Armed and Dangerous: The Gun Debate

Twenty years ago, in a letter to The Washington Post, Gun Owners of America Director Larry Pratt made the argument that the only thing separating Americans from the oppressed peoples of China and the Baltic States was their access to weapons. “When the police have all the guns,” he wrote, “brutal attacks against defenseless citizens will become as common here as in other oppressed regimes. This is why gun owners oppose the banning of so-called assault rifles.”

Does this sound familiar? It should. The same argument is being made today by that organization and other pro-gun groups. The only way to prevent a police state, which many people claim is in the works — in secret, is to allow the wide and unregulated distribution of all sorts of weapons.

This logic, which assumes that any regulation is the first step toward confiscation, represents the paranoid and individualist mentality that for decades has dominated the debate about gun violence in the US. We are free, the argument goes, only as long as we can defend ourselves with guns – not only against criminals but also against the law and the State.

A related argument is that the federal government should not be allowed to regulate guns, and that this is a matter best left to states. And if a state wants to do nothing, perhaps because the gun lobby can defeat candidates who back even modern reforms, or because the crime rate isn’t soaring or no mass shootings have recently occurred, people in neighboring states must simply spend more money to crack down on crime and violence. It’s simply the price of freedom.

Such arguments are based on the notion that government should not meddle in the affairs of individuals. Guns are not the problem, opponents add, it’s people – in other words, human nature. But most homicides in the US are committed with guns; in other words, people with guns kill more people than those without them. There are 270 million privately owned firearms in this country. Use by children has increased in recent years, as has the stockpiling of exotic weapons by extreme groups and criminal organizations.

Considering this context, it seems reasonable to ask what is more threatening to freedom and security, unrestrained gun ownership or some government oversight? The arguments against regulation tend to fall into three categories: 1) the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected, 2) gun control won’t reduce violence in society, and 3) gun laws are a serious threat to freedom.

Do these assertions hold up to scrutiny?

Arms and the Law

The roots of US ideas about the relationship between weapons and society go back to the Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who noted that military service should be the responsibility of every citizen, but soldiering the profession of none. Basing his ideas on the Roman suspicion of professional soldiers, he concluded that military force should only be used to assure the common good. This idea of citizens bearing arms in defense of the state, to avoid the potential tyranny of a standing army, was translated by the authors of the Bill of Rights into the Second Amendment and helps to explain its unusual wording: “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.”

Many libertarians have interpreted this sentence to mean that individuals are guaranteed the right to possess firearms for their personal defense or for any other use they choose. What this fails to acknowledge is the meaning of citizenship as it was understood two centuries ago. In the 18th century, citizenship directly involved militia service for men, which was part of the commitment to the greater public good. An armed citizenry did not mean an armed population. In fact, even then it was clearly understood that access to weapons was a communal rather than an individual right.

This dynamic was made clear in various declarations of rights predating the Bill of Rights. For example, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, adopted on June 12, 1776, said that a well-regulated militia, trained to arm, was the safe defense of a free state. That and subsequent variations adopted by other states made it clear that the idea was trained citizens, organized in militias, providing for a common defense. The word “people” refers to this collective role, contrasting a militia to a standing army.

Article 17 of Vermont’s Declaration of Rights, adopted in 1777, followed this logic by proclaiming: “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State; and as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military ought to be kept under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.”

Vermont’s Article 9, which dealt with the matter of conscientious objection to military service, made it clear that “bearing arms” meant military service. It said that no one could be compelled to carry or use a gun, even though rights also involved personal service. The solution was that those who chose not to serve would pay an appropriate sum of money. Bearing arms was directly linked to the collective responsibility for defense.

Several states specifically said that criminals or people involved in rebellion could be disarmed. In other words, the security of society took precedence over an individual’s right to have weapons. Thus, when early Americans spoke of an armed citizenry’s role in preserving freedom, they were talking about a militia linked to the classical idea of citizenship. There is no record of anyone arguing, during the passage of the Bill of Rights, that individuals had a right to bear arms outside the ranks of a militia. On the contrary, that provoked fear for the stability of the new Republic.

