English Composition II
13 April 1995
Thesis Statement: Society benefits from firearms in the hands of responsible citizens. Attempts to keep firearms away from these citizens do more harm than good.
Gun control is not one issue, but many. To some people gun control is a crime issue, to others it is a rights issue. Gun control is a safety issue, an education issue, a racial issue, and a political issue, among others. Within each of these issues there are those who want more gun control legislation and those who want less. On both sides of this issue opinions range from moderate to extreme.
Guns are not for everyone. Certain individuals cannot handle a firearm safely, and some individuals choose to use firearms inappropriately. Our society has passed laws regulating the ownership and use of firearms, and more legislation is being considered. Most of this legislation restricts, to some degree, the rights of individuals to possess or use firearms. Some restrictions may be necessary, but some recent legislation has gone too far. Society benefits from firearms in the hands of responsible citizens. Attempts to keep firearms away from these citizens do more harm than good.
To begin with, a definition of a "responsible citizen" is in order. The definition used in this paper was provided by Steve Rusiecki, a local police officer. When asked what makes someone a responsible citizen in regard to firearms ownership, Mr. Rusiecki replied, "The citizen must be law-abiding, with no felony record, must not abuse alcohol or drugs, must not be mentally ill, must not have renounced U.S. citizenship, must not have been dishonorably discharged from the military, and must be in the U.S. legally" (10). This definition combines elements from the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, and Arizona's concealed carry law.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." The Founding Fathers included this in our Bill of Rights because they feared the Federal Government might oppress the population if the people did not have the means to defend themselves as a nation and as individuals (Halbrook 65-84). This idea was not new. The Founding Fathers' thoughts on the right to keep and bear arms were influenced by Aristotle, Cicero, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney (7).
The militia referred to cannot be construed as meaning the Army or National Guard, in the words of Samuel Adams: "The Militia is composed of free citizens" (qtd. in Halbrook 62). Additionally, George Mason considered a "well regulated Militia" to be one "composed of . . . Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other Freemen" (qtd. in Halbrook 61). The Revolutionary War was won with the help of "An armed populace composed of partisans, militias, independent companies, and the continental army . . ." (63). It is obvious from this that the Founding Fathers thought that society benefited from firearms in the hands of the people.
Many years later we began placing restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. The first restrictions concerned the manner in which citizens could carry arms. In 1850 the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the constitution did not grant the right to carry a concealed weapon; although earlier court cases had ruled that the constitution did protect the right to carry concealed weapons (93-96). Shortly before the Civil War, some southern States passed legislation denying slaves and freed blacks the right to possess firearms. The basis of this legislation was the Dred Scott Decision. They reasoned that since blacks were not considered citizens they did not have the rights of citizens, including the right to keep and bear arms (96-98). The gun control legislation of this era resulted from prejudice against an entire race of people. These laws were in effect until after the Civil War when the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution were ratified. The legislation referred to here must be considered harmful to society.
The rational given for most modern gun control legislation is "Crime Control." The Brady Bill is one example. The Brady Bill is named after James Brady, who was shot by John Hinckley during an assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. Supporters of the Brady Bill used that incident to gain support for their gun control legislation, claiming it would reduce crime and save lives. The fact is that the background check and waiting period included in the Brady Bill would not have prevented John Hinckley from legally purchasing the handgun used in that incident. Records show that "a police background was run on Hinckley four days before he purchased the revolver he used to shoot President Reagan and Jim Brady. The check showed he had no felony convictions in any jurisdiction. Neither had Hinckley any public record of mental illness" ("Guns" 51).
An even greater shortcoming of the Brady Bill is that it only affects legal transactions. By definition, a criminal is someone who breaks the law. Criminals have many ways to obtain weapons without going through the process mandated by the Brady Bill. Two obvious examples are theft and black market purchases. According to studies "only one firearm of every six used in a crime is obtained legally" (Thomas 277). Since the passage of the Brady Bill, only four felons have been apprehended trying to purchase a firearm (NRA, "Grassfire"). When I asked Steve Rusiecki for a policeman's opinion of the Brady Bill, he replied: "I think it is an emotional attempt at crime reduction rather than one based on legitimate facts" (6). In view of the facts presented, it is obvious that the Brady Bill is not an effective crime prevention tool.
