“Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.” – James Madison, Federalist No. 46, January 29, 1788
“The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic…” – Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833
“I ask who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” – George Mason, Address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 4, 1788
Another mass shooting, another round of calls from progressives to have a “national discussion” about gun violence. You can be sure they mean “national lecture.” Given the left’s propensity for cultivating moral outrage today, you can be pretty sure that few progressives actually want to hear your defense of the Second Amendment. But if you find one who does, consider memorizing the basics of these arguments.
- The fundamental purpose of the Second Amendment is not self-defense or maintaining the viability of revolt against a tyrannical government. It is to codify a revolutionary understanding of political liberty that the government itself participates in.
Though the right to defend yourself against criminals is certainly valid and covered by the Second Amendment, self-defense is not its primary purpose (other governments in 1776 protected self-defense). Nor is its primary purpose to ensure the viability of future revolts (though this also is certainly covered). Rather, the Second Amendment signifies a new revolutionary relationship that the American state is supposed to participate in along with the body politic as a whole.
Marx talks about the notion of “permanent revolution”: no matter the conditions of the proletariat, they are to relentlessly advocate for proletarian interests even if the revolution has achieved some apparent measure of external success. We can look to American society for a state of permanent revolution (though not one that communists would like). The American revolution is the only political revolution worth fighting for in its entirety, but the locus of that revolution lies in the shift of political perspective brought into realization by a bunch of intellectual pseudo-aristocrats that we call the Founding Fathers. That shift does not indicate a powerful state that “grants” individuals their rights. Nor does it refer to an armed popular democracy always fighting and never resting. Rather it indicates a state whose job is perpetual witness to, and defense of, the rights human beings possess by their nature as rational beings.
And though every amendment in the Bill of Rights makes implicit reference to this special relationship, I claim that it is precisely the Second Amendment that captures it in its most philosophical dimension. The state is not present in every struggle of good vs. evil. The people cannot, and also should not, expect the government to “give” them things, even their very rights. Our Constitutional Republic should be paradoxically never changing in its revolutionary nature of emphasizing political liberty even, if necessary, at the expense of “doing something.”
The successful attempt, mostly by progressives, to frame the argument in terms of the “use” of the Second Amendment has significantly damaged our cause only because conservatives have so reliably taken the bait to adopt the premise. Asking the wrong questions about liberty can actually harm us much more than giving the wrong answers. Thus the motion in an IQ2 debate in 2013 “The Second Amendment has outlived its usefulness” went unchallenged as a premise even by the debaters opposing the motion; they simply accepted that they had to defend the Second Amendment by referring to its “usefulness.”
But liberty isn’t useful, if by “useful” you mean “conducive to whatever contemporary society considers a good ‘outcome’”. No government which presides over men should be concerned with ‘outcomes’. It should be concerned only with liberty. Political liberty only solves one kind of problem, granted, but it does solve it extraordinarily well. People will still be insane, unreasonable, racist, violent, and so on. Indeed political liberty itself seems, at times, conducive to the flourishing of ignorance. But in a free society, we have that ignorance in the only place we can confront it: in the open. Thus the radical dimension of the American revolutionary political project is realized in the true politicization of each individual as each person is called to civic universality, i.e. the body politic faces problems as a whole but through the individual, not the State.
Arguments for self-defense and the viability of future revolts against tyranny are sound, but, offered by themselves, they offer only a piece of the whole story. Arguments about self-defense are countered by progressives by citing the astronomical (if often presented out of context) levels of gun violence. If self-defense using a firearm is occasionally possible but it still results in a net loss for Americans because it causes violent crime to skyrocket, statistically you might stand a better chance of surviving if guns were banned. Likewise with maintaining the viability of revolution; what is the point of maintaining that possibility if it causes society to go to hell in the meantime?
