Gunning for Clarity

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.

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One thought on “Gunning for Clarity

  1. Hi,

    I hope you don’t mind a libertarian – some times conservative gun owner to reply.

    First and foremost; the 2nd Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms. Not firearms but all arms. Much of the early part of the Revolutionary War, especially the naval aspect, was found with privately owned cannons and field pieces.

    Second, the recent Supreme Court decisions — Heller and McDonald – make it very clear that the conservative view point is very accurate. There is an individual right to keep and bear arms.

    Third, the National Guard is not the militia. It is a component of the Militia.

    10 U.S. Code § 311 – Militia: composition and classes
    (a) The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.
    (b) The classes of the militia are—
    (1) the organized militia, which consists of the National Guard and the Naval Militia; and
    (2) the unorganized militia, which consists of the members of the militia who are not members of the National Guard or the Naval Militia.

    It is clearly defined by statute that the people are still part of the militia.

    However, context is important, and in the 1780s the most common higher-end firearms were rifled muskets capable of firing roughly twice every minute

    Actual rate of fire for muskets were 3 to 4 shots every minute. And since the Amendment was written to protect the right of the people to own comparable equipment to what was in service at the time; why should that principle change now?

    More importantly is your implication — that the 2nd Amendment only protects technology of the time, right? Isn’t it ironic that you are using your 1st Amendment right on a computer, powered by electricity, spreading your message on a blog that lives on the internet. None of which was invented at the time. Surely then you will instantly revert to using quill pens and parchment or standing on a soapbox on the street corner, right?

    Firearms were almost useless on an individual basis – only massed formations of many men were effective in fighting against armies.

    Not exactly correct. One of the biggest advantages the colonists had was the ability of our rifleman to accurately hit targets. There was a considerable amount of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ as it would be called today — small units ambushing larger royalist units and then fading into the woods.

    A man owned a firearm because he belonged to the town militia, not because he was a one-man army.

    I think you have that backwards. A person owned a firearm because he was responsible for his protection — from criminals, from Indian attacks, from attacks from the government and stood together with the militia to defend against larger units. But the individual could not join the militia without first being able to defend himself until they could gather.

    He could not strike out on his own and resist whatever law he personally finds unjust. I

    Really? So Rosa Parks was in the WRONG not to move to the back of the bus? All those civil rights marchers, the people who sat at the lunch counters, drank out of the ‘whites only’ fountains shoudln’t have struck out on their own and resisted whatever law they found personally unjust?

    We are each free to do exactly that. What is more, is we should feel responsible for doing exactly that.

    Even most ardent gun rights activists would be against the sale of high-grade military hardware (think tanks, APCs, attack helicopters) to private individuals.

    You do realize that many civilians own what you call high grade military hardware currently. That privately owned tanks, APCs, helicopters and even jets are rare but in significant quantities.

    However, by even admitting that restricting the private ownership of the deadliest military hardware is legal (and necessary), the conservative argument cannot hold completely

    No right is completely unfettered from restriction — I have to watch what I say, what I write, etc. But we already have laws to cover the illegal or cirminal use of arms. Just like we have the laws to cover the illegal or criminal use of words.
    I’ll compare firearms to air flight. We know that at a certain point a plane will crash; it a known reality. We still allow not only civilians to own and operate planes, we also allow larger commercial airlines. Despite the risk of catastrophic deaths, we recognize that liberty is too important to curtail. Why should we view firearms any differently?

    The whole debate therefore centers on where that line is. Everything else is noise or dishonesty.

    Absolutely. And for decades, gun control advocates have pushed that line time and time again toward greater and greater restriction of our rights. That time is coming to an end and greater and greater liberty is being restored. Now all 50 states allow some form of Concealed or Open Carry. More firearms are being purchased and carried then ever. The Supreme Court has recognized the 2nd Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms — the question to be asked next is what type of arms are protected.

    Think about your militia argument for a minute — if the 2nd Amendment is viewed as ‘militia centered’ then fully automatic firearms, anti-tank weapons, tanks, APCs, anti-aircraft missiles, cannons and artillery, maybe even tactical nuclear weapons are all part of the arsenal of today’s military. And if the militia, as in the Revolutionary War is expected to fight along side the military, then shouldn’t those arms be a part of our personal arsenal?

    Bob S.

    Like

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