Monday, October 23, 2006
Why have an armed citizenry?
The 2nd ammendment is perhaps the clearest indication that the founders were dangerous people -- dangerous in the sense that their beliefs did not necessarily lead to safety and stability. This is not necessarily an attack, I'm not convinced that safety and stability are always the highest road. Perhaps it also shows that the founders were genuinely unselfish about holding power: what most more modern revolutionaries have tried to do as soon as achieving power is tried to make it as hard as possible for anyone else to overthrow them in the way that they were overthrown. Instead, the founders wrote into our constitution a guarantee that "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."
Much though one must appreciate the cheerful thoughts of those who claim this means that people's ability to own deer hunting rifles should not be regulated, and always say "I have no problem with guns that are suitable for legitimate sporting purposes" it seems to me that the founders are in fact guaranteeing no such thing. These are men who had just fought a war of independence, and who came from an English tradition in which all able bodied yoemen were considered available at call for military duty. (Bring you own long bow.) Though there were numerous volunteers and part time guerrilla fighters, the backbone of the revolutionary army consisted of local militias -- to which every able-bodied man was considered to belong, and which were generally self-armed. (Militiamen brought their own muskets and kit, the army provided supplies and larger engines of war such as cannon.)
In quelling colonial unrest, the British had tried to disarm the American militias, with limitted success. And the British armies sent over to fight the war were a mixture of professional British soldiers (usually enlisted on long contracts -- with or without their consent) and hired mercenaries (mostly of German/Austrian origin). It seems to me that one of the things the founders had very much in mind was making sure that a strong central government was not able to enforce its will by means of professional soldiers and mercenaries against the wishes of the citizenry. They assumed that keeping the regional militias as an organized, armed and local power would counter-balance that possibility.
Clearly, this fell by the wayside a long time ago. In a certain sense, that mentality was defeated along with the South in the civil war. Regardless of whether or not one sees this as a bad thing, it's certainly hard to imagine that sort of citizen-militia-as-power-balance-against-national-army idea working in the huge, industrial modern nation to which we belong.
What, then, are we to make of the 2nd Ammendment in our modern world?
While we no longer have militias including all able-bodied males, there's a legitimate argument to be made that despite the overwhelming superiority in firepower that the central government enjoys (and should) over it's citizens, that so long as the right to own firearms in protected, we will never be the helpless victims of a police state. Moreover, in certain emergency situations, armed citizens do end up functioning as an ad hoc militia, as many Korean shop owners famously did during the 1992 LA riots.
Meanwhile, those uncomfortable with the place of guns in American society point out that the US has the highest rates of gun fatality of any first world nation (though our crime violence rates are actually lower than a number of other first world nations -- it's just that when we do have violence, someone is much more likely to get shot). Does the personal enjoyment and self protection which gun owners derive from relatively restricted gun ownership outweigh the dangers which pervasive gun ownership introduces into society?
I tend to think that they do. But then, I'm comfortable with the idea that certain freedoms cost lives and limbs.