Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown and the second amendment

"These are people we know and love. So loved by their parents, so innocent, and their death is so senseless." Rabbi Shaul Praver, Newtown.

20 elementary school children and 7 others massacred. Friday was a truly horrific day for America. Amidst such terrible loss, the victims and their families now deserve our honesty. Those of us who support gun ownership must openly explain why we do so. We must also suggest solutions to help reduce the probability of future gun related atrocities.

In the aftermath of the Aurora massacre, I stated that my support for the right to gun ownership had three roots. While I stand by this affirmation, in light of the Newtown massacre, I feel it's necessary to provide a more developed reasoning for my position.

So here it is.

The first reason I support the right to bear arms- democratic preservation. 

The original motivation of the second amendment was to establish a timeless guard separate from government, against tyranny. Recent Supreme Court rulings have upheld this viewpoint. While some argue that the right to bear arms is a dated relic, I disagree. Faced with high technology capabilities which offer government an unparalleled potential for intrusive power, though remote, the threat of tyranny is not extinct and must not be discounted. An armed citizenry protects against tyranny. In essence, the second amendment provides a physical capability to complement the ideological framework of our founding documents. Put simply, arms are the mechanism that would allow "the people" to "throw off'' a government that sought to detain us under "absolute despotism". However, it isn't just the capability of arms that's important for our functioning democracy. When Government knows that the people have weapons to defend themselves, government is more closely restrained to democratic conduct by this understanding.

Second- personal protection. The most basic human right is human security.  The Supreme Court has found that the operative clause of the second amendment grants an inherent right to bear arms. This is especially important in terms of the security that firearms can provide to more vulnerable members of society like the elderly or infirm. In contrast, where gun ownership is excessively restricted, public security is left almost entirely to government authority. In this reality, individuals are placed in physical danger and psychological fear. This often understated psychological element is crucial. For example, during the August 2011 London riots, in the inability of the Police to control the disorder, an undercurrent of helplessness and a palpable sentiment of fear spread across the city. Abandoned by government, people were forced to resort to extra-legal action. In a democracy we are due not only the right to feel secure, but also the individual means to provide ourselves with effective security (the police cannot be everywhere at once).

On the counter side, gun control advocates like to claim that the United States suffers from an unmatched position of violent crime. This isn't true. While we have a comparatively high murder rate (and must do more to address this problem), common violent crime levels are extremely high in much of Europe. In addition, access to firearms doesn't necessarily drive gun related criminality.  Firearm related homicides are higher in South America than in the United States, yet South America has more restrictive gun laws than the US. Gun laws in Connecticut are some of the most restrictive in the nation - but as the Newtown massacre and the ongoing tragedy in gun law restrictive Chicago illustrate, laws alone cannot provide a condition of security.

My third reason for supporting the second amendment - culture. Guns are an important element of the ideational traditions which define many American communities - hunting, range shooting, decoration etc. These activities may be distasteful to some, but for others they are deeply personal expressions of individual freedom. They deserve the tolerance of public authority.

Clearly each of my three components has its imperfections. For one notable example, fringe anti-government groups often excuse their illegitimate violent intentions by claiming a warped interpretation of the constitution.

BUT there is a route that allows for an effective balancing of gun rights and public protection.

We should work to ensure that where an objectively substantial cause for concern exists (IE - a combination of threats and comprehensive medical evaluation) mental health records can be used to restrict access to weapons.

We should more actively prosecute those who engage in the illegal transmission of arms to others.

We should aggressively punish those who carry arms when they have no right to do so (criminals with violent records etc).

We should improve RICO laws to enable greater action against gang leaders who allow their subordinates to carry weapons.

We should improve security at schools - with new Federal laws and funding if necessary. For example - providing teacher with firearms training and allowing those who pass such courses to have weapons at their disposal.

Finally, we should ensure that beyond the basic constitutional right to bear arms, states are given a wide latitude to determine the contours of gun control in their respective locales. Local democratic will should determine much of American gun law.
            In the aftermath of national tragedies like the Newtown shooting, we must find a commonality of balanced purpose. Protecting the innocent and preserving the right to bear arms are both imperatives, but they are not mutually exclusive.

Update - My other pieces on guns for The Week, The Guardian and my blog.
From 9/11 remembrance but Newtown made me remember it.


  1. Persuasive - I think the 'check on tyranny' argument is a better explanation of the history of the right to bear arms than it is a reason for allowing it now. At first I thought it was a good argument, but I'm not sure that bearing arms in this conventional sense provides much protection from tyranny today. For American society, a situation where one might have to battle a tyrannical government would be apocalyptic. I think the realist would say that we have to construct policy ignoring this eventuality because the eventuality would be so bad whether or not you had guns.