The Brady Bill is not effective in fighting crime, but it does affect crime victims. The five-day waiting period during which the police conduct the background check is also supposed to serve as a "cooling off" period to prevent crimes of passion. Fortunately, this five-day wait is waived in states like Virginia which have an instant background check system in place. The following article is an example of how waiting periods affect crime victims:
Marine Cpl. Rayna Ross of Woodbridge, Virginia, might be dead if a waiting period had been in effect. Instead, the instant check system in place in that state allowed her to defend her life against a former boyfriend three days after she purchased a pistol. The man, a Marine under orders to stay away from Ross because of previous assaults and threats, broke through a door and rushed into her bedroom with a bayonet. Ross fired twice, mortally wounding him. The shooting was ruled to be a case of self-defense ("Armed Citizen").
If the five-day waiting period had been in effect, it is likely that an innocent woman would have been killed. During the debate in Congress over the passage of the Brady Bill, supporters claimed passing the bill would be worth it "if it saved just one life." Surely the bill is not worth it if it costs just one innocent life.
Another example of gun control legislation that affects the wrong people is the "Assault Weapon" ban included in the Crime Bill of 1994. While supporters of the ban claim the firearms banned by this bill are the "weapons of choice" of gangs and drug dealers, the FBI Uniform Crime Reports show this contention is unfounded (Rusiecki 7). However, at Congressional hearings held on March 31of this year, several people testified that they had used guns which are now banned to defend their lives and to prevent crimes ("Survival"). It is fortunate that these citizens had firearms to defend themselves. Society does not benefit from the death or serious injury of innocent citizens.
As mentioned earlier, crime is not the only issue related to firearms ownership. Hunting is a popular sport and, in some parts of the country, an important source of food. On the surface, it might appear that hunting is harmful to wildlife and the environment. The fact is that the opposite is true. Wildlife biologists have found that well managed and regulated hunting programs are beneficial to wildlife. If the wildlife population becomes too large, food becomes scarce and the population starves to death. Wildlife biologists take counts of game animals in a given area and study the habitat to determine the population level it can support. Then they make recommendations to State Game and Fish officials who set hunting seasons and bag limits. Hunting is a tool used by these officials to manage the wildlife under their care ("Arizona" 18).
Non-game wildlife is also protected by hunters, and even by firearms owners who do not hunt. Approximately 77% of the funds used to operate state Fish and Game and other wildlife agencies are derived from the sales of hunting licenses, excise taxes levied on sales of firearms and ammunition, and the sale of federal duck stamps. More than three billion dollars have been raised from these sources and used to protect both game and non-game animals (22). Firearms ownership is clearly beneficial to the environment and a good environment is beneficial to everyone.
Firearms are also used in competitive sports. The Olympic Games include competitions with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Shooting is also part of the biathlon and has been part of the Olympic pentathlon since 1912 ("Pentathlon"). There are also many competitions throughout the country in bull's eye, bench rest, silhouette, practical pistol, trap and skeet, and other shooting sports. Men, women, older children, and even individuals with certain disabilities can enjoy these sports since shooting does not require much agility or physical strength.
Even without formal competition, shooting can be enjoyed as a hobby. Recreational shooting may involve paper targets, tin cans, or other suitable targets. This hobby can be enjoyed at indoor target ranges, but is usually practiced outdoors. In fact, shooting can often be combined with other enjoyable outdoor activities, such as hiking, camping, and sight seeing.
Shooting is a relatively inexpensive activity which the entire family can enjoy. With close supervision, children can be taught to shoot. Learning how to shoot safely means learning about responsibility, and the time spent teaching a child to shoot is quality time. When a child is ready, they may be allowed to shoot with less supervision. When this time comes, the child knows they have earned their parent's trust and they gain a sense of self-confidence. Sharing a hobby like shooting can bring a family closer together, teach children responsibility, and promote trust between parents and children. This is definitely good for society.
Throughout history violence has plagued the human race. Since ancient times the strong have preyed on the weak and the meek. We have passed laws to protect society, but the violence continues. Laws attempt to change human behavior, but laws are not able to change human nature. Laws are not enough to protect people from aggression. We must allow people the means to protect themselves. Protection is a major reason that about half of all Americans own a firearm (Lester 30).
