So much has been said lately on the topic of firearms regulation that I’m not sure that there is much to add. As the people of the United States engage in this debate I hope that we can remember what the word «rights» means in the context of governance. A «right» is not necessarily the right thing to do, but simply something which a government cannot restrict. The question is not so much whether more people should own firearms as much as whether it’s OK for the government to tell us whether we may own firearms.
One of the truly great things about the United States of America is that it was founded on the idea that the government ought do what the people tell it to rather than tell the people what to do. As firearms are a tool of power, restricting firearms is an act which takes power away from the people and gives it to the government. This is why Gandhi—as peaceful a guy as you’re likely to find in history—wrote that «Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act of depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest.»
The idea that restricting guns affects only the law-abiding citizens—that when guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns and the honest citizens will be outgunned and running scared—is the lesser of the frightening aspects of our nation’s current frenzy to limit guns. The more frightening aspect is the increasing imbalance of power between the people and the police. If we don’t trust criminals we can always hire more law enforcement. Who do we hire when we can’t trust politicians? It’s reasonable to assume the police can be trusted, but trusted to do what? To do what the politicians want them to.
In the United States of America, the police are civilians. There is a very real and important distinction between the police and the military. With the exception of natural disasters and foreign attacks, the military is prohibited from operating on domestic soil. This is because the military must be furnished with the kinds of weaponry that it takes to wage war.
Other than the military operating outside our borders, an important part of the American ethos is the idea that all men are created equal. There are no formal classes in American society: no nobles or lords, no upper and lower castes. As much as these distinctions may survive in our social structures, they have no place in our legal structures.
There are some duties that are given to certain professions, and those duties and responsibilities are very important. Police, jurists, and politicians are not above the law. This is less true for politicians, but that is due to a perversion of our Constitution and is a topic for a separate post.
It is therefore against the very principles of our nations that the police, who do such important work and deserve high respect, should have rights reserved only for law enforcement and separate sets of laws to which they must answer distinct from these to which we do. If the police can possess weapons which cannot be possessed by ordinary citizens, then we no longer have a citizen police force, but rather a military force which occupies our soil.
It is too late to prevent such a situation. Police forces across the country have had Special Weapons and Tactics units for some time, with military weaponry not allowed to the citizenry. In California where handguns with magazines greater than ten rounds are illegal, the police in every department are issued handguns with fifteen, eighteen, and even twenty round magazines. But this imbalance is generally an aberration. Most people understand that the police are—or should be—subject to the same laws we are.
Remember that the privilege of arrest over anyone committing a crime or who has committed a crime is not exclusive to law enforcement.1 Arresting criminals is law enforcement’s job and we ought be grateful that they do it, but they are not granted this right because they were hired by their department. They have the right of arrest because they are citizens. They had that right before they joined their department and they will have that right after they retire.
What would the face of tyranny look like?
A common rebuttal to the argument (or rather plain fact) that the intent of the Second Amendment of the Constitution is to keep the people armed against a tyrannical government is that this is plainly impossible when the Federal Government has tanks, missiles, drones, and fighter jets. It’s true that handguns and semiautomatic long arms make a poor match against the military might of our armed forces. However, our military does not generally pose a tyrannical threat against the people. Even in the case of insurrection, it is unlikely that the military would have the will and morale for a sustained occupation of the homeland against the people. Those sworn to protect the Constitution couldn’t stand more than a few isolated incidents of violence against the population of their own nation.
The greater threats to personal liberty—and let us be clear that it is by and large a potential rather than actual threat—are the domestic law enforcement departments and bureaus. Police are trained for and accustomed to combat with citizens. As professional as are most individuals within law enforcement, it is sadly not uncommon to find incidents where individuals, small groups, and even large groups of police have unleashed their lethal force on civilians for political, corrupt, or just plain senseless reasons.
Were there to be a tyrannical regime in America or any of her States, its strong arm would be that of the various law enforcement agencies here. In extreme cases, the population ought to be capable of rising up against those forces and by virtue of equal arms and greater numbers cause their advance to cease.
Let there be no mistake. This is not to advocate insurrection. It is a reminder that the capability of the people to armed resistance is one of the facts of American life that makes the practice of armed resistance unnecessary.
One should not have to be a lover of firearms or even a gun owner to realize that increasing the imbalance of power between the governments and the citizens is to be avoided, just as imprisonment without legal charges is.
This presents a simple and obvious rule for the application of gun control in America whether at the federal or states’ levels: any bans or restrictions on gun or ammunition ownership ought to apply to the members of law enforcement as well.
While such a rule may feel foreign to those of us accustomed to seeing images of police carrying automatic weapons and riding in armored vehicles it ought take only a bit of reflection to understand that if the laws that apply to citizens aren’t applied to law enforcement that there are serious consequences to the liberty of our society.
If such a rule were enshrined within the Constitution, communities could consider themselves free to enact laws which regulate the possession of weaponry, tempered by the knowledge that their police departments might come under fire by criminals with illegal superior firepower, just as ordinary citizens might face those same criminals with an imbalance of power. The debate about gun control could proceed somewhat more sanely, with a clear appraisal of the risks that come with unregulated firearms against the risks that come with those who abide by and uphold the laws being outgunned by criminals.
Any proposal for the restriction of armament allowed to the citizens that does not apply to the domestic agents of the government ought to be treated with the greatest of suspicion.
We ought to trust the members of law enforcement, but we also ought never forget that we entrust law enforcement with their duties, that in the United States of America government—which means the drafting and enforcement of laws—is of, for, and by the people.