Let Us Begin Serious, Informed Consideration of Gun Control
The debate on gun control has been dumbed down to simple-mindedness. When success depends on a message attractive to the largest number possible, such a tendency is understandable. The danger is that policy decisions will flow directly from such simple terms, without benefit of careful, informed thought. One might hope that our elected representatives would in their deliberations supply the necessary correction. Good luck.
First, recognize that arms in civilian hands was an important concept to the Founders, such that they devoted an amendment in the Bill of Rights to that topic alone. If we propose to pass law which might bear upon that amendment, would it not be prudent first to understand the meaning and intent of the amendment?
What follows flows from a great deal of reading, enough that I am entirely confident of my understanding. If what I say is at odds with your understanding, I invite you to read more. The internet has made it easier than ever to access the minds of the Founders, through their letters and other documents. You can still disagree with me (or anyone or everyone), but you will do so as a better informed person.
On the topic of arms and militia, I offer a teaser. Read the last three paragraphs of The Federalist Papers, No. 46, by James Madison. Consider what is implied about militia and armed peoples. Read whatever else you like.
I will now briefly consider ways in which. gun control affects the militia as conceived by the Founders. If you are acquainted with the Founders' thinking on this topic, you will have no trouble following me, even if you disagree in some way or to some degree.
First, there is the matter contemplated in the first clause of the amendment, that of assuring a well regulated militia. It was clear in the Revolutionary War that people who kept and used their own arms were better fit for activation into effective (i.e., well regulated) military units than were those unfamiliar with arms. The first clause serves to remind us of that relationship, while the second promises no interference with the necessary civilian ownership and use of arms.
There have always been those who do not, for whatever reason, use guns, and thereby fail to develop skill at arms. Rural people are more likely to own guns than urban people, and our population has shifted drastically in favor of the latter. Gun-control advocates discourage civilian gun ownership, painting gun owners as somehow disreputable. Now that our military is all-volunteer, is there even a need for militia?
Military service has been voluntary for most of our history, but in times of need we have called upon the militia, most recently through Selective Service, or the draft. Consider the state of the world. Climate change threatens mass migrations. Dissolution of Cold War alliances threatens instability, often with a tendency toward authoritarianism. Small states seek parity through nuclear weapons. And our all-volunteer military is already severely overtaxed. Might we need to call once more upon the militia?
In thinking of these matters, please remember our history of entering wars unprepared. The number and scale of future wars might well outrun production of the whiz-bang high-tech weaponry to which we have become accustomed, if indeed it is useful at all. Modern warfare usually lacks stable fronts, and every unit may have to defend itself with old-fashioned infantry skills. The fewer possessing such skills, the greater the casualties and military losses.
What is the state of the militia? Some regions and classes still regard military service as part of growing up, but their numbers are shrinking. A larger proportion than ever before have no experience with arms. On a personal level, you might ask yourself: would your induction add or detract from a well regulated force? Your family and friends?
On the broader policy question, why further disarm the militia? Would it not be wiser to expand our embrace of diversity to include gun owners, those who shoulder the duty implied in the first clause of the amendment? A little respect and gratitude, even, would not be out of order.
Now let us move on to consider a most important principle at the heart of the American experiment. Madison, and others among the Founders, most often wrote about an armed people's ability to throw off a despotic government, an understandable emphasis in light of their recent experience. Please note, however, that hidden within that violent scenario is a more general truth, that an armed people hold, dispersed among themselves, the real source of political power. Colonial Americans had always been armed, and the Founders saw therein the means to self-determination.
The Founders were not first or last to grasp this truth. Probably best known is Carl von Clausewitz's dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means, with the obvious corollary that the side with means to make war has greater political power than an opponent without such means. One need only consider what passes for diplomacy between very powerful and very weak states. (For brevity, I favor Mao's "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.")
Some people dismiss the power of armed Americans relative to that of government, imagining a disorganized mob standing up to tanks, artillery, and aircraft. The reality differs. First, civilian arms are far more likely to be used to keep order in times of unrest, thus favoring the government.. In the extremely unlikely case of open rebellion, the military could not occupy enough territory to prevail, nor could it be depended upon to fire upon its own people.
While rule by law necessitates a government monopoly on the use of force, there is a qualitative difference between monopoly achieved by disarming the people and monopoly by consent of an armed people. The latter keeps the locus of power among the people. The former always leads to paternalistic government, assuming the duty of protecting the people at the expense of various inconveniences and loss of liberty. There is always pressure in that direction. Think about inroads into our privacy to "give police the tools they need" to protect us from drugs, for example.
Once the paternalistic model is established, it takes only a large enough crisis--depression, war, famine, whatever--to tempt a would-be savior to manage the crisis by seizing power, all for the good of the people, of course. This was the fate of many unarmed peoples in 20th-century Europe, some more than once.
Most of the countries in which the people lost control had some form of democratic government, some of which were even modeled on the American system. Do you suppose that Americans, or our Founders, were uniquely able to make self-government work? That's called exceptionalism. A single swipe of Occam's Razor brings us to the more likely distinction, arms among the people.
That is the large picture. Thought and study are necessary for wise policy on the smaller scale, also. Consider the two most popular proposals in gun control, both touted as "common-sense" measures: an "assault weapons" ban; and "universal" background checks.
The AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America, not surprisingly since its military cousin, the M-16, has been our standard infantry arm for over fifty years. Between three and five million have been sold on the civilian market. If we include other rifles with the same functional capability, semi-automatic fire from interchangeable magazines of twenty to thirty rounds, then fifteen million is a very conservative estimate of the number in civilian hands.
If we wildly over-state the number of these rifles used in mass shootings at 500, and use the certainly low estimate of fifteen million, then the percentage of civilian rifles used in shootings is 00.00333%. The other 99.99667%, or 14,999,500, are responsibly kept and used, and won't appear in lurid newspaper stories. Given these numbers, banning the rifles is an insanely irrational response, not to mention a practical impossibility. Shouldn't those who advocate the ban have known this? Perhaps if they'd turned their minds to discovering what sets shooters apart from the vast majority of gun owners, we might have found an effective solution by now.
"Universal" background checks for every transfer of a firearm might seem sensible if it were remotely practicable, but even a few minutes' reflection shows otherwise. It would impose a huge inconvenience on the lawful, while having no effect whatever on illegal trafficking. There is already a black market in guns for those prohibited from legal purchase, and that market would inevitably expand. Most legally owned guns lack an accessible paper trail, and many previously law-abiding owners will doubtless rebel against paying for government approval to transfer a gun to a relative or friend. Why enact such contemptible law with so little promise of any positive result?
So, in the end, is there reason to hope that enough of us will rise to educated, informed engagement in the democratic process as envisioned by the Founders? It is possible--sadly, tragically so--that too many of us have sunk to lives of complacent consumption-focused ignorance, and no longer understand, let alone meet, the requirements of self-governing citizenship. Who are you, and do you care?
Jon Eggleston is a retired St. Louis County
Corrections Deputy, and is a member of both
the NRA and the ACLU.