As one might expect, since the horrendous massacre at Newtown, the national debate on gun control, and specifically, access to assault-style firearms, has come back with a vengeance. As a “gun rights” advocate myself, I’ve heard the renewed debate with great disappointment as both sides trot out the same tired old discredited arguments and dance around unpalatable truths.
“Assault-style” weapons are for defense, not hunting. One of the tired shibboleths being constantly pronounced is that “no one needs a semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round clip to hunt deer.” Well, that’s true. It’s also really unlikely that most people would ever need such a rifle to fend off muggers or burglars, either. A military-style weapon is most useful for defense against military-style opponents.
Movies like “Red Dawn,” notwithstanding, the chance of a foreign invader ever making it to US shores is vanishingly small. Wars with Mexico and Canada (as part of the British Empire) are part of our history, but I can’t see such in our future. The fact is that the ultimate check on the power of the United States government is the power of the people to resist it. As the Declaration of Independence says, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (securing the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new governments.” As not only history, but current events (cf.: Syria) , show us, such destructive governments do not tend to go gently into the good night.
Our Founding Fathers of course knew this well. They stockpiled military-style weapons of their day and had to resort to their use in order to throw off British tyranny. Indeed, did not one of the most famous episodes in the early days of the struggle for independence, “the midnight ride of Paul Revere”, center around a British attempt to seize a Colonial weapons stockpile?
The Brown Bess musket was the assault weapon of its day, and the comparison is not a specious one. The British Army infantry, the best trained in the world, could put out five aimed shots per minute per man. In the tactic known as ‘company fire’ a regiment of foot issued a continuous rolling barrage of musketry that had the most devastating effect on enemy formations of any direct-fire weaponry until the introduction of machine-gun batteries in World War I. The Founders knew this. However, instead of putting a blanket right of the people to keep and bear arms into the Bill of Rights, they did not limit the right to possession of pistols and fowling pieces. Even when there was an actual insurrection against the Federal government, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, there was no talk of disarming the populace or of restricting the people’s access to weaponry.
I am not one of those who say that the time to take up arms against the government is now. Neither am I one who says the prospect is unthinkable. I vividly recall the 1964 movie “Seven Days In May,” based on the novel by Fletcher Kneble (also author of "Fail Safe"), which postulated a military-based conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. President Kennedy read the novel and believed that the scenario as described could occur in the United States, and gave government cooperation to the making of the film, over Pentagon objection.
I recall the days surrounding the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and taking part in serious discussions of what would happen if Nixon, whom by that time nobody trusted, “sent troops up Capitol Hill.” Things we have heard since, about Nixon wandering the halls of the White House talking to the portraits of his predecessors, make that scenario more, rather than less, unlikely in my opinion.
It wasn’t until much later that I read Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. That story hasn’t gotten any less chilling with time. The more I see our politics descend into demagoguery, slander, and “big lies,” the more plausible it becomes.
As things stand right now, the United States could be destroyed, as by a foreign nuclear attack, but not be conquered or occupied. Any would-be dictator must consider the sobering fact that he would face an insurgency unlike anything in history. If we lose the potential to resist the government, we are no better off than the citizens of Syria or North Korea. If the government has a monopoly on coercive force, then our rights become unenforceable and we exercise them only at sufferance.
The other tired argument being trotted out is the “militia” argument: the proposition that the right to keep and bear arms is a collective right pertaining to the (non-existent) well-ordered militia, and not to individuals. Besides this position having been shot down (so to speak) in the Supreme Court’s rulings in “District of Columbia vs. Heller,” and “McDonald vs. Chicago,” this argument has always been based on a misreading of the 1938 case “United States vs. Miller.”
A bit of history: The Miller case grew out of government response to Prohibition-era gang warfare, wherein mobsters were engaging in what we’d now call “close quarters combat” using, among other weapons, sub-machine guns, hand grenades, and sawed-off shotguns. The US government did not attempt to ban those weapons, probably rightly viewing the 2nd Amendment challenge that would arise, but instead enacted a tax law, requiring a license be acquired and fee paid for possession of such weapons. This gave them an additional prosecutorial weapon to use against criminals.
Miller was convicted of possession of an unlicensed short-barreled shotgun. He appealed, and the Supreme Court upheld the conviction on the basis that the 2nd Amendment protected the possession of such weapons as were appropriate for a militia, and, that since sawed-off shotguns were prohibited as a weapon of war by the Geneva Convention, the possession of the shotgun was not protected by the 2nd Amendment. “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a 'shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length' at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense. “ The text of the decision, which can be found here: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=307&invol=174
goes into considerable detail relating the provisions of Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution(power of the Congress to call out the militia) to the 2nd Amendment, but does not explicitly state whether the right to keep and bear arms is collective or individual, despite many interpretations claiming so since.
The interesting thing is that, had the defendant been charged with the possession of a “tommy gun” or hand grenade, both of which were in the inventories of the US Army and every state militia, by this reasoning the conviction should have been reversed. By the same reasoning, possession of actual full-auto assault rifles, not just semi-automatic replicas, would be protected under the 2nd Amendment.
