An important claim made by gun rights advocates in justifying the private ownership of firearms is that an armed populace acts as a deterrent against "domestic usurpations of power by rulers," foreign invasion and, more recently, terrorist attack. Indeed, when the president of the NRA describes the right to keep and bear arms as "the right protecting all the others," she is claiming that private ownership of firearms is not only a necessary condition for guaranteeing a free polity, but a sufficient condition.
I've spent the past week reading John Lott's More Guns, Less Crime, the conclusions of which I found less than compelling, and Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control by Gary Kleck and Don Kates, which I thought more persuasive, and as a result, I find myself more favorably inclined towards minimal restrictions on private gun ownership, though not quite to the same degree as the authors. For instance, Kleck (who, it should be noted, is a non-gun-owning liberal Democrat) argues that a system of licensing gun owners would provide no added value with regards to curbing crime, as conducting background checks as a part of legal firearms sales would achieve the same result without creating a de facto database of gun owners which might be exploited by a hypothetical future repressive government intent on disarming potential dissidents. Kleck states:
The government could issue certificates of nonfelon status, based on background checks as thorough and prolonged as one could want, without retaining lists of persons receiving the certificates, and then merely require that prospective gun buyers present an up-to-date certificate before a gun could be transferred. Under such a system, there would be no government-controlled list of gun owners generated. Likewise, certificates of completion of a gun safety course, or of residency, could be issued without any government retaining lists of recipients.
In fairness to Dr. Kleck, Armed was published in 2001, before it became apparent that a sufficiently ruthless executive, provided it received no opposition from a Congress controlled by members of its own party and a gutless Supreme Court, could circumvent the checks and balances notionally provided by the Constitution (resulting in warrantless NSA wiretaps, FBI "National Security Letters" et al.) and, even if discovered, get away with at most a token reprimand (and subsequently renege on the promise not to do it again). In June 2001, John Ashcroft imposed a policy requiring records of NICS background checks be destroyed after one day (rather than ninety, as was then standard), but six years later (and post-9/11), would you still trust the Bush administration if it claimed that it had not retained personal data of subjects of gun purchase background checks, thereby generating a "government-controlled list of gun owners"? Without adequate safeguards, any government power can be abused. It is tempting to argue that, in that case, the government should be stripped of that particular power, but this is unrealistic in this instance. After all, even in the most minarchist "night watchman state" model, the state exists at a minimum to provide law enforcement, which certainly includes curbing violent crime.
It strikes me, moreover, that relying on a "background check/certificate" system alone requires law enforcement to make the wholly unwarranted assumption that any citizen found in possession of a firearm must have purchased the weapon legally, when in fact said citizen might very well have acquired the gun in question by stealing it, or buying it from a fence, thereby side-stepping the background check. I doubt anyone will disagree when I say that the removal of firearms from criminals is a legitimate objective of public policy, though gun rights advocates will insist that the pursuit of this objective should not result in restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens to legally own guns. A reasonable enough demand in the United States, given the Second Amendment, but it does mean that law enforcement agencies need to be provided with the tools to distinguish between legally and illegally owned firearms; in practice, this means that they must be able to verify that the citizen with whom they are dealing is not barred from owning firearms (due to a prior felony conviction, history of mental illness, etc.).
This might be resolved by enabling individual law enforcement officers to run checks on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System—in effect giving them the ability to run the same kind of check that firearms dealers do—but, as I understand it, the NICS isn't always "instant," and provisions exist for the contingency that a check may take more than three days to complete. In many jurisdictions, background checks are waived if the purchaser can produce a CCW permit (or the local equivalent), as these require a more extensive background check to acquire. Would it then not be simpler to institute a system to license prospective gun owners, and have that license take the place of background checks (and any other certifications) on each purchase? Provided such licenses would be subject to "nondiscretionary" approval (that is, issuance should be mandatory if the applicant met the requirements), and would not be prohibitively expensive (and clauses were incorporated into the appropriate legislation prohibiting subsequent imposition of "discretionary" licensing or increasing the license fee beyond the rate of inflation), they should no more infringe upon the citizens' right to keep and bear arms than the current system does, and be no more vulnerable to abuse than the current system (arguably less so, since licensing does not create a record of every sale of a firearm).