It is a fact that not all people are the same size or possess the same amount of strength. Sometimes people must defend themselves from stronger aggressors, or sometimes from multiple aggressors. This is especially true for women since they are, on average, smaller than men. Also, older people are generally less able physically to defend themselves than young adults are. Everyone deserves to be safe, but not everyone has the physical ability to defend themselves. Firearms are the most effective tools used today for self-defense, but they are only useful if they are available.
Statistics show that people who are attacked by a criminal are safer if they use a weapon to resist their attacker than if they do not resist. In addition, those who resist with a gun are less likely to be injured than those who use a less effective weapon, such as a knife (Quigley 14). Resisting crime with a gun does not always mean shooting the criminal. Statistics show that in true life instances of self-defense with firearms, firing the gun was necessary only one third to one half of the time (13), the rest of the time the mere presence of a gun was enough to scare away the attacker.
Guns are an effective deterrent to crime. A study involving convicted felons showed that nearly 40 percent of them had decided against committing a specific crime because they suspected their intended victim might be armed (14). In 1966 the Police Department in Orlando, Florida, offered a well-publicized self-defense shooting program to women. As a result, the rate of rape in that city decreased from thirty-six per year to only four. This was accomplished without any of the women shooting anyone or even pulling a gun on anyone. The publicity alone was enough to discourage potential rapists (15-17). Rape and other violent crimes should not be tolerated in any society. It has been shown that firearms are a deterrent to these crimes; therefore, firearms are beneficial to society.
The Brady Bill and the "Assault Weapon" ban in last year's Crime Bill are examples of bad legislation, but some good firearms-related legislation was also passed last year. The Arizona Legislature recognized the benefits of firearms to our society and passed a law which enables many Arizona residents to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. There are restrictions in place to ensure that only responsible citizens are issued a permit. These restrictions cover age, criminal record, and mental competency. Applicants for this permit must pass a sixteen-hour training course. In addition, the applicant must send a copy of their fingerprints to the Department of Public Safety to be used to help them conduct a background check (Korwin 150-151).
It is too early to determine the effectiveness of Arizona's Concealed Carry Law, but statistics show that a similar law passed in Florida in 1987 has been effective in reducing crime. Between 1987 and 1992 murders involving handguns decreased 29 percent (Francis). According to the National Rifle Association, the homicide rate is 31% lower, and robbery rate is 36% lower in states with "favorable carry laws" compared to states with "restrictive concealed carry laws" (NRA, "Fact Card"). Some people may fear that citizens with concealed weapons are more likely to commit crimes, but statistics show that only .007% of the concealed weapon permits issued in the state of Florida have had to be revoked because of a crime committed by the permit holder (NRA, "Fact Card"). Laws that reduce violent crime are good for society, and concealed carry laws have been shown to reduce violent crime.
The Founding Fathers of our country won our freedom with firearms. After we won our independence the Founding Fathers included the right to keep and bear arms in the Constitution to ensure that the freedom they fought for would last. Throughout the history of this country firearms have been used to defend that freedom from both foreign aggressors and from violent criminal aggressors. Americans own and use firearms for many reasons, such as; hunting, organized sports competitions, informal recreational uses, and for protection. Some legislation has been passed recently which restricts our firearms rights, and the shortcomings of these laws have been exposed. Fortunately, there has also been good legislation passed, like Arizona's Concealed Carry Law, which give residents of this state a better chance to defend themselves against violent crime.
I recognize that criminals have misused firearms, often with tragic results, but I must point out that a few individuals committed those crimes. We should punish the individuals who commit these crimes, and we should imprison those who pose a threat to society so that they do not have the opportunity to cause harm. Punishing law-abiding citizens by passing restrictive gun laws is wrong. Guns are not the cause of this country's crime problem. Criminals are. Effective crime control legislation must control criminals, not guns. Effective crime control legislation should provide more prisons to lock up these criminals, and more police officers to deter crime and capture criminals. Effective crime control legislation should give the law-abiding citizens of our country the means to defend themselves. It should not restrict the rights of responsible citizens to own or carry firearms. The best way to ensure good legislation is to elect good legislators, I believe this is what happened last November 8.
Firearms can be dangerous in the wrong hands, that is why I believe firearms training is important. The best training consists of parents passing on our firearms heritage, respect for people and property, and some common sense safety rules to their children. For many people this training will be enough. Formal firearms training courses, like Hunter Safety Courses and the course required to obtain a concealed carry permit, are also very useful. These courses reinforce the basic safety rules that everyone who handles firearms should know. They also teach the legal requirements specific to hunting or self-defense, depending on the course.
