Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Why A Right to Bear Arms?

Patrick of Orthonormal Basis pointed out that my post yesterday about Prof. Tribe's view on the second ammendment and DC's handgun ban didn't necessarily fully make the case I was attempting to make.
I'm not sure about your critique of Dr. Tribe. He doesn't here deny the possibility that a law-abiding citizen might have good reasons for preferring a handgun to other firearms, and I don't think you deny that there are also reasons why citizens might collectively prefer that nobody have access to handguns. (Whether the government can effectively prevent the distribution of illegal handguns is, of course, another question.)

Just because the government might have the authority and good reason to prohibit something, doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate uses that will get proscribed as well. The law can't be perfect.
Reading this, I realized that I hadn't fully laid out my thought process, perhaps in part due to my habit of writing blog posts over the course of brief interruptions in work over several hours.

I think that Prof. Tribe makes a potentially solid point that a right to bear arms does not necessarily mean a right to bear any arms that one pleases anywhere one likes. No one sane, clearly, is arguing that citizens be able to buy anti-tank rockets or .50 caliber machine guns.

However, I think it stretches a bit when he then turns around and argues that this means it is clearly acceptible to ban all handguns. Handguns account for roughtly half the guns manufactured and/or sold in the United States, so we're not talking about some small subset here.

More to the point, however, it seems to me that this line of thinking runs contrary to any reasonable purpose one might give to the second ammendment. Very often, it's argued that the second ammendment protects people's right to have guns "for hunting and sport". Now, I'm sure that in the late 1700s many people had a reasonable reliance on hunting rifle to provide a significant portion of their diet, but does it really seem to make sense that it is actually "hunting and sport" which resulted in the second ammendment being added to the constitution? Certainly, there's nothing in the text of the ammendment itself which would suggest such a purpose.

Rather, it seems to me that the purpose is explicitly defense against tyrrany and (by what seems like a very reasonable extension) defense of one's family and property in general.

This is where I think Prof. Tribe's perference to retain all current gun restrictions in DC runs into trouble. There is, unfortunately, a lot of overlap between what makes a good offensive weapon at close quarters and a good defensive weapon at close quarters. And so the current gun laws in DC have the unfortunate effect of banning just about all the guns (handguns, short-barrelled semi-automatic carbines: "assault rifles", and short barrelled folding stock shotguns: "tactical shotguns") which would be of most utility in the purpose for which a reasonable interpretation of the second ammendment would suggest guns should be allowed. In contrast, the guns which are legal in DC are those best suited for hunting medium to large game and for fouling -- activities which are clearly impractical and illegal within city limits.

Now, I certainly know some good and well-intentioned people who would rather not see civilians owning guns for the purpose of self defense, and would rather see all such activities done by civil authorities. That's a view which can legitimately be debated. But it seems to me that the bill of rights which we currently have pretty clearly deliniates a right to armed self defense.


Anonymous said...

Banning handguns is bad idea that is contrary to the 2nd Amendment. Yet why are gun owners so strongly opposed to some kind of mandated licensing or training to own a firearm? It seems to be a reasonable function for government to regulate the ownership and operation of all kinds of equipment and materials that are potentially dangerous, so why should guns be any different? The recent cases of men with troubled mental health obtaining guns legally and subsequently committing mass murder makes me question the current system.

Darwin said...

I think the reason people often have a problem with it is that they're afraid that once a comprehensive list of who owns what is compiled, then it would be easy for a strongly anti-gun congress/administration to then turn around and confiscate guns.

Personally, I would have no problem with that sort of thing if done reasonably and responsibly. Indeed, I actually did get a license from the AFT in order to collect the curio and relic military rifles that I'm interested in. (You don't need a license to own them, but if you get a C&R license you can order them mail order which is easier and cheeper than having to seek them out in person.)

Kyle Cupp said...

I'm less than passionate about the the gun issue, but it seems reasonable to me to maintain a right to bear arms in a country where tyranny can easily come within one's home.