Even such a notion, however, is anathema to the NRA leadership (the NRA is sufficiently large that I do not assume its leadership speaks for the entire membership in every respect), let alone more radical organizations like the Gun Owners of America (GOA) or Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO). Part of their objection is based on a "slippery slope" argument, to the effect that moderate gun control measures will pave the way for more far-reaching controls, and, possibly, ultimately complete prohibition of private firearms ownership. To a certain extent, they have a point; examples abound of prominent gun control advocates welcoming moderate restrictions as "a good first step in the right direction," and many of the arguments their organizations present do not only support such restrictions, but outright prohibition as well. On the other hand, existing restrictions—such as those prohibiting persons who have been convicted of a felony or have a significant history of mental illness from owning guns, tightening controls on licensed firearms dealers, and requiring background checks for firearm sales by licensed dealers—have not led inevitably to more stringent gun control legislation; or at least, none that did not come with a sunset clause, like the 1994 federal ban on "assault weapons" and "high-capacity" magazines. But even if the gun control opponents were entirely correct, and even the slightest gun control measure were to lead inevitably to total prohibition of private ownership, would that also inevitably lead to imposition of a tyrannical regime, while leaving the populace incapable of revolt? One might think so, but only if one were utterly and wilfully ignorant of the history of every country except the United States.
In 1929 the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, approximately 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915-1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, 13 million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and others, who were unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million "educated" people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
That places total victims who lost their lives because of gun control at approximately 56 million in the last century. Since we should learn from the mistakes of history, the next time someone talks in favor of gun control, find out which group of citizens they wish to have exterminated.
The assertion is made that these people died "because of gun control." There are three major flaws in this litany. The first two are ones of logical fallacies, to wit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy ("victims [...] lost their lives because of gun control") and a hasty generalization ("some governments imposed gun control to facilitate mass murder, therefore all governments who seek to impose gun control do so in order to facilitate mass murder"). The third is more subtle, as it lies in an unstated premise: for the litany to make sense, you have to assume that imposition of gun control legislation alone automatically results in the disarmament of the citizenry. In the case of China and Cambodia, however, the governments that conducted the exterminations were not the ones that had imposed the gun control measures in question; in both countries, non-state actors (the Communist Party of China and the Khmer Rouge) managed to seize power by force of arms, in both cases inexplicably unhampered in any way by their possession of those arms being illegal for over a decade.
Given its demonstrable falsity, then, why have this unstated premise at all? Because without it, one might be forced to confront the question how it is that the victims, had they been armed, would supposedly have been able to successfully resist being exterminated, but powerless to resist having their firearms confiscated in the first place. Assuming that all the examples listed are accurate (which is next to impossible to verify, as trying to Google any of them brings up countless reiterations of this litany and genuine information is utterly buried, if it is present at all), we have a string of repressive regimes imposing gun prohibitions on selected segments of their population for reasons which must, even at the time, have been fairly transparent. Does anyone honestly believe that in Germany in 1938—after five years of Nazi rule which had seen the banning of left-wing political parties and the rounding up and incarceration of their members, the forced sterilization of the "racially unsound" and the 1935 Nuremberg laws stripping Jews (and other "Non-Aryans") of their citizenship—any Jew, Communist or homosexual who still owned a gun thought to himself "oh, this is clearly a measure aimed purely at improving public safety; I'd best pop down to the police station this afternoon and hand in my guns"? Or that in the Soviet Union in 1929, after the devastating civil war, the brutal crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion, Stalin's abandonment of the New Economic Policy and his demagoguery against "Nepmen" and "kulaks," any gun owner would have regarded the imposition of more stringent gun controls as anything other than an attempt to facilitate yet another wave of state repression? Of course not. So one way or another, the gun control laws in question didn't make a difference, either because the target population didn't own guns to begin with (because, for example, they couldn't afford them) or because the offending government had the means to disarm them by force, or a combination of the two.