Society does benefit from firearms in the hands of responsible citizens. It is our responsibility to use them properly and safely.
Arizona Hunter Education Manual. Seattle: Outdoor Empire Publishing, Inc., 1993.
"Armed Citizen." American Rifleman October 1993: 8.
Francis, Samuel. "The Truth and Tripe About Concealed Weapon Carry Laws." The Mohave Valley Daily News. 16 March 1995: A4.
"Guns, Bias and the Evening News." American Rifleman January/February 1995: 50-51.
Halbrook, Stephen. That Every Man be Armed. Albuquerque: University Of New Mexico Press, 1984.
Korwin, Alan. The Arizona Gun Owner's Guide. Phoenix: Bloomfield Press, 1994.
Lester, David. Gun Control Issues and Answers. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1984.
NRA Institute for Legislative Action. "NRA Firearms Fact Card - 1995." Computer file downloaded from GUN-TALK BBS.
---. "NRA Grassfire!." Vol. 1, No. 4. April 1995: Computer file downloaded from GUN-TALK BBS .
"Pentathlon." Microsoft Bookshelf '94. Computer Software. CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1994. IBM PC.
Quigley, Paxton. Armed & Female. New York: St. Martins, 1989.
Rusiecki, Steve. Personal interview conducted 4 March 1995. 26 questions.
"Survival of the Armed: Hearing Reviews Gun Laws." The Arizona Republic April 1, 1995: A4.
Thomas, Andrew Peyton. Crime and the Sacking of America: The Roots of Chaos. Washington: Brassey's, 1994.
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There are two general arguments one finds among those who defend the Second Amendment or the right to bear arms in the United States. One is that the legal protection of everyone’s right to bear arms is morally required since we all have a human right to self-defence, and that gun control has the effect of disarming only the law-abiding sector of society, thus rending them more vulnerable to violence. I refer to this as the classical liberal argument. The other is that a right to bear arms is an essential part of American identity; it reflects American history, etc. It is often thought that these two arguments go hand in hand and stand to motivate a broad-based coalition in support of the right to bear arms. I think this is mistaken because the historical gun culture that the Second Amendment has functioned to protect in the United States has been highly discriminatory, and has been a device for keeping privileged whites armed, and the black community disarmed, vulnerable, and oppressed. I therefore argue that the case for a real, universal right to bear arms ought to take explicit notice of the harm that gun control has done to the black community, and doing this requires classical liberals to purge their discourse of conservative rhetoric around Second Amendment rights. The right to bear arms cannot be protected by defending or promoting gun culture.
This essay outlines the broad brush strokes of both the liberal and conservative discourses on the right to bear arms with a view to showing that there is an incompatibility between the two approaches, and that conflating the two is potentially corrosive to the liberal case for the universal right to bear arms.
Two Cases for the Right to Bear Arms
Broadly speaking there are two ideological groupings in the United States that support what they respectively refer to as “the right to bear arms.” These are classical liberals (henceforth “liberals”) and conservatives. There is an extent to which they overlap, inasmuch as they both make reference to the Second Amendment. However, the conservative case for the right to bear arms actually undermines the liberal case. Conservatives take the right to bear arms to be a historical, cultural artefact, and refer to the Second Amendment as evidence of its role in the formation of American identity. Whereas liberals take the right to bear arms to both be grounded in and provide support for equality between citizens – it is a matter of moral right, not identity politics. The egregiously inegalitarian nature of the gun culture with which conservatives often identify means that liberals’ reference to the Second Amendment as a guarantor of the right to bear arms carries this historical and cultural baggage with it. To build a more successful, inclusive, and morally honest movement for the right to bear arms, liberals ought to purge their discourse of references to the Second Amendment as a historical right to be protected, and favour the real right of everyone to bear arms, such as has never truly been enjoyed in the United States.
It is important to note that it is not only in the two groups’ reference to the Second Amendment that they overlap. My description of the two ideological approaches to the right to bear arms ought to be taken as ideal types; not necessarily wholly and exclusively instantiated by any individuals, but identifiable strands of consistent argumentation. Given the liberal strand of thought in the ethos of the American Founding Fathers and hence in the US Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, many who consider themselves conservative will lean on liberal ideas insofar as those ideas have a history in American public life. Likewise, many liberals will support traditional American political ideas insofar as they are to some extent liberal. The argument to be put forth here – that the conservative and liberal discourses on the right to bear arms need to be disentangled – ought to be viewed as one important aspect of reclaiming liberalism from its entanglement with potentially undermining conservative ideas bound up with American history.
