Conservatives and gun rights activists don’t like to talk about it, but at the heart of their opposition to increased gun control is an unspoken trade-off between defending against possible future tyranny and trying to reduce or prevent otherwise inevitable future deadly mass shootings. In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, we need to drag this debate out into the open and re-examine the trade-offs which we are willing to tolerate
At what point is the promise of the Second Amendment and the assurance it offers Americans as the final firewall against government tyranny outweighed by the monthly carnage in American schools? Or is it wrong to even conceptualise such a tipping point, gut-wrenchingly tragic and outrageous though these endless mass shootings may be?
Are we right to focus on high profile mass shootings when so many more murders take place, in no way less tragic, during shootings involving only one victim? Is it appropriate to even contemplate reviewing something so fundamental to the American culture and precepts of government as the Second Amendment based purely on high profile massacres, when they form such a small percentage of the total yearly gun homicides?
Even if it were possible to outlaw the kind of weapons often used in high profile mass shootings, would it ever be politically or logistically possible to enforce a ban and/or seek to recall these weapons from lawful owners while providing appropriate monetary compensation, or would this simply leave the citizenry more at the mercy of criminals, or even provoke armed insurrection by those unwilling to comply?
All of these thoughts and more have been going through my mind as I learned of the latest deadly school shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen young people are known to have been killed.
I have long supported gun ownership rights, albeit with some caveats. Part of this is a function of growing up in the United Kingdom, where not only are most of the police unarmed, but where the law often ends up penalising those who try to engage in legitimate self-defence. If the government will not quickly and reliably come to one’s aid in a life-threatening situation, particularly given the rising Islamist terror threat, then what right has the government to demand that citizens forego even non-lethal methods of personal self-defence such as tasers or pepper spray?
I am not yet constitutional scholar enough to be able to adequately dissect the Second Amendment and the myriad existing gun control laws, but clearly there are existing limits on the right to bear arms, set both by the definition of the word “arms” and by state and federal law. One cannot construct a homemade nuclear weapon or dirty bomb in one’s garage or laboratory as an insurance policy against government tyranny, for example, and even the most conservative Republicans and the NRA don’t seem to register any objection to that.
As with free speech and the First Amendment, a line has been drawn. In the case of free speech, the line has rightly been set at the point of incitement or “fighting words”, the credible threat of harm to another individual. In the case of gun ownership and the Second Amendment, the line is both blurrier and more jagged, with various carve-outs and inconsistent application among the various states. But over the passage of time it was decided that certain semi-automatic weapons should be legal while others designated “assault weapons” are not, and yet nowhere is this spelled out in the Constitution.
Since there is then precedent for wide-ranging interpretation, it does not seem unreasonable to demand one of two things – either that the Second Amendment is revisited and its language tightened up to elucidate precisely what constitutes “arms” and precisely what infringements upon the right to bear such arms are now tolerable, or that the line in the sand (whose presence we all tacitly tolerate anyway) is redrawn in a way that restricts the type of weapon repeatedly used in these mass shooting incidents.
I believe that principles are important. In the Brexit debate here in Britain, I maintain that the principles of democracy and self-determination are sacrosanct and in themselves worth voting to leave the European Union, which is a deeply antidemocratic supranational government in gestation. I hold this view despite the fact that Remainers can point to many potential short and medium-term costs (albeit some of them invented or far-fetched) because democracy, though not quantifiable, is priceless.
And so it is with liberty and the right to fend off a tyrannical government, I suppose. America’s history is rooted in having to fend off a colonial power and fight to remain independent. American government is further predicated on the noble idea that the government and institutions of the day exist at the sufferance of the people, from whom they are temporarily given certain powers of governance, unlike most other countries where rights flow from the government to the individual. Given that the arc of history does not inevitably bend towards progress, and that tyranny can re-emerge unexpectedly at any time, a plausible and coherent (if distasteful) argument can be made that no matter how grim the death tolls and murder rates, the fundamental, universal liberty which the Second Amendment protects is yet more precious even than the lives taken every day by the bullet.