The great constitutional commentator of the period, Justice Joseph Story, noted that what the Second Amendment actually guaranteed was a “well-regulated militia.” The fear was that without one the country might be vulnerable to invasion, domestic insurrection, or a military takeover by some ruler. We needed a militia, Story said, because it was impractical to keep people armed without some organization.

The fear of a militarized society or a federal government monopoly on force is not, by definition, a form of paranoia. On the other hand, it is an overreach to claim that individuals have a fundamental right to protect themselves by stockpiling weapons. For those who want a counter-force to our national military, the direction to look is greater autonomy of organized local or state militias, not the right of people to become self-appointed guardians or vigilantes.

Legal Precedents

Despite the endless repetition of claims that individuals have a constitutional right to be armed, this is not consistent with the weight of legal opinion. In fact, a series of US Supreme Court cases have made the situation quite clear. In U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876), the Court ruled that the right “of bearing arms for a lawful purpose is not a right granted by the Constitution.” Ten years later, in Presser v. Illinois, the Court noted that although states have the right to form militias, they are also free to regulate the circumstances under which citizens can carry weapons. This view was upheld in an 1894 case, Miller v. Texas.

In 1939, federal gun regulations established by the National Firearms Act of 1934 were challenged.  The decision in that case was unanimous. The federal government has the right, the Court ruled, to regulate the transportation and possession of firearms, and individuals only have a right to be armed in connection with military service. In 1980, Justice Harry Blackmun commented that this case represented the Courts’ basic thinking on gun control.

On June 8, 1981, the Village of Morton Grove, Illinois passed an ordinance banning the possession of handguns, except by police, prison officials, members of the military, recognized collectors and those who needed them for their work. Predictably, the National Rifle Association challenged the law. Both the Federal District Court and a Federal Appeals Court rejected their argument, saying that there is no individual right to bear arms, the ordinance was reasonable, and the right to have weapons applies only to well-regulated militias.

The US Supreme Court refused to even hear the case.

Guns and Crime

Sentiment in favor on some form of gun control fluctuates, but has tended to grow for decades. In 1968 71 percent were in favor, peaking at more than 90 percent in 1981. In one Gallop Poll the Brady Bill won 95 percent support. Most people obviously see some connection between the availability of firearms and the rate of crimes involving guns, and a variety of studies support these views. Nevertheless, opponents insist that stronger laws won’t have an impact.

Interstate trafficking of weapons is an enormous problem, undercutting the argument sometimes heard that the only reason for gun control is a high murder rate in a specific state. This provincial argument ignores interdependence, our responsibility to our neighbors, and basic facts. The only effective way to control the black market for guns, through gun shows and private sales, is a national registry of all purchasers, along with tracing and prosecution of the interstate traffickers. This does not involve rounding up handguns, but it does mean acknowledging that the situation is out of control and that saving lives takes priority over protecting a form of free enterprise that has turned monstrous.

Leaving the matter in the hands of individual communities or states may sound appropriately populous. But it avoids the issue. In 2011 guns were involved in more than 32,000 US deaths, 11,100 of them murders, as well as thousands of rapes, hundreds of thousands of robberies, and about a half million assaults. The vast majority of people convicted of violent crimes obtained their weapons either at a gun shows or on the black market. That suggests, of course, that background checks alone will not make a huge dent in the problem. But a reduction of twenty percent would be significant; perhaps one less child killed every day and fewer rapes and murders.

Many crimes involving guns are impulsive, suggesting that a waiting period could help in some cases.  Of course, the underlying causes of violence and crime must also be addressed. But for those among the 20 percent who might be saved by modest reforms that would be more meaningful than any statistic or slogan.

The NRA is fond of saying that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s a tidy little argument but let’s get real: people with guns can kill people far more effortlessly than people with knives, deadly fighting skills or poison. The FBI has assembled evidence on whether stricter laws make a difference. For example, after Massachusetts passed a law requiring a mandatory jail sentence for carrying a handgun without a license murders involving handguns dropped by almost 50 percent. Robberies went down 35 percent.  After South Carolina tightened its handgun purchase requirement in the 1990s, the murder rate dropped 28 percent.

