In the wake of recent mass shootings and sobering statistics about the phenomenon in general, I’ve done a fair bit of soul-searching on the concept of gun rights. The problem seems to be that I’m the only one. While I’ve undertaken a serious examination of the philosophical and policy issues here and have yet to come to a conclusion I’d consider final, the reaction on both sides of the political divide on the subject is to instantly spout off all over the intertubes with the same tired talking points. No thought. No consideration. Just the pavlovian response to the reporting of gun violence and the pavlovian counter-response to that response.
Let’s start with the big one: The Second Amendment. The Second Amendment is like the Debt Ceiling, a unique feature of American Government that the rest of the developed world sees as singularly stupid.
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.
Note the odd use of commas, by the way. English was *different* back then.
Liberals* sound stupid when they talk about gun policy, and the second amendment particularly, because they tend to focus on that “militia” bit (and then fail to notice or promptly forget its implications,) or worse, the word “regulated.”
By now, many Liberals will have picked up that the word “regulated” is being used in an archaic sense that means “trained.” It refers in a roundabout way to (among other things) the effectiveness of a militia in doing violence. More lethal is better. It is not a call for tight control of weapons, which explains why gun laws weren’t really a thing we had in the first century or so of this country’s history.
But many of you have that message, so let’s talk about that militia bit, the “prefatory clause” in lawyer-speak. As English is ordinarily understood, the prefatory clause has no impact on the meaning of the other bit, the “operative clause.” It introduces and explains the operative clause, but does not necessarily change what it means.
The operative clause? The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Which brings us to why conservatives* sound stupid when they talk about the Second Amendment. In accordance with the then-popular thought on such matters, the Bill of Rights does not establish or create rights. It merely recognizes existing natural rights. Thus the completely non-obvious question: “Precisely what right do the people have to keep and bear arms?”
An important note on terminology is that while “keep and bear arms” is a relatively unique phrasing, “bear arms” has a very specific idiomatic meaning, ultimately taken from a similar latin phrase. “To bear arms” is not to walk around with a gun for hunting or for self-defense or because it makes you feel manly or pretty or for absolutely any other reason at all. “To bear arms” is to serve with a body of armed men in conflict against an armed foe. “Bearing arms” is military service, and nothing else.
“Keeping arms” is merely owning them. There’s nothing about the phrasing of the Second Amendment to suggest that the government should not be able to direct (as appropriate) where and how guns should be stored.
But a less clear limitation on the recognized natural right is that it only recognizes the right to own legal weapons (and perhaps only for legitimate purposes.) If a weapon is generally banned, a citizen would have no right to own it. The Second Amendment seeks only to protect people from specific disarmament. Even then it has clear limits.
As a society, we revoke several of the individual rights of certain classes of people. Felons, for example, may not vote. Neither felons nor the insane may legally buy guns. Even the most severe of civil libertarians is unlikely to hold forth on the specific right of violent felons to procure and keep weapons.
Perhaps more important are the rights not recognized. The Second Amendment recognizes (fine) an individual right to keep arms, but it does not recognize or guarantee the right to purchase, manufacture, or transport either any specific class of arms to say nothing of arms generally.
So now that we’ve established what the Second Amendment does (recognizes a limited individual right to own weapons, justified but not limited by the requirements of a civil militia) and doesn’t (pretty much anything else) do, let’s move on.
Conservatives sound like idiots when they talk about gun control because they’re worried about confiscation. The problem is that none of the ideas being seriously bandied about the beltway is even a prelude to confiscation. American Government loves its grandfather clauses, and so the weapons you own now, or will own right up until any new ban is initiated will probably continue to be perfectly legal. Like machine-guns manufactured before 1986.
Liberals sound like idiots when they talk about gun control because they’re worried about “assault weapons.” Not only is this idea not useful from a policy standpoint, it runs directly afoul of the stated intent of the Second Amendment.
The general idea of the late, much-lamented/unlamented federal ban on assault weapons was to “get military-style weapons off our streets.” To this end, it targeted a number of cosmetic features with no real impact on the lethality of the weapon, and several specific weapons by name. It was wholly useless not only because of a lack of functional implication but because these weapons had never been heavily used in gun crime.