And yet. And yet we do not live in a world of pure political theory. We live in the real world, a fallen world where at some point the body count, the sheer mass of lost human potential will eventually outweigh (if it hasn’t done so already) any benefit that the Second Amendment offers in its current form.
For the past decade I have been a project and program manager by trade, and one of the key things we do in my job is assess and mitigate risk. In order to do so, one needs to determine both the likelihood of an adverse event happening and the severity of the consequences if it does so. Assigning a numeric value to each, one can then multiply the two variables to arrive at a unique risk rating for any eventuality, and use that rating to determine whether the risk can be mitigated and whether it is worth the cost of doing so based on the probability and severity of any potential fallout.
The Second Amendment is essentially a risk mitigation strategy against the re-emergence of tyrannical government. The result of true tyranny (though such things always exist on a sliding scale) can inevitably be measured in countless human lives, as borne out by every dictatorship which has ever existed. The probability of tyranny re-emerging, however, fluctuates all the time according to societal trends and political developments – at this time, some might say that the probability has spiked somewhat, while others would say that such an assessment is overblown.
We then need to compare the price of our current risk mitigation strategy against government tyranny – the Second Amendment in its current form – against the price of such a tyranny re-emerging in the event that we either cease to mitigate the risk (by abolishing the Second Amendment and attempting a recall or seizure of guns in legal circulation) or reduce our mitigation efforts (by imposing additional limits and restrictions on Second Amendment rights).
I’m sure that some person far cleverer (and more clinically, dispassionately calculating) than I could input thousands of societal and political variables into a huge Excel spreadsheet, work some pivot table magic and come up with a theoretical crossover point in terms of lives currently being lost versus lives potentially saved by fending off government tyranny (to the extent that current levels of gun ownership are any true defence against such tyranny). However, I am not that person. All I can do is go by my gut feeling and confess that much as I believe in gun ownership and support the Second Amendment in principle, it seems evident to me that we are way past the tipping point and that something needs to change.
A reasonable trade-off at this point, I believe, would be the banning of the sale of semi-automatic, gas-operated weapons and potentially compulsory buy-backs and amnesties to remove as many as possible currently in private ownership, given the capacity of such weapons to rapidly inflict mass casualties and their current popularity with mentally disturbed or evil people for whom such firearms are their weapon of choice.
I arrive at this position based on an honest and realistic assessment of both the risk of government tyranny (the ultimate reason that supporters of such weapons invoke in their defence) and the ability of such weapons in the public domain to deter against tyranny. I would not go further and propose the banning of non auto-loading firearms because there is a legitimate self-defence and recreational interest in keeping them, while they also provide a continued (if reduced) protection against the emergence of government tyranny, with the reduction in deterrence more equal to the potential lives saved through a successfully-enforced ban of semi-automatic weapons.
As Salon (hardly an unbiased source, but instructive in this instance) wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Las Vegas shootings:
The problem with gas operated weapons is that they are very, very dangerous. They are inherently dangerous, of course, because they are capable of killing people. But they are also dangerous because of the design of their rapid fire mechanisms and because of the nature of the humans who use them. In order for one of these weapons to be safe when it is loaded with a magazine full of bullets, two things must happen: the safety must be on, and it must not have a live cartridge in the chamber. But even if these safety precautions are taken, it’s still dangerous because dropping the weapon might chamber a round and knock the safety off, causing it to fire. The United States Military considers the gas operated weapons it issues to soldiers to be so dangerous that loaded firearms are not permitted on military bases here in this country, or even on bases in combat zones abroad. When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, every time we entered an Army basecamp, our convoys had to pull over to the side of the road short of the camp entrance, soldiers had to dismount and walk over to barrels full of sand, and pointing the barrels of their M-16’s or M-4’s into the barrels, they had to remove loaded magazines from their rifles and clear the chamber of live rounds. Only when their weapons were completely unloaded and the bullets were put away were they safe.