The fact is that private ownership of firearms is not a sufficient condition to guarantee freedom from tyranny, and historical examples abound to illustrate this fact. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the present-day border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina marked the confrontation line between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and able-bodied males on either side of the frontier were armed and trained in order to resist any incursion by the opposing side. Yet neither population ever threw off the yoke of their own overlords. The same area saw a series of localized peasant rebellions in 1949 and 1950, in response to Tito's adoption of Stalinist policies of agricultural collectivization. The rebels had no heavy weapons, but they did have plenty of small arms; gun ownership had long been common in the Balkans, for the purposes of hunting and providing protection against wild animals and bandits, and many of the rebels had fought as Partizans during the war and retained their weapons. Each of these rebellions was, however, repressed by Ministry of the Interior police troops and regular army in a matter of days (with mopping up taking a few more weeks), their leaders were executed, and a government clampdown was imposed on the district in question. In every case, the rebels had been unaware of the other rebellions taking place. Smaller-scale, though more tenacious, uprisings occurred in Romania throughout the 1950s.
Alternatively, we could look at the Arab world, where private gun ownership has long been commonplace in such bastions of democracy and respect for human rights as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Frankly, the ignorance of the folks over at Enter Stage Right is painfully evident from the fact that their anti-gun control gear features an image of Saddam Hussein; even after the (failed) uprisings in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, gun ownership in Iraq continued to be practically universal. Even in Basra, a predominantly Shi'ite city which had been a focal point in the rebellion, there were, on average, two guns per household prior to the 2003 Coalition invasion. Typically, at least one of those guns was an AK-variant (and not some watered-down, semi-auto-only "assault weapon" suitable for the American market, but the original selective-fire model). Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of small arms in Iraqi society, it ultimately took an invasion by foreign armed forces to knock Saddam from power.
What of the supposed success stories? Vietnam and Afghanistan are cited with depressing frequency as examples of a force of armed citizens defeating the military might of a superpower. In both cases, of course, the force of armed citizens operated from bases outside their own country, and received a steady stream of weapons from the other superpower. Nor, in either case, did the successful repulsion of the hostile superpower result in a free and democratic society; the reunification of Vietnam put the North Vietnamese Communists in charge of the whole country, while in Afghanistan, the factions who had fought the Soviets turned on each other, paving the way for the Taliban takeover in the 1990s.
There is, of course, one success story which does stand up to closer examination, namely the American Revolutionary War, though even this is not as unalloyed a victory for the armed citizenry as is all too often contended. Certainly, in the opening stages the colonial militias of the Puritan colonies of New England operated with sufficient effect to cause the British forces to evacuate that region, and militia activity throughout the war denied the British permanent control of the countryside. But the militia alone was incapable of forcing a decisive strategic victory, a fact which was acknowledged even before the battle of Bunker Hill, and reinforced by the Patriot defeat at that battle. Ending British colonial rule required the formation of the Continental Army, composed of full-time soldiers, and ultimately substantial foreign assistance, including use of French ports and the assistance of the French fleet. That is not to say the militia did not play a crucial role in the conflict, but before we see this as a vindication of the gun rights advocates' position, we must take certain matters into consideration. The effectiveness of the militia cannot be attributed solely to its members possessing firearms; training, organization, and experience from the French and Indian wars played at least as large a part. At the time that, as Emerson put it, "embattled farmers [...] fired the shot heard around the world" at Concord on 19-Apr-1775, those farmers were part of an armed force in which every able-bodied man had been required to serve since 1636, many of whose officers and senior NCOs were veterans of the French and Indian war (which had ended twelve years previously), and which had been training intensively (up to three times a week) for the past year to prepare for the day a confrontation like this would come about. The "minutemen" regiments, which formed the colony's rapid reaction force, had been instituted at the command of the Provincial Congress, which had also asserted control of all arms and military supplies in the colony(!), thereby setting a precedent for Massachusetts' present-day attitude toward gun ownership.
