This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on June 12, 2014.
Guns occupy a peculiar cultural space in the United States. They are as bitterly divisive as abortion, but can be as confusing as the tax code. I hope to lay out the basics of the gun debate and illustrate what’s really being discussed so that you can better tune out the noise.
The conversation begins with the American Revolution. American national identity was first established in large part due to private ownership of firearms, and recognition of that fact led the framers of the Constitution to enshrine the ownership of firearms as an essential right. Much of the debate over guns rests on the ambiguity of the amendment that guarantees that right. The second amendment reads: “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.” While it no doubt protects some kind of right to bear arms, the degree to which is does so is unclear.
Many liberal-leaning arguments insist that the amendment guarantees the right of the people to maintain a militia, which in this day and age is the National Guard. National Guard units are under the control of the states in which they originate, and can be mobilized by their governors. As such, the potential danger of allowing individuals to own dangerous weaponry can be easily negated by restricting private ownership of the deadliest weapons. In short, it’s what allows the government to ban the sale of, say, fully automatic machine guns on up to nuclear weapons to private individuals. If this fundamental is accepted, that the militias are to be organized and maintained by states, and the ownership of private arms is subject to restriction, the debate simply lies on what weapons are simply too dangerous for the public to own.
Many conservative arguments rest on the notion that the second amendment implies that the people ARE the militia, and private ownership of firearms serves as deterrence against an overreaching government. That is, firearms are the ultimate insurance policy Americans have against tyranny. The threat of violent revolution serves as the foundation upon which our government must rule very carefully. In addition to preserving your security against crime, firearms serve to preserve your liberty against tyranny. What government could hope to subject a well-armed populace? Many argue that the all-important concept of “consent of the governed” only has meaning when the governed have the means to start over via revolution whenever needed.
In the 1780’s, when the Framers were writing and debating the Constitution, the War of Independence was fresh in their minds and their rationale strayed closer to the conservative argument. It was only through private ownership of firearms that the early revolution wasn’t stopped. In fact, the first battles of the war, at Lexington and Concord, were fought because the British were trying to seize supplies of gunpowder. Although Americans were satisfied with their new government, they were well aware of the necessity of being able to fight for their rights by any means necessary.
However, context is important, and in the 1780s the most common higher-end firearms were rifled muskets capable of firing roughly twice every minute. Firearms were almost useless on an individual basis – only massed formations of many men were effective in fighting against armies. A man owned a firearm because he belonged to the town militia, not because he was a one-man army. This is an important distinction — one’s ability to resist tyranny rested not on his individual will, but on that of his community. He could not strike out on his own and resist whatever law he personally finds unjust. In fact, George Washington himself personally led an army to crush the Whiskey Rebellion in the early 1790’s, which says something about his view of federal authority and resistance to the rule of law.
This, combined with the incredible advances of firearms since the 1780s, has made the old conservative view seem peculiar. If we own firearms because it is our ultimate insurance policy against tyranny, shouldn’t it be unconstitutional for the government to say I cannot own a nuclear weapon? What better way to resist their rule than ensuring their destruction, should they try to enforce a rule I don’t like? How about fully automatic machine guns? Should I be able to not only own a fully automatic machine gun, but also take it everywhere with me? If consent of the governed means anything, shouldn’t I continually assess whether my consent is given, and have the means to do something about it when it isn’t?
If the above interpretation is upheld, the threat to public safety would be obvious. Even most ardent gun rights activists would be against the sale of high-grade military hardware (think tanks, APCs, attack helicopters) to private individuals. However, by even admitting that restricting the private ownership of the deadliest military hardware is legal (and necessary), the conservative argument cannot hold completely. In this view, the context of the debate seems to shift from that of “the gun nuts want to kill us all” vs. “the lilly-livered fascist liberals want to take my guns” to “where do we draw the line between one’s access to arms and public safety?” It’s not hard to see that such a line does exist. Ad absurdum, a maniac armed with a legal nuke could wipe out a city. The whole debate therefore centers on where that line is. Everything else is noise or dishonesty.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Charles Knowles.