This post will be briefer than I had originally intended, and for a couple of reasons.
First, I haven’t put up any threads for a while, and I feel as though I need a break from work today, so here you are. Second, and more importantly, my own position isn’t a “pure” Libertarian one, whatever that might mean. I had originally intended to do a “he-said-I-said” debate thread, with someone who does have the traditional position; unfortunately, he’s dropped off the radar recently. I also thought of Memoryvault who, while not blogging around these parts any longer, was a key player in the Australian gun law liberalization movement in the 1990s. Perhaps he’ll turn up to tell me why I’m wrong.
Most debate around this issue is framed in terms of the way it is conducted in America. I think this is wrong, due to the unique status over there of the right to bear arms. But I’ll start this thread across the Pacific anyway, just to keep things familiar.
The United States – A Special Case
For Libertarians living in the United States, the argument begins and ends with the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which states simply,
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.
You can well understand the intentions of the framers of the Constitution, chafing as they were under the yolk of British colonial oppression; a foreign power backed up by lethal force, which back then consisted of mounted cavalry and foot infantry, muskets, bayonets, pistols and the odd cannon. The sort of force, in other words, that a determined, armed and well-organized civilian militia might overcome.
What if the Constitution were being drafted today? In a democratic republic, is a civilian militia necessary? Plenty of Libertarians would have you believe that their opposition to gun regulation is tied to their fear of governments imposing their will on an increasingly disarmed citizenry, and only the right to bear arms stands in the way of totalitarianism sweeping away all our liberties.
An American Libertarian would no doubt respond, but the Constitution isn’t being written today, Ozboy; and should the population at some future date wish to amend the Constitution, there is an established procedure to do so. Quite right, I would reply, and God bless America. But really, if your government ever did decide to come after you with force, you would be bunkering down in your living room armed with your dozen rifles, while they have Blackhawk helicopters, main battle tanks, aircraft carriers, laser-guided smart bombs, cruise missiles, bloody ICBMs and who the hell knows what else. You simply can’t meet state armed force with armed force of your own: it isn’t 1776 anymore. Nor is America Nazi Germany, or the American public cowering in Jewish-style ghettoes (the other common comparison). In that case, a well-armed population might well have given the regime pause for thought in its murderous plans. For a while. Maybe.
Nor is that the route to power today’s Western totalitarians have chosen anyway; nor would it ever work—soldiers in Western democracies are voters too. Nor would our modern show-pony politicians have the guts to try. No, it’s the slow erosion of rights, the creeping of state tentacles into every area of private life, and the enslavement to a system of money built on a Ponzi scheme: those are the things all of us interested in Liberty realistically need to be concerned about.
And that’s another thing: the Second Amendment doesn’t define arms. Clearly, we’re not just talking about the long and short arms of 1776: pistols, shotguns and rifles. The National Rifle Association specifically asserts the right of American citizens to own weapons never imagined by the framers of the Constitution: machine guns, automatic and other rapid-fire, military assault rifles. Employing their own logic, I fail to see how the Second Amendment cannot be interpreted to extend to any other type of armament or weaponry: field artillery, grenades, armour-piercing ordnance, rocket launchers, bombs and so on. In fact, if the intent of the Founders was to perpetuate a well-regulated militia, which they regarded as being necessary to the security of a free State, how in 2013 could it be interpreted otherwise? The well-regulated bit may provide a clue.
None of the above should be interpreted as an apologia for greater control by the state of civilian firearm ownership. Americans are, in fact, quite right to regard their Constitution as sacrosanct. But in 2013, is arming the citizenry against the putative use of force by the state the most compelling argument, for non-Americans at least? I’d say an appeal to the Liberty of the individual, and against state regulation, is a far more persuasive rationale.
Does the Prevalence of Firearm Ownership Result in More Gun Crime?
No. Some anti-gun advocates compare the rate of gun homicides in Western countries with highly restrictive gun laws (Australia in 2008, for example had 0.3 deaths per 100,000 population) with the United States (3.6 per 100,000, or 12 times higher). Those using this argument are always careful to avoid mentioning countries like Switzerland or Israel, where citizens undergo universal military national service and may keep their weapons at home, yet have extremely low homicide rates; nor yet South Africa, which has highly restrictive firearms legislation yet in 2007 saw 17 gun homicides per 100,000 – nearly five times the American rate; nor Columbia or Honduras, where restrictive ownership laws also exist, yet the homicide rates soar over 50.