Look, the typical incident of “gun violence” has one shooter and one victim. They are even often the same person (yes, “gun violence” often includes suicide.) Rates of fire and ammunition capacity are not a factor when you’re killing a single person at an intimate distance. For that matter, neither is accuracy. A 19th century ball-and-cap Colt revolver is every bit as efficacious for this purpose as is a Thompson submachine gun. Heck, if you’re killing two or three people, the Thompson isn’t going to improve your effectiveness a whole lot, and the Thompson is lacking in the most important feature of criminal firearms. It’s actually pretty easy to spot. With its long, heavy barrel and rifle-style stock, you’re not going to be hiding it in your pants. You’d need a violin case or a pretty impressive-looking hat. ARs and AKs are, in turn, a lot harder to conceal.
So a typical murdering gun is a pistol. It isn’t a big one with fancy features, it’s a cheap one that’s easily concealed. It’s not legally owned by the shooter, either. Even if you could get “Assault Weapons” off the street entirely, the idea that it would have a meaningful impact on crime is laughable.
Early efforts at gun control focused (appropriately) on “gangster” weapons — machine guns and short-barreled shotguns. These were not the weapons of home defense, hunting, militia service (assault rifles were not then common in formed infantry units, so sending a militia to war with bolt-action hunting rifles and breech-loading shotguns didn’t seem entirely absurd yet,) or even suicide. They were the weapons of organized crime, and the people of the time could hardly be blamed for wanting to be rid of them in the wake of prohibition and the gang-violence that came with it. Such weapons had no legitimate purpose.
Back to that “militia” thing. We don’t really have those in the US anymore. Oh sure, the National Guard is technically an “organized militia” (even if in most respects it operates like a standing army — semi-permanent formations, equipment provided by the government, lengthy overseas deployments that can be extended indefinitely…) and there’s a large “unorganized militia” comprising just about every swinging dick of fighting age in the good old U S of A, but for all intents and purposes the militia system is entirely defunct.
A militia, you see, is an ad hoc unit of light infantry formed on a temporary basis and discharged after a pre-defined period of service. A militiaman is expected to provide his (that’s just how old the idea is) own equipment. Imagine, if you will, private citizens carrying their own guns to war. That’s the militia system the Second Amendment is talking about and indeed expecting; and while it’s defunct and probably obsolete, if it were to exist today a militia would need a certain type of weapon. Militiamen would need military weapons. That is to say, (illegal) machine-guns, probably with (banned for a decade from 1994 to 2004 to no obvious purpose or use whatsoever) military-style cosmetic features. Criminals do not need such weapons and don’t have much use for them.
There are a couple of other Liberal tropes:
“You can have as many muzzle-loading muskets as you want if you’re in the militia.” Well, that’s actually kind of sexist (see above, the militia includes *males* of fighting age,) plus, muzzle-loading muskets are actually pretty lethal. Pretty solid for the average murder or suicide, really. Except the length, but pistols were also common in 1776.
Regardless, that’s an unreasonable reading of the Second Amendment. Modern militias would need modern weapons, and if the Second Amendment is really obsolete, we should probably repeal or amend it rather than ignoring it. This country once amended the constitution to ban alcohol. Don’t tell me it can’t be done.
“We should regulate guns like we regulate cars.” Anyone, regardless of mental health status, regardless of criminal history, regardless of licensing or skills, can own a car. They’re not even required to be registered, and there are no important laws restricting their manufacture. Even the regulations around their sale focus on safety and environmental features. If we regulated guns like we regulate cars, all regulatory burdens would be on manufacturers, anyone at all could buy them without a waiting period or a backgroud check.
As a civil libertarian and a member of a population that’s at least as rural as it is suburban, I am sympathetic to the idea that personal autonomy should not be restricted without sufficient cause. However, when such cause exists, it becomes a matter of balancing rights. In this case, the right to life against the right of gun owners to avoid onerous restrictions.