Registration and background checks are no panacea. However, they do keep weapons out of the hands of some criminals, addicts and kids. They can also reduce the number of murder and suicides that result from being able to buy a gun in a state of rage or depression. Drivers’ licenses and automobile registration do not prevent all auto accidents – but they help. To drive a car, a potentially dangerous vehicle, we agree that people need to be properly trained and meet minimum standards.  Similar requirements, in the form of gun safety programs and practical tests for the owners of lethal weapons, would be a step toward national sanity.

Weapons and freedom

No freedom is absolute. Even in the most decentralized and self-managed society, people must accept some social responsibilities and limits in exchange for liberty.

Ideally, in a free society citizens participate directly in making the rules governing their social contract. But even Michael Bakunin, an anarchist philosopher who took the practice of liberty to a place some might consider extreme, did not ignore the importance of social responsibility. Human beings can only fulfill their free individuality by complementing it through all the individuals around them, he argued. Bakunin was contemptuous of the type of individualism that asserts the well-being on one person or group to the detriment of others.

“Total isolation is intellectual, moral and material death.” he wrote.

When a disturbed teenager or disgruntled adult commits mass murder it has nothing to do with liberty. People obviously do not have the right to abuse or destroy the lives and liberties of others. Yet, when the issue is guns, many Americans essentially argue that the freedom to be armed is more important that the right to be safe. Actually, many say that being armed is the only way to be safe, and therefore any restriction on the access to weapons is a profound threat to freedom.

Allowing the government to take any step, argue the opponents of gun regulation, is the beginning of tyranny. From this vantage point government is the enemy. It would be naive to argument that the government always uses its power wisely. The political system cries out for change, if not transformation, if we are ever to have a society that promotes real equality, justice, respect for diversity, and self-management. Yet achieving this, empowering people and making step-by-step progress, requires an appeal to hope rather than fear. Arguing that the only way to be free is to oppose and resist government, in other words knee-jerk rejection, plays into the hands of the most reactionary forces in society.

Suspicion of centralized power was clearly a concern of those who founded the country. It is still justified and relevant. But the form that most threatens freedom in the 21st century is the power of powerful, unaccountable institutions, most of them private, that can influence elections and shaped government policies. Many of these same interests aggressively argue that freedom means “freedom from government.” Such appeals are a convenient way to prevent intrusions into the private “right” to profit and pollute at the expense of the general health and well-being – to exploit in the name of freedom.

In the 1970s a Trilateral Commission study candidly concluded that a central objective of corporate planning in the coming era would be to lower expectations. People needed to be convinced to expect less, to accept a reduced standard of living and stop demanding that government solve all their problems.  Reagan was not a Trilateralist, but he was an effective spokesman for the same position. The Clinton administration, although committed rhetorically to “activist” government, embraced a similar social and economic agenda.

The bottom line is this: Effective regulation, combined with a comprehensive national database and a training program for gun users, would establish over time that less access to guns leads to less violent crime. This has been the case in Europe and some US states. Success would help shatter the myth that government is the problem, and that people are better off armed to the teeth and on their own.

The debate over guns is not about restricting rights. That’s the cover story, an assumption promoted by the gun lobby to shape public perceptions. It’s not even about “control,” any more than the fight for affordable housing is secretly a fight for rent control. The goal is security, freedom from the fear and anxiety sweeping across this over-armed society.

A well-regulated militia is an altruistic idea, certainly preferable to the military-industrial complex. But almost 300 million guns in private hands is – pardon the expression – overkill.

In Switzerland, most adults between 20 and 30 males become members of a militia. They receive training, rifles and ammunition from the government that are kept in homes. However, handguns are tightly controlled and anyone who wants one must have a background check and obtain a permit.

In 2010, there were 40 Swiss homicides involving firearms, for a rate of 0.70 per 100,000.  The US rate was 3.6, or five times as high.

Greg Guma is an author, editor and the former CEO of Pacifica Radio. He lives in Vermont and writes about politics and culture on his blog, Maverick Media (