Self-evidently, a correlation exists between a gun homicide rates and factors such as cultural acceptance of gun ownership, drug or alcohol prohibition, lawlessness generally; not to mention the inevitable consequences of the modern Welfare State degrading its citizens by stripping them, not only of their rights, but of those responsibilities attendant upon them, as I’ve said here many times. After all, those who ignore the law to commit crimes with guns, will hardly think twice about obtaining those same guns illegally in the first place. How many times do the moralists need to have it shown to them, that if people want something badly enough, no law will stop them getting their hands on it? All prohibition does is to keep guns (or drugs, or alcohol, or whatever) out of the hands of the assiduously law-abiding, criminalize those who are otherwise not minded to break the law, foster contempt for the law generally, push distribution into the hands of professional criminals, skyrocket the market price, and corrupt governments, the courts and the police. Plus ça change…
Guns For Self-Defense
This is quite a contentious topic, and while it relates to some extent to the preceding section and the U.S. Second Amendment, it is applicable worldwide. The extreme Libertarian position was made most eloquently in a 1993 essay entitled A Nation of Cowards by Washington attorney Jeffrey R. Snyder who, as you will read, elevates carrying a weapon in public from a mere right to something approaching a moral imperative.
Crime is not only a complete disavowal of the social contract, but also a commandeering of the victim’s person and liberty. If the individual’s dignity lies in the fact that he is a moral agent engaging in actions of his own will, in free exchange with others, then crime always violates the victim’s dignity. It is, in fact, an act of enslavement. Your wallet, your purse, or your car may not be worth your life, but your dignity is; and if it is not worth fighting for, it can hardly be said to exist.
Snyder clearly believes that escalating a street robbery into a life-or-death moment is not too high a price to pay for resisting the injustice to your person and your property, and the momentary deprivation of your Liberty that represents. In fact, he goes so far as to assert that to fail to resist, and with lethal force, is morally equivalent to suicide.
The most cogent response to this essay I could find was this Newsweek article by Washington Post journalist George F. Will. Whether you regard it as addressing the substantive points in Snyder’s essay, or mere hand-wringing at the level of lawlessness in society, I leave you to judge.
Libertarianism on this point is clear and unequivocal: you have the right to defend yourself, by any necessary means—no ifs, no buts. The advisability of carrying a concealed handgun is another issue entirely, and I’d like to talk about that for a moment. Many people see the issue in simplistic, fictional terms, quite at odds with the situation they are likely to find in reality.
Or how about this classic:
I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those loudly calling for unrestricted, legal, concealed handguns regularly fantasize about themselves doing what William Shatner and Clint Eastwood did in the clips above. In fact, many’s the bloke I’ve heard in bars say it out loud. With the standard racial epithets regularly thrown in for good measure.
Now, I’m no expert in urban armed combat (I’ve fired a handgun precisely twice in my life; my nephew, a sworn police officer who lurks here, knows far more), but let me tell you something I do know about human nature, and it’s this: unless you have been rigorously trained, then until you have actually had a gun pointed in your face (I have), you have no way of knowing how you are going to react. The reality is, plenty of the toughest-talking bar-proppers suddenly confronted with the muzzle of a gun freeze like rabbits caught in a headlight. Some fall to their knees and beg for mercy; some wet their pants; some scream and wail. And some find the courage to retaliate.
But—if you are carrying a handgun yourself at the time, then you had better be damned sure you can, and will use it, and instantly. No small talk: DRAW-SAFETY-AIM-BANG-DEAD. All in one movement (while the guy with his gun already aimed at you and his finger on the trigger just stands there and looks on dumbly, like the criminals in the clips above were generous enough to do). And a centre-body shot, too—not some smart-arsed comedy routine like the two above, followed by targeting impossibly hard-to-hit, moving and non-vital body parts like feet. That’s just Hollywood bullshit. You draw out that pistol in a hesitant, shaking hand, and the guy who simply wanted your wallet will pull his trigger, and you’ve just paid the ultimate price for standing on ceremony. Worth it?
Even if you are highly-trained, the consequences don’t stop with the actual confrontation. Newspapers rarely report on the incidence of police officers, forced to kill an armed assailant in the line of duty, suffering anything from recurring nightmares and loss of appetite, all the way to full-blown post-traumatic stress syndrome or nervous breakdown, leading to alcoholism, gambling or drug abuse, loss of career, family breakdown and/or suicide. But it’s so prevalent the papers would rather play it down. No amount of training can prepare you for the psychological trauma associated with killing another human being. Yet the two heroes in the clips above are portrayed as some kind of emotional supermen, and I’m fairly sure many pro-gun advocates fondly imagine themselves to be the same. I’m all for their freedom of choice to defend themselves—but would question the wisdom of doing so with lethal force.
That’s why I personally think that for 99.7% of people—myself included—it’s ridiculous to walk around town carrying concealed weapons, even if it is legal to do so. The mugger with a gun doesn’t want to kill you—the pathetic little bastard just wants your wallet, for God’s sake. Give it to him, then watch him run! If he sets his own life and freedom at the price of your wallet, then I say take him at his own valuation.
You carrying a weapon just raises the stakes, from a few bucks to someone’s life: yours, or his. If you really do live in a neighbourhood so degraded that it’s filled with gun-toting nutters who actually do want to kill you, then I suggest you consider moving.