The “well-ordered militia” doesn’t really have any great potential for resisting government tyranny. The organized militia consists of the National Guard. Although under the US Constitution, the several states retain the power to appoint officers, etc., as a practical matter the various Guard and Reserve units are administered as parts of the national military structures they support—Army, Navy, etc. Also, besides being integrated into the national command structure and military culture, the President has the power to call Guard units into national service at any time. In 1957, following the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to preserve order, a euphemism for keeping African American students out of formerly all-white Little Rock schools. However, on September 25, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed paratroopers to carry out the desegregation orders of the federal courts. The Arkansas National Guard obeyed presidential orders. One supposes that if there were a sufficiently serious breach between the states and the federal government—on the level of a new civil war—National Guardsmen might make the decision to oppose the federals, setting aside oaths of obedience and the fear of military punishments, but, failing that, I don’t think the Militia is going to be anyone’s protector of individual rights.
The other unspoken concept in this controversy is that rights have costs. As I’ve said before, ours is an adolescent society. People want, and have the physical ability to grasp, all the powerful and dangerous “adult” instrumentalities: free speech, consensual casual sex, fast cars, liquor, other recreational drugs, guns. However, people all-too-often lack the emotional or intellectual maturity to use these things responsibly. The result is an unavoidable cost in human misery until we finish ‘growing up’. I don’t see that a return to a perpetual state of social kindergarten in which all the potentially hurtful things are locked away forever, is a viable or sensible option.
I cannot say that the lives of twenty children are an acceptable price to pay for our freedom. However, I can’t either say that any restriction of freedom is acceptable “if it saves one life,” as is currently being argued. What we really need to do is to grow up. We need to get over this idea that America in general and Americans in particular, have to be the biggest bad-asses on the block. We need to teach firmly that violence is the last resort rather than the first approach to problem solving. I note with some dismay that we will soon have yet another “Die Hard” movie opening, in which, doubtless, the final resolution will involve the hero “belting up” with as many weapons as he can get and emerging victorious from a prolonged gun battle with the dastardly bad guys. Well and good, one supposes, for the increasingly unlikely scenarios in which John McClane finds himself, but it would be well if these were generally understood to be fantasies, and not primers on how to deal with your property-line dispute with your neighbor, or your frustrations with your mother.
Until then, what is to be done? I’ve never objected to the idea of universal background checks for gun buyers, including gun shows, not that I think it will help all that much. I’ve been to many gun shows, and you don’t see any inner-city “gang bangers” there. Disgruntled white survivalist types, yes—but most of them are otherwise law-abiding, and have no record to stop them buying what they want.
For that matter, I’ve not opposed licensing for firearms owners as long as it would be reasonable, fairly administered and not arbitrarily revocable. The problem with states that have concealed carry permits which are issued at the discretion of the sheriff or police chief is that is usually ends up being the sheriff’s cronies who get them, and anyone he dislikes is out of luck.
I do oppose registration. Registration has historically always lead to confiscation, even in democracies. After World War II, perhaps mindful of the miserable unreadiness of its “Home Guard,” Great Britain allowed veterans to claim and keep as mementos the rifles that they had used in the war. Decades later that decision was reversed, and the ex-soldiers were required to turn in their bolt-action Enfields for destruction, or prove that they had been rendered inoperable. Some elected to do the deed themselves: I recall reading a story at the time, of a daughter watching the tears running down the face of her father as the old soldier took a hacksaw to the faithful rifle that he had carried through five years of war, and that had saved his life in battle.
What passes in our country for a “mental health system” is miserably inadequate. “Deinstitutionalization” was supposed to be replaced by a comprehensive community-based support system, which like the “well-ordered militia,” has never been legislated for, organized, or funded. Most people don’t have any reasonable access to mental health care, and no way to pay for it. We have zero in the way of general screening. One letter writer I saw in the local paper proposed that any would-be gun buyer should be required to complete the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index, a screening tool for various antisocial personality disorders. Why shouldn’t something like that be administered to all high school freshmen, and appropriate referrals be made? (I know—much too “Brave New World” for most peoples’ taste, even setting aside the likelihood that a majority of teenage boys would end up on anti-psychotic medications--.)
On the specific issue, school security could certainly be improved. We have so aggressively disarmed our school districts to the point that there is not so much of a squirt gun available to deter any attacker. There’s nothing to stop any pervert or madman from entering a school armed with so much as a knife and wreaking havoc, as happened recently in China. The worst school killing in American history took place in the 1920’s, and was done with what we’d now call a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Its disingenuous to suggest that a determined killer couldn’t do as bad or worse tomorrow, having provide himself with simple pipe bombs, or a couple of strategically placed buckets of gasoline. (´See, I'm a man of simple tastes. I enjoy dynamite, and gunpowder, and... gasoline!” Joker, “The Dark Knight”) On the other hand, there have been a number of cases in schools that DO have armed security, or, in one case, an armed vice-principal, where gunmen were denied entry and apprehended or killed. These don’t make big news because only the “bad guys” died, if anyone at all.
I don’t think proposals for arming teachers with firearms are reasonable. I don’t think the idea of having police on scene is intrinsically bad, although expensive. As an alternative proposal, why not provide teachers with pepper spray? Many commercially available sprays are effective out to twenty-five feet, the confines of many school rooms, and a hit in the chest is just as likely to be disabling as a hit in the eyes. (The idea of “Bear Guard,” one of the first commercially available sprays, is to keep the bear away before it gets to you--.) Even if the criminal wears a gas mask, as the Colorado movie killer did, there are vision-blocking sprays that effervesce on impact into a dye-bearing foam. Training is much more simple than firearm training would be. The technology exists to make a spray gun with a magnetic trigger lock or biometric grip to prevent accidental discharges. Far from foolproof, obviously. Certainly, there will be accidents, but, as they are saying, if it saves one life?