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In Defense of the Firearm

This is one part of the larger debate on gun control in the U.S. The opposing article can be found here.

When discussing an issue that carries the gravity of loss of human life, it is critical not to mince words. Guns are tools with a very specific utility. They are machines designed to kill people. They are very good at doing this, better than almost anything else available. In the wrong hands, they can be used to deprive an innocent civilian of life.

The Second Amendment is abundantly clear in its intent. A militia, being necessary for defense, requires an armed citizenry as a check to their power. To this day, many question the distinction between the people and the militia. In the interest of avoiding a tangential debate centered on grammar and semantics, this article will take the Second Amendment to depict the two as distinct; that is, the militias are government organized forces and the people bearing arms are private citizens independent of the government.

It is possible to debate the role, if any, of firearms in other aspects of American life. However, the Second Amendment was not written to ensure protection against criminals, nor was it written to protect the rights of hunters. This is of critical importance, as it immediately undermines any argument on restricting so-called “assault weapons” and the like as overly powerful for civilian ownership. The whole point of firearm ownership is that it allows civilians to fight against agents of the government, be they law enforcement officers or members of the American military, should a situation arise when the government grossly violates the rights of American citizens.

This notion is shocking and raises many questions. As it should. The prospect of human life being stolen is terrifying. That such combat might arise against those who are meant to protect us is even more uncomfortable to consider and easily dismissed as infeasible. Two questions must thus be raised: First, does firearm ownership make for any meaningful deterrent against the world’s preeminent military force? Second, is the prospect of egregious governmental oppression even remotely feasible?

An M1A1 Abrams tank destroyed by Iraqi insurgents. Source: Wikimedia Commons
An M1A1 Abrams tank destroyed by Iraqi insurgents. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first question is answered easily enough by examining our government’s military adventurism in the Middle East. Despite being equipped with state of the art drones, helicopters, tanks, and other advanced weaponry, the United States military has been unable to quash insurgencies that have been waged for a decade and a half. Illiterate farmers and child soldiers have used poorly maintained weapons and shoddily improvised explosives to successfully fight American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taliban forces are still operating and taking territory in the latter, ISIS insurgents in the former. Surely, American citizens with access to far more resources and information can do the same or better. This is not to advocate for such action; it is merely to highlight the fact that technology and funding does not necessarily determine if an insurgency will win, an idea which the United States is still reconciling.

The next question is far trickier and raises a number of supplementary questions. At what point, if ever, is “governmental oppression” too egregious? Does the cost in human life due to firearm proliferation outweigh the potential oppression suppressed by ownership? Is an utilitarian approach even appropriate?

Some of these questions can be answered, albeit unsatisfactorily, by looking to history. There are often cited examples of foreign governments, such as the Ottomans, confiscating firearms from the peoples whom they subsequently oppressed. However, foreign governments add a slew of complicating factors, like cultural differences, which make such comparisons difficult.

Then there are examples in American history, both of times when firearms were used to check governmental oppression, and of times when firearms weren’t used, but may have been justified. The latter has clearly been witnessed during Japanese internment in World War II or in the aftermath of natural disasters.

The former is evidenced by the history of gun control itself. At a time when police violence against African Americans was frequent and rampant, the Black Panthers took matters into their own hands, arming themselves and following police officers to ensure they would not attack unarmed civilians. The prospect of a minority arming themselves to prevent police brutality struck fear into a Republican legislature led by Ronald Reagan which swiftly past the Mulford Act in 1967. This law was famously the strictest legislation passed in the United States up until that point, and both parties used it as a platform for even stricter regulations.

This example is increasingly relevant in light of recent killings by police. Obviously, a single armed citizen would do nothing if not justify police violence. A collective of non-violent law abiding citizens, however, could easily (and in fact, have) discourage police malpractice. That these individuals are using firearms to protect themselves versus their criminal enterprises distincts them from gangs. These individuals would need not fire their weapons; by simply remaining armed, they discourage police abuse for fear of immediate retaliation. A principle similar to mutually assured destruction is established. Should agents of the government violently engage, they are free to determine their own existence, whether it be by surrendering or by resisting. Their freedom of domain is protected.

Gun Store at Dicking's Sporting Goods. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Gun Store at Dicking’s Sporting Goods. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Second Amendment was not written to defend lone wolf behavior. Insurgency or rebellion has no precedent of being conducted by a sole individual. In that way, the amendment is somewhat self-regulating in its application. A tiny cadre of men with radical ideas would be hard pressed fighting against the U.S. military. However, a few thousand, even if a minority, could certainly do so. In that way, any rebellion would have to enjoy some degree of popular  and the civil rights abuses occurring would have to be significantly egregious, as most citizens would not lay down their lives otherwise.

Condescendingly labelled “common sense” gun control is at best ineffective or at worst a clear violation of the right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. The majority of gun control legislation is filled with the same meaningless buzzwords thrown about by alarmist media, such as affixing the term ‘assault’ to anything, even clothes, or describing non-automatic weapons as automatic. Bans on certain types of firearm mechanisms, such as detachable magazines, are typically legally circumvented within days. Even if gun legislation was written by individuals who knew how they worked, the firearms already proliferated in the United States are protected by ex post facto laws. In fact, if firearm production were to stop today, there would be enough guns for American citizens to stay armed for decades. Even if ex post facto laws were circumvented (such as laws preventing inheritance of banned firearms), you can’t un-invent the gun. As countries with strict firearm laws are learning, nothing you do will stop firearm acquisition by criminals.

Obviously, a nation with ample firearms is more likely to have firearm deaths. In the same way that a money forger may opt for a printing press from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing over their home printer, a criminal would opt for a firearm over a knife or blunt object. However, firearms do not make one more violent or more likely to kill. In fact, the United Kingdom, which has strict control over firearms (and even knives), has a higher violent crime rate than the United States. Firearms are far better at causing death, but they are instruments, not motivators. This leads us to a final question: If firearms are necessary to stop government oppression, how, if at all, can we mitigate gun violence?

When it comes to gun violence reduction, statistics regarding gun violence are the most telling. Foremost is the fact that gun violence has significantly declined compared to the last decade. The majority of victims of gun violence have been arrested or detained by police. Most violence is committed by pistols, not “assault weapons”. Gun violence is highest in impoverished neighborhoods and is most frequently attributed to gang warfare. Mass shootings, tragic as they are, compile a small percentage of the death toll. Thus, when attempting to address the issue of gun violence, one should look towards issues perpetuating all types of criminal behavior; the war on drugs and our broken prison system, a woefully lacking mental health infrastructure, or a lack of funding towards education. Critics might state that most shooters are mentally stable, and that mental health is a diversionary tactic. On the surface, this is true. However, when examining mass shootings, a majority of shooters showed signs of mental instability. When looking at gun violence in a larger frame, the remaining deaths can predominantly be attributed to gang warfare or suicide (and thus mental health).

It is easy to see why gun control is frequently demanded. Many believe, after all, that the role of government is to keep them safe. However, when the government fails to do so, or worse, endangers them, it is equally understandable why someone might take matters into their own hands. In an ideal world, police would not murder innocents, governments would act in the best interests of citizens, and violence would be a thing of the past. However, the world we live in is far from ideal. Rights are not God given. They are defended, if need be, by force.

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