What about women? Plenty of females making the same argument for handguns, say that it is to protect themselves against sexual assault, not just murder. To which I’d make pretty much the same reply: sure, you are the owner of yourself, which begins with ownership of your own body. And yes, a handgun can be a mighty equalizer against a bigger and stronger foe. Just make sure you are ready, willing and able to use it. How to know beforehand whether you’re capable of employing lethal force? As I said above, you can’t possibly know, until it actually happens. Oh, and don’t let the gang who surrounds you (as opposed to the single assailant you were clearly expecting) find that gun on your person. Even if you manage to pop one or two of them, you are then highly likely to wind up someplace worse than dead. Absolutely, you have the right to defend yourself by any means, up to and including lethal force. Just as you have every right to walk alone down dark inner-city alleyways at night, if you really want to. All I’m saying is, think it through beforehand, and consider your options realistically.
One area where it’s clear the law is wrong is in the area of weaponry specifically designed for defense, not attack. In many jurisdictions, items such as body armour and handcuffs are outlawed or highly restricted, on the basis that criminals use them in armed conflicts, either with other criminals or the police. Such pretexts are patently hollow, and the law should not concern itself with any purely defensive weapon. My own favourite is this anti-carjacking device from South Africa, which turns aggressor into flaming torch instantly. Pour encourager les autres:
Can Common Sense Prevail?
My own position on the whole issue of firearms legislation, was defined originally by my abiding belief that government control over the citizenry, beyond upholding the law of the land, is an affront and an act of oppression. But it was also shaped by an event that occurred seventeen years ago last month, just a few miles from my home. A young man, carrying several legally obtained firearms, went on a shooting spree, killing thirty-five innocent people—men, women and children—and wounding over twenty others. When captured by police and examined by psychiatrists, this 28-year-old was found to have a mental age of eleven. The waves of trauma he caused that day (his name is rarely mentioned down here, and I ask that you refrain from doing so in your comments) continue to ripple outwards, and will go on doing so long after he is dead and buried.
The way I see it, guns are like cars. Both are deadly when placed in the hands of the inexperienced, the intoxicated, criminals or the insane. Now, even in an ideal Libertarian society, we wouldn’t let just anyone hop into a car and drive off down a public road. To be allowed to do so, you must first demonstrate in standard tests that you can operate a car safely and know the rules of the road. Certain classes of license exist for different types of vehicles. All vehicles must be registered and be in roadworthy condition to drive in public. Most jurisdictions will confiscate your drivers’ license if you are guilty of persistent traffic infringements or are found guilty of driving while intoxicated. But beyond that, with a drivers’ license you can own and drive as many cars as you like.
Surely, the same logic should apply to guns? Before being allowed to own one, you should be able to demonstrate your ability to handle firearms safely and know the laws relating to guns in your jurisdiction. We don’t want to issue them to those who have a record of committing crimes with them (but they will obtain them illegally anyway, so it’s largely an empty gesture). And we certainly don’t want them in the hands of lunatics.
On that subject, I do admit the issue of the lunatic mass-murderer is often a bit of a red herring. In the case I just referred to, the individual in question was able to obtain a driving license, and by the same logic would still have been able to obtain firearms legally, even if treated the same way. The same would have applied to the Norwegian mass killer Breivik, who was technically sane but driven by an extremist political philosophy.
Some people, referring to such mass murders, use the argument that if everyone around him was also armed, he never could have done it. One or two victims, maybe, before someone standing nearby took him out. I suppose that’s literally true. Just as if all the children in that American kindergarten recently were also packing side-arms, the would-be assailant in that case would have died in a hail of bullets. No doubt about it. But I wouldn’t want to be the teacher assigned to yard duty at lunchtime, unless I’d been issued with an armoured personnel carrier. Is that the society we want to live in? Is that really the price of Liberty?
Here in Australia, unlike in America, we have no cultural history of handgun ownership, and there is no widespread community sentiment to change the law, which restricts handgun ownership to licensed security guards and registered sporting shooters, who must keep their weapons onsite at pistol clubs in approved gun safes. Following Port Arthur, the Howard government (given bipartisan support by Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley) moved to restrict semi-automatic weapons, and harmonize gun ownership laws across the states. While I believe the ban on semi-automatics was an over-reaction, prompted by the fact that they had been used at Port Arthur and other multiple shootings down here (I still laugh at Memoryvault’s reaction to the buy-back and subsequent moratorium offered by the government), I have to say I think the gun laws in Australia today are otherwise pretty much where they should be. I can still obtain a Class-C weapon (that is, a semi-auto of up to 5 rounds or a pump-action shotgun) if I really want one, though it would entail more police checks than I’m currently subjected to. Though recreational users would doubtless disagree.
There’s any number of other aspects of this issue I could raise (home-made and 3D-printed firearms being but one recent example) but it’s getting late and my candlestick’s burning low, so I’ll leave those to you. Tomorrow it’s back to the grind, but I’ll look in regularly on the discussion—Cheers.