The Liberal Case for the Right to Bear Arms
The liberal justification of the right to bear arms is explicitly moral. This moral argument can take two different forms, one of which is based on our inherent right to life. The right to life is the cornerstone of liberal individual rights: John Locke argued that enshrined in “the law of nature” is the right of self-preservation (Locke 1924, 122). For Locke the right of self-preservation entailed inter alia1 a right of self-defence (Locke 1924, 122; 125-126). The conception of individuals as sovereign and morally separate that is central to liberalism2 implies that a right to life or to self-preservation means that one may act on this right oneself, and not have to depend upon others acting in one’s interests – indeed that is the whole point of individual rights.3 The right to self-defence is not viewed by liberals as a mere convention – something that certain cultures happen to respect or valourise for potentially arbitrary reasons – but rather a natural anddeontic right that inheres in us simply in virtue of our being persons worthy of moral consideration, and not our happening to live within this or that set of social conventions. Natural rights provide a basis for evaluating legal systems insofar as they tell us what protections the legal system ought to provide, independently of those protections it might happen to provide. Given that in the contemporary United States, the threats to one’s life that one might face will often require a firearm to extinguish, the legal right to bear arms is the logical implication of the deontic right to self-defence.
The other liberal argument for the right to bear arms is a consequentialist one: when citizens have the right to bear arms, violent crime and property crime are more effectively deterred, and moreover, deterrence works in a far more egalitarian way.
When the right to bear arms is not legally enshrined, those who are already committed to engaging in certain criminal acts such as assaults and thefts, the additional criminal act of unlawfully obtaining and/or using a firearm is only a minor additional risk for them to take, given that they are already taking the risk of engaging in violent crime or property crime in the first place. However, for those who live otherwise law-abiding lifestyles, the marginal risk of obtaining a firearm illegally in order to protect themselves from crime is much larger. Making guns illegal is not a way of disarming a population, but typically a way of disarming the otherwise-law-abiding sub-set of a population.
While existing professional armed law enforcement in the United States no doubt plays some role in deterring crime, a general individual right to bear arms would expand this deterrence in way which not only increases the level of deterrence, but also make it more equally available. Rather than only those who can afford effective private security, happen to live in neighbourhoods the local police care more about, and/or have above average physical strength combined with an inclination to use it for self-defence, where there is a right to bear arms anyone who can point and shoot is immediately able to achieve maximal self-defence. An absence of a legal right to bear arms means that those who are – for any reason – less able to defend themselves, or who are less likely to receive assistance in deterrence or defence. Gun control laws therefore tend to disadvantage women (Long 1997; Pryor 2017), as well as those who live in areas with high crime (which in the United States are typically black neighbourhoods). In the US between 2011 and 2013 black men were killed with a gun at double the rate white men were,4 and in 2015 black people were more than twice as likely to be killed by the police as white people (The Guardian 2015). Where there is inequality between abilities to self-defend without a gun, and between the safety of different communities, recognising a right to bear arms lessens that inequality by equalising the physical power of those who are domestically abused with their abusers in the former case, and by allowing the law-abiding to provide deterrents to crime in crime-ridden communities in the latter case.
Both of these liberal justifications for the right to bear arms are moral in character: the former identifies our moral rights to self-defence as the justification for the legal right to bear arms, and the latter identifies the beneficial consequences of the right to bear arms, namely more and equally distributed public safety. Nonetheless the Second Amendment is often referenced in the liberal discourse, given that there is, in fact, a legal provision for ensuring a right to bear arms in the United States. However, the Second Amendment is not leaned upon as the grounds for any argument for the right to bear arms; it is merely a legal device which can be used as a means to the end of ensuring the legal right to bear arms. The two main strands of liberal argument in favour of the right to bear arms do not make heavy use of the idea that the absence of a right to bear arms would be unconstitutional. This notion of unconstitutionality is rather a strategic aspect of their overall cause, not the main thrust of their argument. There are of course liberal reasons for supporting the US Constitution, and for trying to ensure that it is not violated by the various branches of government. An effectively constitutionally-limited government is bound to be more liberal insofar as those constitutional limitations take the form of protecting citizens from infringements of their liberty.5 But crucially, the argument for the right to bear arms is not given merely because the right is protected by the Constitution. This entanglement of the liberal case for the right to bear arms with the Second Amendment means that there is a danger for liberal discourse to overlap with the conservative one vis-à-vis the Second Amendment, which, as we shall see, undermines the primary liberal argument.