No, what gun rights advocates need now are good arguments for the place of guns in American society as a whole, as a political and cultural force. We need to revive the general notion of the Second Amendment as the codification and symbolification (i.e. a symbol whose subject is not just represented but is fully present in the symbol alone) of a free people. Armed and law-abiding citizens are not a mere symbol of freedom. It is in that symbol that the very liberty itself resides.
- Sound political principles are more fact-like than statistics and bureaucratic social tinkering.
Leftists have pretty successfully convinced the American people that the facts are on their side. After Charleston, the President called for his opponents to acknowledge the ‘facts’ of gun violence so favored by progressives. And the statistics on gun violence favored by progressives are indeed sobering, if oftentimes taken out of context. The problem is not that they’re false per se but rather that they are not fully truthful enough, i.e. they encompass too small of a truth-claim to be useful without reference to a strong underlying principle. And progressives do not have a strong underlying principle other than their notion that it is the government’s job to “do something” in the face of every apparent evil.
I’m not punting on the stats argument. I’ll definitely go to war with anyone on the grounds that the statistics support the political and moral legitimacy of the Second Amendment. But statistics should never be the foundation of our defense of the Second Amendment; only principled reasoning should be allowed as fundamental.
(This kind of thinking drives progressives insane, of course. Since principled reasoning in regards to politics demands that we define man as possessing a distinct nature and identity, progressives long ago abandoned the struggle in favor of their view of man primarily as a socially and biologically conditioned construct. It simply fits their agenda better. Since their fundamental goal is political omnipresence to correct what they see as a hegemonic domination by the wealthy and “privileged”, they need to view man’s action and nature as both determined and always in a state of flux. In other words, what ails us is correctable, don’t you see it? And they’re right, in a sense: what ails us is correctable, but you don’t correct it by approaching it with the force of the government. You correct it by approaching obliquely, e.g. through deeply rooted tradition, first-principles, etc. It already has been anticipated and “corrected” by the Framers.)
Principles, relentlessly debated and refined, are indeed the foundation of all sound political positions. But more than that, they also happen to be far more persuasive than statistics. Consider the advances that have been made in the past century in measuring social phenomena, but that they have little affect on getting any one individual to change their behavior. Things that were considered mystical forces of human nature – alienation, the effect of home conditions on social mobility, the salubrious effects of loving parenting in the pre-kindergarten years of a child’s life – are now fairly quantifiable; phenomena to be observed. The pernicious effects of chronic fatherlessness on poor communities is well documented, for instance. But why doesn’t increased knowledge of the stats seem to motivate people to change their behavior?
Because subjectivity is irreducible and always will be. No one thinks of themselves as a stat because we all can only think of our point-of-view as primary and choice-directed. This is why discussions about guns in relation to mass shootings in America oftentimes descend into incoherence; each example of gun violence can seemingly be used to justify either side of the debate. People who favor progressive gun laws blame the ease with which the shooter acquired his guns. People who carry guns on a daily basis think of all the unarmed people killed and think “if only one of them were armed like me, this maybe could’ve been avoided.” Each account of the situation seems inimical to the other.
There is no accounting for this difference directly, but it is only the pro-gun side which has this ‘lack’ built into the position itself. Each event in question could always have been different than it was for an infinite variety of reasons, and that is why we allow citizens to arm themselves. No advanced planning can ever fully address the multitude of possible scenarios when it comes to human action, which is why corrective political approaches to human evil should, in the constitutional sense, only be negative, i.e. present only in the absence held by the signifying place-holder, in this case, the Second Amendment. The Constitution doesn’t tell us, as citizens, what we may do; we may do anything we like so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. Rather, it tells the state power what it may not do (even the prescriptive injunctions seemingly telling the government what it can do in the positive sense should always be viewed this way, as a way to limit the government’s sphere of action). The First Amendment isn’t permission for you to say what you want; it is a prohibition on the government from denying you free speech. Likewise, the Second Amendment is not the government allowing us arms; it is saying our right to bear arms shall not be infringed. It is in that particular negativity that our freedom rests.
