Gun Debate Re-Framed
Positions in the gun debate range from the idea that virtually no civilian should be allowed to own a gun, to gun ownership that is tightly controlled, and on to the idea that gun ownership is a right for every citizen and that few, if any,restrictions should be placed on ownership. I will tackle a broader question. How much military power should a civilian be allowed to possess?
Some social theorists divide the power of institutions into three broad classes: socio-political, economic, and military. In thinking of countries, we could see Russia as a country with a lot of military power, but relatively little economic power, and perhaps a middling amount of socio-political power since Russia has a large population, heavily influences a number of its neighbors, and has developed ties with some regimes which the U.S. considers to be pariahs. In recent decades China progressed from having almost no economic power to approaching being the largest economic power in the world. Chinese military power has lagged, but is growing rapidly. Chinese socio-political power has been significant in Asia even at times when it’s military and economic capabilities were weak.
Institutions like universities, political parties, and citizen militia’s can also be seen as having various degrees of power in each of the three realms. Likewise, each citizen in a country has a degree of each sort of power. Voting in elections and spending or investing our money are examples of how we can exercise socio-political and economic power. The ways in which individual citizens can exercise socio-political or economic power, and the means by which they may be restricted from doing so, are beyond the scope of this article.
The foundational issue in the gun debate is this: How much military power should citizens possess? Some would be quick to say that the citizenry should be restricted from having any military power. Even were that desirable, it is not possible. There is a large selection of weaponry available to anyone. From bare fists to molotov cocktails, every citizen has immediate access to at least some means of conducting a military campaign. History is replete with examples of citizenry who have utilized such tools as part of their campaign to effect change in their society. The Sturmabteilung (Storm Attachment or Brownshirts), were civilians who provided physical violence in support of the Nazi party during its early years. At first their primary weapons were fists, boots, and nightsticks. Later, as the Sturmabteilung grew in size, organization, and armaments, it was seen as a threat by the Nazi party and was forcibly disbanded by the SS (Schutzstaffel), which was originally a small separate bodyguard for Adolf Hitler within the Brownshirts. That disbandment was accomplished by murdering many leaders among the SA (Sturmabteilung) and arresting hundreds of others. Hitler and the Nazi party gained complete control of the German government, but the SS remained separate from the regular German army and was seen as an ultra loyal enforcement arm for the party. The SS also absorbed all police functions within Germany.
Gun registration laws implemented during the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s helped the Nazi’s to confiscate all civilian weaponry during the 1930’s as part of consolidating the party’s power. The Nazi’s restricted gun ownership to those members of the citizenry that were willing to use them in support of the party.
Guns were not necessary to enable violent support for the ascendence of the Nazi party. Gun registration benefitted Nazi’s in gaining complete control over the German government, including the police and army.
For centuries, the word gun has been used to designate weapons that propel a projectile using explosives. In the current gun control debate, the the term is restricted primarily to hand held weaponry, generally divided into “handguns” and “long guns”. The main reason for such a distinction has to do with how easy or difficult it is to conceal a gun about one’s person. Civilian ownership of knives, clubs, and even projectile firing weapons like bows with arrows, are not included in the debate, perhaps because it would be so difficult it to restrict ownership of weapons that also serve as kitchenware, baseball equipment, and archery sets. Also, the manufacture of knives, clubs, and bows is easily done by anyone with access to even rudimentary tools. However, guns can also be built by skilled citizens with access to a relatively simple set of machine tools. The advent of 3D printing will soon enable very inexpensive manufacturing of the critical components of guns, and little specialized skill will be involved in the manufacture. All that will be required are digitized designs which exist and are easily copied and distributed.
We can, and have, passed laws making it illegal to use any of the weapons I have described to harm, or even threaten, another person in all but very specific self defense situations. A gun is only different in terms of the amount of power it puts at the disposal of the owner. A very ordinary hunting rifle gives a citizen the ability to project lethal power up to and beyond a thousand yards. I propose that the argument should not be whether a citizen should own a gun or what restrictions should be imposed on ownership. Rather the question is this: How much power shall we allow a citizen to gain easy, legal access to?