  2. Very much agree with the above coment [from 'The Texan'] re: the continued relevance of your First reason for supporting 2nd Amendment arms rights (i.e. the ability of citizenry to throw-off government if needed). Even with the large number of arms in the private hands of U.S. citizens, would these small-arms really stack-up against the full military capability of the U.S. armed forces?

    Perhaps when the military technology gap b/w Government and private citizens was less significant (i.e. when the citizens and government-controlled forces both were 'packing' similar fire-power in the form of small-arms), it would be more realistic to speak of the citizenry "throwing-off" government via use of their small arms. These days, I question whether this is actually viable in light of the technological advantage the government has over private citizens (although I like to think if push-came-to-shove, the citizenry could "get it done").

    1. Thanks for your comment Liam. I feel that because of the 2nd amendment, a popular uprising would possess un-restrainable power. Combined with the large element of the US Military that would stand with the people, the odds (even with small arms as the insurgents primary weapon) would be heavily weighted against a despotic government. Though, I of course believe that it is exceptionally unlikely the US will ever be subjected to a dictatorship etc. Our system of government, subservience of the US Military to the rule of law etc. means that we are in good shape. But... I also feel we should be complacent about our freedoms. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Tom,

    With regard to your three-pronged reasons, the first describes a scenario so unlikely it may as well read protection against Zombie attack or Alien invasion.

    Your second comes from a place routed in fear, and seems to say it's okay to make individual citizens jury and executioner over someone who might trespass on their property, or look at them funny while wearing a hoodie.

    The final reason, hunting and decoration, could exist without access to automatic weapons--the only things people hunt with them is other people--and in the latter case without ammunition, which doesn't look so nice on the wall.

    You say you've thought about this. But i wonder if you really have Tom. I wonder if you've dug deep and asked yourself the tough questions. Because if you think the lives of 20 children is an acceptable price to pay so that you can protect yourself again some Orwellian dystopia, the boogeyman and hang pretty guns on your wall, then you haven't thought at all.

    1. 1) Really? It's my opinion that good government should never be taken for granted. If there's a lesson from history - that's a pretty good one.

      2)Stupid comment. Home owners have a right to defend themselves and their property.

      3) You are imposing your cultural understandings onto others. I thought you were a European? Respect for others.

      I have thought about it. But sometimes the natural superiority complex of the European mind fails to understand the complexities of cultural differentials.

    2. Hi Tom

      This is more of an ad hominem attack than a reasoned response, if I’m being honest.

      You make some rather bald assumptions about me, so allow me to reply in kind. I think that you believe strongly in a person’s right to bear arms. It’s ingrained in your ethos, but there’s no reason for it. Perhaps this is cultural, though I suspect there are many more Americans who wouldn’t share your enthusiasm for firearms.

      In this piece above, you’ve tried to rationalize these beliefs, rather than explain them. In doing so, you’ve produced three excuses, the same ones that gun-lobbyists tend to wheel out after every
      gun-related tragedy, and they’re unconvincing. In the light of last week’s atrocity, they’re damned offensive.

      So sorry if I ruffled your feathers, but this kind of dangerous rhetoric really ruffles mine too. And if you don’t want ‘Europeans’ commenting on your blog I suggest you stop linking to it on the Guardian’s comment section.

  4. Offensive, unconvincing and ruffling. To you. But not to the majority of Americans. I appreciate logical counter-points but not emotionally vested ranting. Fortunately you do not vote in the United Stated.

  5. We have a problem. The Connecticut massacre like previous massacres was planned. It was not the work of a lone nut. Australia had Port Arthur and Martin Bryant is in jail without a trial and no coronial enquiry. Wake up folks. The anti gun lobby must be exposed.
    The second ammendment provides for the private ownership of guns and for these people to provide a militia in a time of need. It does not say the militia will own the guns. It was not intended that the militia hand out the guns in a time of need. Folks, the guns are not the problem.

  6. I believe that the 2nd Amendment speaks clearly to the framers intent for our nation. Given that, there should be reasonable education and experience standards for the purchase of firearms, similar to other dangerous sports, i.e. scuba certification process. I recommend different certification levels for ownership that include required classes and range time (with exceptions for active and ex-police and military). For example, citizens wanting to own a handgun must first take the NRA FIRST Steps Pistol Orientation, and Home Firearm Safety Course. Similar with rifles. For assault weapons, citizens must have logged x number of hours in range time, and taken the appropriate classes. This will separate us responsible owners from the posers and wackos.

    1. Thanks for your comment Doug. I worry that those suggestions (while well intentioned) would enforce excessive government regulation on the basic right to firearms ownership. BUT I personally think that all gun owners should take steps similar to those you suggest. For me, universal background checks offer a reasonable middle ground that the government could take.