
Assault rifles are not designed for hunting. They are designed for wounding, not wildlife, but human beings. Considering their rapid rate of fire (though in the AR-15, thankfully ameliorated somewhat by their propensity to jam) and the high velocity and long range of the ammunition they are designed to fire, their cost, in the potential for death and destruction, seems a bit high. And they offer no real benefit, except for allowing civilians to act out their military fantasies, sometimes with horrible consequences. It’s hard to see how social welfare is maximized by allowing citizens to own assault rifles like the AR-15, (nor for that matter, the single-shot fifty caliber the gun store patron was purchasing that day in the store). The military does not allow its soldiers to carry its weapons off base, or in their personal effects, except in times of national emergency. What benefit is there to having civilians own them with more freedom of movement with them than is afforded to members of the military?
A similar argument could be made against handguns. From the very start, handguns were designed for only one thing—to kill or wound human beings. As the popular song, Mr. Saturday Nighttime Special, by, somewhat ironically, the Southern rock band, Lynard Skynard, says “…they ain’t good for nothin’, but put a man six feet in a hole”. (I wonder how many of my stoned friends ever really listened to Lynard Skynard’s lyrics back in the day). So why allow them? Owning handguns may make sense in some of America’s inner-city ghettos, but really, only because in some of those areas the local police have abandoned all hope of protecting the monopoly on violence which is required of a governmental authority if it is to enjoy any shred of legitimacy. The demarcation between anarchy and civilization is a thin blue line that runs between governmental authorities capable of imposing their will by force and those that either can’t or won’t. And as tyrannical as governments may sometimes be, which tyranny is more severe—democratic anarchy or despotically imposed order? Try asking the folks in Iraq, where the government has by now become so hobbled by the help America provided in overthrowing tyranny for freedom that over a hundred lost their lives today (July 23, 2012) in anarchical violence.
Handguns may be useful for protection in some wilderness areas (e.g., Alaska, some areas in the Mountain West), but rifles are just as useful, and for things other than just protection. Besides, a grizzly bear or a mountain lion is usually as scared of humans as humans are of it. Learning to live in nature without resorting to killing every threatening beast should be part of the wisdom to be gained in the wilderness, and is certainly how most people who actually live in the wild approach things.
Defending the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms by answering that Aurora would not have happened had everyone been armed connotes a very Hobbesian point of view, where even the people in a movie theater are engaged in a war of all against all, and must be constantly armed and vigilant lest they lose a battle. These defenders of what they believe is a deep and abiding constitutional principle, (which makes it for them, an answer unto itself), seem to view the world and man in society in much the same manner as did Hobbes, a political philosopher whose answer to the state of nature, to the war of all against all, was for man to abandon life as a savage, and forswear freedom for the security of a sovereign, a Leviathan so powerful that it was basically free, once selected, to do as it pleased. It seems that these Second Amendment defenders would prefer life as savages, free from government interference, but also void of government protection. But this is only the case when the sovereign is vested in a person not of their political persuasion. Once the sovereign power is vested in their guy, then it’s all law and order all the time, including concocting fantasy illegalities aimed at getting undesirables off the street (the War on Drugs, for example, which conveniently depends for its carnage on a robust supply of armaments on the street).
These defenders of the hallowed right to keep and bear arms would likely object that it is Locke, not Hobbes, upon whom their political philosophy is based. Like Hobbes, Locke imagined that before governments were instituted, mankind existed in a state of nature. His was more idyllic than Hobbes’, described as “Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them…” And Locke believed a man existing in a state of nature had the right to defend himself and his possessions through force, including killing, even if only to protect his possessions. Never mind that Locke’s formulation of “life, health, liberty or possession” was altered in the Declaration of Independence to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (no one but Locke has ever really believed men had the “natural” right to kill to protect their property), Locke provided that as governments were instituted among men, men delegated to the government their individual roles as judge, jury and executioner. They still had the right to defend their person and property by private means in the heat of passion, as all governments have always provided, but could no longer seek private retribution after the fact.
But what point really is there for government if it can do no better at protecting people than that all must go around armed for combat? Why not just return to a Hobbesian or Lockean state of nature, with every man an army unto himself? For starters, it is very expensive and mainly ineffective for each man to provide for his own defense. Not even if everyone had been armed with a .38 special in Aurora, Colorado, would the carnage likely have been less severe. The shooter was wearing bullet-proof body armor and so would have been mainly impervious to small arms fire, and it can only be imagined how much more deadly would have been the rampage had a dark theater full of armed citizens whipped out their weapons and started firing. And when a bullet hits you, it makes no practical difference whether it had a hostile or friendly origin.
Is it time to abandon the fantasy that it is a reasonable and useful measure of freedom that regular citizens be allowed to purchase and own military style firearms whose only purpose is killing and maiming human beings? (The AR-15 had been outlawed a few years back, but the prohibition was lifted for some reason). There can be no way with today’s military technology for a citizen army to collect enough weaponry that it might be capable of overthrowing by force a tyrannical government, as might have been imagined when the Second Amendment was ratified. No citizen army is ever going to possess Abrams tanks and armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters unless the military joins their side. And personal protection, even if deemed necessary on the mean streets of the ghettos, would not imply the need for anything more deadly than a snub-nosed revolver. Hunting rifles and shotguns can certainly be turned to nefarious purposes, but hardly as much so as assault rifles, whose very design anticipates the delivery of high volume mayhem.
There is nothing now that will take back what one apparently deranged gunman did in Aurora, Colorado. But surely, for a government that is allowed by its electorate to restrict the flow of water in toilets as a matter of public interest, there has to be some recognizable public interest in restricting the flow of combat weaponry in its everyday commerce.