Similar considerations also apply to another example so beloved of gun rights advocates, Switzerland. The deterrent to invasion presented by the Swiss militia arguably has less to do with the fact that Swiss reservists are required keep their army-issue weapons at home—the ammunition issued with the weapon is not a full combat load, but only that deemed necessary for self-defense while traveling from home to the assigned assembly point, which implies that even Swiss soldiers are not considered to be fully "under arms" until they reach said assembly point—than with the fact that Switzerland has long had a highly comprehensive defense plan, including an extremely high level of organization and training on the part of the (again, conscripted) militia, demolition charges planted at strategic bridges, tunnels and mountain passes etc.; all of this set in a mountainous terrain, which greatly favors the defender. It should be fairly obvious that 450,000 Swiss reservists defending Switzerland would present a significantly more difficult challenge to an invading army than 450,000 NRA members (or even double that number) defending, say, Kansas. [Update: Switzerland is considering tightening its guns laws after two incidents of multiple shootings involving army-issue firearms.]
Obviously, if one intends to mount an insurgency against a repressive government or foreign invading or occupying power, it helps to already have some guns on hand in advance. But it's not a sufficient condition for success, nor is it a necessary condition. For example, if the film is to be believed, Michael Collins initially acquired most of his weapons by stealing them from the British. Similarly, the Soviet partisans managed to be a thorn in the Germans' side from 1941 until 1944, Stalinist gun control measures notwithstanding. Conversely, the black American civil rights campaign of the 1950s and 1960s managed to achieve its goals using tactics of nonviolence. Note that I say "tactics," rather than "principles"; King, like Gandhi before him, opted for nonviolent methods, not because his conscience would not countenance armed revolt, but because he judged that the latter would alienate potential key (i.e. white) sympathizers. And King was demonstrably correct in this; how many street names, counties and federal holidays are dedicated to Huey Newton? Even though gun control is supposedly racist, the right to keep and bear arms didn't help MLK, and it didn't help Huey Newton either.
The latter raises another question: if the Second Amendment does indeed exist to enable "the people" to revolt against and overthrow their government, who gets to make the decision to do so? What are the criteria by which the criminal justice system is supposed to distinguish legitimate rebellion, as supposedly provided for in the Constitution, from simple criminal activity? Presumably, the framers of the constitution did not intend to provide a legal defense for anyone who killed a county sheriff or town constable. Indeed, we can divine the contemporary attitude regarding rebellion from the government response to Shay's Rebellion of 1786 and especially the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794; in the case of the latter, Washington and Hamilton personally led the militia that crushed the uprising.
Apart from domestic tyrants and foreign would-be occupiers, of course, there's the threat of terrorism. Gun rights advocates argue that an armed citizenry will be capable of halting terrorist attacks in progress, before they can realize their full damage potential. One example often heard is of three (presumably Palestinian) terrorists who opened fire on a crowded cafe in Jerusalem, and found their plans thwarted when many of the civilians returned fire, killing two of the terrorists and incapacitating a third. A second is of a Palestinian gunman who opened fire on people waiting at a bus stop in Ashdod; again, Israeli civilians produced concealed weapons and opened fire, killing the assailant. In both instances, only one civilian was killed. These examples do indeed provide some support for the pro-gun position, but it is by no means a slam-dunk. For starters, the examples date from 1984 and 1994, respectively; two examples over a twenty-five year period does not provide a very strong basis for the formulation of public policy. And while enabling citizens to shoot back does, in fact, appear to have put a halt to attacks by gun-wielding terrorists, it has not halted terrorist attacks, but instead caused a shift in methods to suicide bombings. In addition, of course, the advantages must be weighed against the fact that Yigal Amir used a handgun licensed to his brother, Hagai, to assassinate prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; a murder with severe repercussions for the peace process. Moreover, in attempting to apply these models to American society, it has to borne in mind that there are significant differences with Israeli society; first, due to various factors, the threat presented to the average Israeli by terrorist activity is significantly higher than to the average American, and second, because Israel has universal conscription for men and women, with frequent call-ups for reservists, the state has a significant measure of oversight and control over how much firearms training its citizens get.