The use of guns and the problem with them are the same: They are exceptionally efficient tools for killing animals, including medium-sized ones like humans and other apes. If you come from a culture where guns are common, and you have an impulse to kill something, there’s a substantial chance you’ll reach for a gun. perhaps especially if you’re trained in their use.
Even if that something is *you*. Suicides are most often the result of a transitory impulse. If not acted effectively on, that impulse would pass and a person who was just tempted to end their life could go on to be an award-winning film director. Getting guns out of people’s homes (or just stored separately from their ammo!) would make effective suicide a much greater bother.
Homicides, likewise, are often the result of a transitory impulse and while you can kill a guy with your bare hands, it’s certainly a lot easier (and generally faster) with a gun.
Mass shootings are one part suicide and several parts homicide. While we probably can’t do all that much about the suicide (these guys are *planners*,) we might be able to limit the homicide. Statistically, mass shootings are a much smaller problem (by several orders of magnitude) than suicide or ordinary homicide, even in the world capital (U!S!A!) but any death is a tragedy and most of us don’t like seeing dead kids on the teevee. There’s a danger we’d just end up with a different flavor of mass killing (the worst school massacre to date, by the way, only peripherally involved a gun. It was done with explosives,) but it might not hurt too much to try.
Violent crime is dropping anyway and might not drop faster if we had more tightly controlled guns, but gun fatalities might. Accidents are a thing too. Guns are dangerous. Regulating them is not terribly unreasonable. We regulate everything *else* we percieve as dangerous.
And the opposing argument?
It’s usually some long-winded, highly-principled, and almost entirely off-topic rant involving freedom and tyranny. And sometimes hunting or sport-shooting.
But let’s face it: cracking down on straw purchases isn’t going to meaningfully impact your hunting. Restricting secondary sales isn’t going to meaningfully impact your hunting. Banning large-capacity magazines or even semi-automatics really isn’t going to put that much of a damper on your hunting. Ditto competitive shooting. Ditto home defense. A revolver kills a home-invader just as dead as an automatic.
And defense against tyranny? That’s really just a fantasy anyway, both the tyranny itself and the your ability to stop it in case I’m wrong.
“You can pry my weapons from my cold, dead hands.”
Ask yourself: is this really a thing you think the government can’t do? The Constitution can be amended. The current balance of power between you and your like-minded cousins vs the US Army looks pretty dicey. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Because we might just be cool with that.
Short of a general breakdown of society, what use are your anti-tyranny weapons, anyway? I know you think you’re the re-incarnation of George Fucking Washington, and the Revolutionary War was part skill, but even if you’re not deluding yourself about being the world’s greatest strategist it was also part luck, and it was ultimately a matter of social change. Parliament didn’t really want to fight the Colonies. Meanwhile, if our militias weren’t quite up to the standards of professional mercenaries, they at least had comparable weapons. Not always military-type muskets (there were a lot of hunting and fowling pieces — basically, rifles and shotguns,) but black-powder weapons that weren’t too far from the military state of the art.
You already lost that fight. You can’t have a tank. You can’t have a fighter/bomber. You can’t have a surface to air anything, or any kind of guided missile. You can’t even have a machine-gun. Those fights were lost long ago. When revolutions succeed in the modern world, they succeed in failed states and are usually carried out in large part by the military. In the advanced world, changing leadership is what elections are for. If you’re so worried about tyranny, maybe you should work on making those more “free and fair” rather than fretting about your nonexistent ability to repulse a nuclear-armed government by force.
I’ve probably forgotten something. If you’d like to present a stupid argument for me to tear apart, leave a comment. Hate-mail is also appreciated. For that matter, I’ve been known to be wrong from time to time. But beware hasty corrections. You might just be feeding into the second request.
*Actually, this isn’t a Liberal/Conservative (even if our uses of those words weren’t already horrifically mangled) or left/right issue so much as it’s an urban/rural issue. Rural people are unconcerned with gun violence and see weapons as useful or essential tools in their everyday lives. Urban people see only the scourge of their streets. These are different worlds, and the most sane policy here is probably to let each live in their own world and craft appropriate policies. Nevertheless, I will use these terms as they are a convenient, if inaccurate, shorthand for the two radical positions I’m complaining about.