- Examples of people using guns to stop bad guys are polemically stronger than examples of bad guys victimizing others with guns.
Example 1: Thanks to “lax” gun control laws, Sally arms herself and shoots a home invader intent on doing her harm.
Example 2: Sally is unarmed and shot by an armed home invader who legally acquired a firearm because of lax gun control laws.
Question: are these examples equivalently valuable to the both progressives and classical liberals (or conservatives, if you prefer)? For instance, is the progressive cause harmed by example 1 as much as it is helped by example 2? And vice-versa for pro-Second Amendment polemics?
Answer: No, they are not equal. Examples of injustice caused by preventing citizens from exercising their right to arms bear witness to a far greater injustice than any example of criminals using guns to harm others.
Explanation: Each example of someone using a gun in self-defense is a far more persuasive event in favor of allowing armed citizens than each example of someone being victimized by an armed criminal is a persuasive argument for progressive gun laws. The relationship between the concepts of “moral action” and “guns” is not simply reversed in both examples but non-relatable. When a person uses a gun in self-defense, the relationship that the gun has to moral action is far greater than when a criminal uses a gun for evil purposes. The evil done by the criminal, however easily he acquired his firearm, is only tangentially related to the gun. Yes, the gun was the means by which he did his evil, but his range of evil actions was only minimally restricted by the kind of weapon he chose (though if he is armed and no one else is, the body count can go alarmingly high…I address this below). On the contrary, the gun in the self-defense example contributed more to the accomplishing of good, by far, then the gun in example 2 contributed to the cause of evil, especially because any potential example 2 situation can always be undone by a good guy also having a gun according to the same “lax” gun laws.
The progressive rejoinder to all this is that the extent to which a mass shooting has a relationship to guns should not be labeled “tangential” because of the typically high body counts. Guns do make it easier to kill a lot of people, especially if you’re not quickly stopped by another person with a gun. But as I argue above, the infinite number of variables present in any given situation we’re likely to find ourselves in makes it so that guns are also always potentially a check on the evil of others, especially if they’re armed (“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”). Thus there is always the possibility of a gun being used for good in a world where mass shootings occur and a citizen may arm himself.
To use some real examples from recent news, take the example of Carol Browne, who had the misfortune of living in New Jersey – a state with progressive gun laws – while also credibly fearing for her life. She had a restraining order on her ex-boyfriend and even installed home video cameras and an alarm system to deter him if he showed up to kill her. She also needed a gun, and she knew it and applied for one. But according to the local government, citizens need to wait at least a couple of months (oftentimes more) to exercise a right enshrined in the Constitution. After she waited for two months and heard nothing from the Sheriff, her ex-boyfriend stabbed her to death in her driveway.
Now, progressives might be tempted to bring up the potential number of lives saved every time the government prevents even the law-abiding from exercising their right to bear arms (say, to reduce accidental gun deaths). But they’d be wrong to do so, because the amount of good done by preventing the law-abiding from bearing arms pales in comparison to the amount of evil done by preventing the innocent from defending themselves. Especially when you consider that preventing the law-abiding from exercising their Second Amendment rights is already nefarious before anything has happened (see argument #1). Preventing Carol Browne from defending herself is far more evil than any good draconian gun laws might ostensibly provide by, say, reducing accidental gun deaths because no one has any guns, or by making it slightly more difficult for criminals to acquire them. The reason is that the two situations are totally different, and one is more relevant to the question of justice than the other.
- The measure of the acceptability of any gun control law must be the law-abiding citizen. If the law-abiding are prevented from exercising their right in a timely fashion, no compromise is worth it.
After deploying arguments 1-3, your opponent might might say something like “No one wants to take away your right to bear arms. We just want to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to get weapons.” That is fair, and your response, as a law-abiding citizen, is “Great, as long as it doesn’t hinder me.”