[..] That’s all the Congress needs to know in order to write legislation that will make it far more difficult for mass killings to be carried out in the future. Ban the sale of gas operated weapons. Ban the importation and manufacture in the United States of new gas operated weapons except those for military or police use, and ban the sale or resale of currently existing gas operated weapons. The Las Vegas shooter apparently bought all of his weapons in contemplation of using them to shoot up the concert on Sunday night. If he had been unable to legally purchase his arsenal of gas-operated rifles, he would have been unable to kill 59 and wound over 500. Nor would the shooters in Orlando, or Newtown, or Virginia Tech, or Aurora Colorado have been able to so easily carry out their mass murders. If each of those shooters had to cock his weapon every time he fired it, far fewer people would have died.
Could such a ban be enforced by a mere Act of Congress? Again, I am not yet lawyer enough to proffer a deeply informed opinion. It may well be that such a ban could only be achieved through a Constitutional amendment – and given the current lack of clarity in the Second Amendment, the latter course of action would probably be preferable. Far better to have a clear and unambiguous limit on the power of the government to infringe on the private right to bear arms than the current situation where we have a very maximalist clause in the Constitution which is interpreted and curtailed in all manner of ways and thus made a mockery of in real life. And since so many decent and law-abiding citizens view their right to own such weapons as rooted in the Constitution, only a Constitutional amendment would give any future ban real weight and legitimacy.
But would such a measure do anything to significantly reduce the carnage which has long been a part of daily life in America? Much would depend on the method and timescale of any recall effort after an applicable law or Constitutional amendment was passed, and one can look to the Australian gun amnesties and buy-back schemes for guidance, but it should be acknowledged that any effect would be marginal at best in the short term.
Many weapons would inevitably not be handed in and would continue to be stored insecurely or accessible to those who should not have them, while psychopaths could continue to inflict mass casualties using smaller weapons. And while in time there would almost certainly be a decrease in the deadliness of mass shooting incidents (if not in the number of incidents themselves) as more guns were handed in and the inevitable smuggling routes disrupted, opponents of the ban could always disingenuously point to any mass shooting involving a semi-automatic weapon which slipped through the net as “proof” that the whole exercise was a futile exchange of liberty for no additional safety. The benefits would be marginal, and one cannot disprove a counterfactual.
And yet clearly something must be done. America stands alone among prosperous, developed countries in terms of gun violence and mass shootings in particular, and freedom enjoyed is not so vastly greater in the United States than it is in other peer countries such as Britain to justify the carnage (though again, America’s “insurance policy” against tyranny is somewhat greater than other countries).
If not this moderate additional restriction on gas-operated semi-automatic weapons, what is the alternative? Many Second Amendment defenders rightly point to a litany of other factors which contribute toward mass shootings, from the degenerate culture and lack of accessible mental healthcare services to the ubiquity of antidepressants and other prescription medications, and more. And they are right to highlight these issues – after all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
But we are now faced with a choice between trying to change society and human nature, which is incredibly difficult, time consuming and unpredictable in its results, or taking steps which accept the world and human nature as they are (surely the correct conservative approach) and enact physical constraints on the ability to purchase or acquire semi-automatic or gas operated weapons, or doing both.
At this point, we need to embrace an “all of the above” solution. We should absolutely do what we can to identify instances where the lack of mental healthcare or the prescription or illegal acquisition of certain pharmaceutical drugs can impact someone’s mental equanimity to the point where they become a potential mass murderer, and thenmake sensible reforms in this sphere. We should examine our culture of violence and any role that this plays in mass shootings, and also continue to take steps to change the way that the media reports such incidents (such as by focusing less on the killer, depriving them of the posthumous fame they crave and so acting as a deterrent to potential future killers – though others disagree that this makes any difference).