Since the horrific events at Beslan in September 2004, the specter of a possible repeat performance, this time on an American school, has loomed large in pro-gun rhetoric. Without privately owned guns, the children would be defenseless, just as they were in North Ossetia. But here's an article from the Sydney Morning Herald:
"From the start, (authorities) weren't doing things right," said Artur Belikov, 35, attending a wake at the graves of his relatives Albina Budayeva, 38, and her three-year-old daughter, Valeria. He said armed locals charged ahead of special forces troops to prevent them from moving in.
Another Beslan resident who called himself Robert said he arrived soon after the siege started and stood guard throughout the entire standoff.
He demurred when asked how he got the gun he used since private citizens aren't normally allowed to keep weapons in Russia. However, the myriad of conflicts that have erupted since the 1991 Soviet collapse have made weapons easily available.
And yet, this knowledge evidently did not deter the terrorists. So did the armed civilians at least make a positive contribution? Not according to the Washington Post:
[Alexander Torshin, chairman of the parliamentary investigation commission] said the security services had failed to create an effective cordon around the school, which allowed residents, some of them firing weapons, to break through police lines to try to save their children. While the anguish of parents was understandable, he said, it hampered an effective police operation.
This is consistent with the passage in the SMH story (which was published shortly after the massacre, while the WaPo story is from December 2005) about "locals charg[ing] ahead of special forces troops." The SMH story also notes:
The siege left 11 soldiers from Russia's elite special forces units dead, according to official statements - their largest number killed in a single battle. Some reports have said they were shot in the back by overanxious locals at the scene.
Oops! Another WaPo piece from the same date corroborates the latter claim, stating that "in the chaos, armed civilians accidentally shot several members of Russia's special forces." But it gets worse. From BBC News:
A key negotiator from the school siege in Beslan, south Russia, has said shooting by armed civilians provoked the final slaughter of the hostages.
Ruslan Aushev told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that the civilians had opened fire at the school after an explosion sent children streaming out. [...]
The shooting by the irregulars - described by Mr Aushev as an "idiotic third force" - started a chain reaction, he said.
Suddenly, the idea of armed civilians getting involved in hostage crises loses some of its appeal, doesn't it? There's the possibility of arming teachers, of course, but there were 32 or more terrorists at Beslan, presumably all well trained and/or experienced, and armed with assault rifles. How effective could a few teachers with concealed handguns possibly be, especially if the terrorists were forewarned of the possibility that the teachers might be packing? A change in the law allowing teachers to carry concealed in the classroom would be in all the papers, and it's dangerously complacent to think that terrorists don't read newspapers. So wouldn't they anticipate the possibility of teachers offering armed resistance by simply shooting the teachers first, and checking for concealed weapons later? The teachers will never have the initiative when they're focused on teaching a class (which is, after all, what they're there to do, not playing security guard).