I doubt there is a sizable contingent of voters who would want to see individuals allowed to own artillery guns, weaponized missiles, and all manner of explosives. The debate is mostly around “small arms” that give substantial power to an individual, but not enough power to kill large numbers of people before they are prevented from doing so by governmental authorities or others. Semiautomatic guns fire a projectile each time the trigger is pulled. Highly adept users of revolvers and other manual action guns (such as bolt action rifles) can achieve rates of fire that are comparable to semiautomatic weapons. Many hunting rifles use an explosive charge and projectile that provide substantially more power than the so-called “assault rifles”. Opponents of “assault rifles” are correct in observing that the gun has been designed for ease of use in armed conflict: lightweight, modified grips, larger magazines, etc. They are easier to carry and maneuver in combat situations, but are no more deadly that much more mundane long guns. The magazine size, or number of rounds that can be fired without reloading, is another factor in the weapon’s usefulness, but makes only an incremental change in its lethality. Fully automatic weapons fired rounds continuously once the trigger is pulled. A common term is machine gun. Ownership of fully automatic weapons has been highly restricted in the U.S. since the 1930’s.
Manufacturer’s of guns in the U.S. must be licensed and are subject to governmental oversight. The ownership of guns requires no license in most of the U.S. Background checks for individuals purchasing guns from a licensed dealer are only required for handguns. Private sales are relatively unregulated.
A completely different approach to carnage is the use of explosives, flammable substances, and poisons. The largest mass murders in U.S. history have all been accomplished without the use of guns. The Oklahoma City bombing was accomplished primarily with chemical fertilizer and diesel fuel. The 911 destruction of the twin towers was carried out with unarmed civilian aircraft. Powerful poisons or biological weapons are relatively difficult to acquire and deploy and have seldom been used for mass murder.
There seems to be little debate about current fairly restrictive U.S. laws regarding manufacture and ownership of explosives, poisons, biological weapons, etc. U.S. citizens seem willing to surrender these particular types of power. But debates about laws relative to guns (small arms) are highly contentious.
It is not coincidence that the country with some of the greatest freedoms in other areas such as press, speech, and assembly, has been reluctant to part with the freedom to own guns. We have much to lose if even the relatively modest military power of guns can only be used by police and armed forces.
There are many in the U.S. who can’t foresee there being a need for civilians to mount armed opposition to our own government. It has been 150 years since the Civil War, and there have been no other instances of such large scale combat to resist governmental initiatives as was the case with the abolition of slavery. Much smaller instances of armed resistance occurred during prohibition in the 1930’s and during various political movements in the 1960’s. The use of weapons to resist the government was extremely limited compared to the Civil War. Furthermore, since the last large armed insurrection was in support of maintaining slavery as an institution, the use of weapons to resist the government during the Civil War is seldom seen as a positive development.
In the example of the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany, it is important to note that the party grew from a fringe group to totalitarian control of all of Germany in a decade or so. Some Americans find it credible that a similar threat could arise quickly in the U.S. Such radical change might be precipitated by large scale unrest due to financial crises or military emergencies such as numerous large scale attacks on U.S. soil by terrorist organizations. A single such attack, the destruction of the World Trade center buildings, resulted in rapid adoption of previously politically unacceptable changes to U.S. laws regarding how the citizenry are policed. In the years since that attack, we have accepted radical expansions of how we are searched and tracked by government officials. The government has gone from covert assassinations of foreign agents to very public use of drones to eliminate people seen as enemies of the state. And such killings have not been limited to non-citizens of the U.S. It appears that the Justice Department is even loathe to forswear assassinations of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.
We should hope and pray that we find solutions to problems of government overreach that do not require armed resistance by the citizenry. However, in the event that such resistance becomes necessary, civilian ownership of small arms would be a very significant factor in the ability to mount that resistance. Although the military and sometimes the police in this country are equipped with much greater firepower, the hundreds of millions of small arms owned by American civilians would still be a very significant factor in resisting tyranny.
Armed civilians can also be effective in preventing the rise of tyrannical groups intent on subverting our current government and the freedoms we enjoy. They also act as a first line of defense against criminal activity when police are unavailable (when seconds count, the police are just minutes away) or overwhelmed as in the case of large scale rioting.
Some argue that wide scale ownership of weapons is more likely to increase the incidences of violent crime or deadly rioting. However, horrendous violence exists in many countries that have a very low rate of gun ownership. Low crime rates and high security exist in some other countries where gun ownership is far higher. Switzerland is often used as an example of high gun ownership, low crime country.
If we properly frame the debate about the ownership of firearms, we can spend a lot less time arguing over irrelevant side issues such as the difference between guns for sport and guns for killing people or guns for self defense against crime versus guns for self defense against organized tyranny. It should also be clear that the number of guns in circulation in a society bears little relationship to the crime rate there. The central question should be this: Is it wise to enable the civilian population of a country to own effective means of resisting tyranny by governments or criminals.