But this alone is not enough. We need to take practical measures too, steps rooted in the physical world to make it harder to acquire particularly lethal weapons. And for Second Amendment advocates (of whom I still consider myself one, albeit a reformist) it might be suggested that a small tactical retreat on this issue, if exchanged for cast-iron guarantees that no further infringement will take place, is infinitely preferable to inaction and the slow build-up of public outrage which might one day boil over and result in far more draconian gun control laws.
It may sound heartless so soon after another unspeakable tragedy to consider the issue of gun control in the clinical terms of risk mitigation. But at its heart, this is the purpose of the Second Amendment – to provide an insurance policy against encroaching government tyranny. And it does no good arguing the issue from a purely emotional angle or even from the self-defence angle, when both of these approaches skirt the real Constitutional issue at stake.
At its heart, the Constitutionally-rooted argument for the right to bear arms is not about hunting, recreation or self-defence; it is about the preservation of liberty and the right of the people to protect themselves from a government which no longer serves their interests. One can argue that this is an anachronism made hopelessly out of date by advancing weapons and surveillance technology, but American founding history vindicates the right to bear arms, and the wider arc of history warns us repeatedly against allowing ourselves to believe that Western democracies have entered some permanently benign state where the interests of the people and those in power will never again be irreconcilably opposed.
This is the battleground on which the issue must be fought if we are to have any resolution to the gun control debate, because this is the only line of argument seen as valid by gun ownership advocates, and because the Constitution demands that it be so. What, in 2018, would be a more acceptable, legal and politically/logistically feasible balance between safeguarding against the low probability of encroaching government tyranny versusprotecting the presently-imperilled public interest?
That is the question we must answer.
Note: I am no constitutional scholar or expert in how existing gun control measures have been reconciled with the Second Amendment. If anybody has any corrections, additions or counter-arguments to what I have written, I would be grateful to hear them in the Comments.
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Just notionally, I’m wondering if the large pro-weapon ownership lobby in the USA is their equivalent of the evangelistic NHS lobby in the UK?
This is a really good article Sam – and obviously an awful lot of thought has gone into it and exposed many sides of the issue. I know a lot about firearms – the UK Taxpayer paid me to do so – a little about the USA and enough to know I’m not going to speak for the electorate and taxpayers of another democratic nation.
There is one consistent thread however among the pro-lobby which may need to be given consideration by US Authorities, whether local, regional or Washington.
The lobby insists their right to bear arms is an insurance against excess of US Government. Taking into consideration the ways in which the US electorate have been variously betrayed or lied to by their Government since – say – involvement in Vietnam in 1964, it’s reasonable to postulate they may have a valid point. I’m wondering if the statue of limitations can be modified to construct greater obligations of accountability for US Governance can be assembled? Or otherwise a targeted reform of Government and Federal powers can be initiated so that there are fewer justifications for mass firearm ownership in the country?
What is the Government prepared to do for you* (the erstwhile future victims) To coin a phrase?
I’m sorry but where did Salon get that story? I’ve known soldiers a LONG time and those claims about having to stick rifle barrels in the sand would have weapons instructors laughing themselves silly.
Does Salon not have a basic grasp of physics? That weapons – well designed weapons (and the M4/M16 are well designed and proven) – do not fire unless the trigger is pulled? I can tell you how you ‘safe’ an AR-15/M4/M16. Remove the magazine and pull back the bolt release to eject any round in the chamber.
The core issue that no one wants to talk about is that this boy – just like so many others – seems to have suffered from some sort of personality disorder and may even have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. It should be the case that one suffering some such be:
a) not allowed to purchase or retain any weapons until certified sane;
b) if necessary be confined to an institution until certified sane.
On the subject of high gun deaths – Washington DC, Chicago, LA. Where there is a breakdown of law and order and a prevalence of gang violence, you will get high death rates.