What I am arguing here is not that private gun ownership can never be helpful in deterring or resisting tyranny, invasion and occupation, or terrorist attack; what I'm arguing is that the beneficial effects are by no means certain—that guns might be of help, not definitely would be—and an appeal to such effects should be not be given excessive consideration in formulating public policy. By which I mean that they should not be dismissed out of hand, but it should be understood that envisaged situations may never occur, and that the effectiveness of weapons in private hands will be limited. And that has to be weighed against the likelihood of some private citizens abusing the powers they have been given, and the resulting harm. No matter how you slice it, mass shootings—like those at Virginia Tech, Trolley Square Mall, West Nickel Mines School, the Seattle Jewish Federation, Seattle's Capitol Hill, and Red Lake High School, to name the notable incidents of the past two years—are the elephant in the room where private gun ownership in America is concerned. Yes, mass shootings constitute (much) less than 1% of gun homicides, let alone total homicides, even in the worst years, but they do constitute a phenomenon which conspicuously occurs far more in the United States than anywhere else, even when one takes into account differences in population. I think, though, that it's simplistic in the extreme to attribute this fact solely to the legal availability of guns in American society. In principle, the murderers in the incidents listed above all really shouldn't have possessed the guns they used: Talović (Trolley Square Mall) and Weise (Red Lake High School) obtained their guns illegally; Huff (Capitol Hill) had had his guns confiscated when he was charged with felony criminal mischief (shooting at a statue of a moose in Whitefish, Montana), but had them returned after he plea-bargained the charge down to a misdemeanor; Haq (Seattle Jewish Federation) had been diagnosed as being bipolar, and Cho (Virginia Tech) had been suspected of being "an imminent danger to self or others" by a district court; it's a safe bet that Roberts (West Nickel Mines School) had known issues as well, that should have resulted in his being disqualified from owning firearms, if only somebody had bothered to take action. The fact, nobody ever "just snaps"; there always turns out to have been a slew of "pre-incident indicators" (as Gavin de Becker terms it), often including one or more people thinking "that guy's going to kill somebody someday." Theoretically, the laws required to prevent the aforementioned spree killers from owning guns are already in place. Convicted felons and the mentally ill are prohibited from owning firearms under federal law, but the problem is that the law does not take into account the possibility of plea-bargaining to a felony charge down to a misdemeanor charge, and requires that a person judged mentally ill be involuntarily committed to a mental health care facility before he is disqualified from owning firearms. Possibly, the answer is to amend the existing law that felonies involving use of a firearm should not be permitted to be plea-bargained to less than a felony, and that disqualification on the grounds of mental disturbance be expanded to not necessarily require the subject being committed (though, as I suggested in my previous post, there should be a way to appeal such a decision).
While I'm on that topic, though, something I thoroughly oppose is this: on 26-Apr-2007, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), in response to a legislative proposal from the Department of Justice, introduced a bill which would disqualify "prohibit terrorist suspects from purchasing firearms." No, no, a thousand times no; this is exploiting right-wing bullshit regarding terrorism to push left-wing bullshit regarding gun ownership, and the primary victims will be due process and, by extension, the rule of law. There is a crucial difference between "terrorist suspects" and ordinary "criminal suspects," namely that "criminal suspects" are people who are suspected of having committed a crime which has actually (already) taken place, whereas "terrorist suspects" are people who, according to certain parties within the executive branch of government, might commit an unspecified act of terrorism at some unspecified future time, based on no clear criteria. Leaving aside whether or not you think this should be the case, the right to keep and bear arms is a constitutionally guaranteed right, and it's a very bad idea to start stripping people's constitutional rights on the basis of suspicion alone, especially ill-defined suspicion. Sure, the bill supposedly "includes due process safeguards that afford an affected person an opportunity to challenge a denial by the Attorney General," but no matter how you slice it, this still translates to "guilty until proven innocent." And proving oneself innocent can be tricky, given that the bill also "protects the sensitive information upon which terrorist watch list listings [sic] are based" by permitting the Attorney-General to withhold from the petitioner any information the release of which would, according to the Attorney-General, "likely compromise national security," and to submit only "summaries or redacted versions of documents" containing such information to the court. We've seen how wonderfully federal watch lists have worked with the TSA's "No Fly" and "Selectee" lists, and the same argument applies here: if the government has probable cause to suspect someone of criminal activity, that person should be arrested, charged and prosecuted; if not, that person should be left alone. This is one issue where I side with the NRA, and I'm sad to say that I've read a few too many left-wing bloggers who welcome this as an erosion of private gun ownership without recognizing the fact that it is also an assault on due process; one in a long line under this administration.
That, perhaps, is what makes me most skeptical about the assertion that the right to keep and bear arms is "the right protecting all the others": we've had warrantless wire-taps, we've had a US citizen (Jose Padilla) held for several years without being charged, we've had abuse of National Security Letters, we've had the undermining of the right of habeas corpus and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment with the Military Commissions Act, all utterly undeterred by the presence of 270 million guns in private hands.