The Conservative Case for the Right to Bear Arms
The Conservative justification for the right to bear arms is not a moral argument in the sense of being deduced from abstract moral ideals, but rather by a traditionalist appeal to cultural, historical, or national identity. The Second Amendment is referred to as evidence that guns are part of American history. Moreover, the Second Amendment has functioned to protect American gun culture: by being legally binding when it suited those in power, and brushed aside when it did not.6
Consider the ongoing debate between Piers Morgan (the British broadcaster who worked in the US for a time) and Second Amendment activists. Morgan advocated the banning of assault rifles on the basis that no American could possibly need one (for game sports, hunting, etc.). However, he and his conservative interlocutors continually talked past one another, since, for them it is not a question of whether they need this or that weapon to protect themselves, or for sport – their very complaint is that they should not have to justify themselves; this is their identity (Stanley, 2013). It is their culture of guns which is claimed and defended, rather than a set of moral ideals which can be rationally debated.
For conservatives, appeal to the Second Amendment is typically not out of a concern for the Constitution as such but a concern for American history and the way things have historically been done. Violations of the Second Amendment are not predominantly worrying to the conservative because some citizens have had their moral rights violated, or because they have become more vulnerable to crime, but because American identity has been tarnished via an assault on American gun culture – and that culture is not one of a universal right to bear arms, but rather one where privileged white men get gun rights, and get to institute gun control that does not threaten their position of power. American gun culture is about privileging some at the expense of others, not universal rights.
Gun Culture Vs. Gun Rights
Gun culture in the US is about gun rights and gun control (Winkler 2013). Typically it is whites that have enjoyed gun rights, and blacks who have borne the brunt of gun control. This is not only a contemporary phenomenon but has been part of American gun culture since its inception. As Thomas Webb recently said, “American gun culture is joined at the hip with attitudes that limit the rights of traditionally disadvantaged groups, attitudes which run counter to [the] philosophy underlying gun rights.” (2016)
The pattern holds from colonial times, when firearms were regulated for purposes of “public safety” (meaning the safety of white settlers from the displaced natives) (Ingersoll 1991, 178-179),7 through to Reconstruction, when the Black Codes kept the freed black population disarmed. The Ku Klux Klan got their start as a disarmament posse in the South, and were crucially not subject to the 1902 ban in South Carolina (Kates 1979, 15). Often, the gun rights of whites were required to secure the gun control imposed on blacks. Congress forced the South the remove racial differentiation in their gun laws in 1866; however, ever since then new ways have been found to control guns in the black community: from the 1870 Tennessee ban on all except the most expensive handguns to the 1968 Gun Control Act that prohibited importation of the handgun models which were most popular among the black community (Funk 1995; Carter 2012, 516-519). Gun control can discriminate against blacks via discrimination against the poorest in American society.
The modern gun control movement started as a response to armed black-rights movements. Ronald Reagan supported the Mulford Act as the Governor of California as a reaction to the Black Panthers’ activities in Californian cities. The Panthers were able to prevent police brutality against blacks by openly arming themselves in public (Bloom & Martin 2014, 46-48),8 as well as to prevent violence at their public demonstrations. When armed Panthers legally entered the State Capitol in 1967 carrying loaded pistols and shotguns, evidently this was the last straw, as this was when Reagan solidified his support of the Mulford Act. Despite the fact that the black community faced systematic threats of violence from the police when lawfully assembling in protest of civil rights violations (to say nothing of the civil rights violations themselves), Reagan assured that public that the Mulford Act “would work no hardship on the honest citizen” (Winkler 2013, 245). Clearly, gun control was acceptable so long as it only affected the black community. Indeed, the National Rifle Association pushed heavily for gun control in urban areas in the face of the riots of the 1960s, believing that the Gun Control Act was “one that the sportsmen of America can live with” (Waldman 2014, 90). They were not interested in the right to bear arms; they were interested in rural whites being able to continue their existing lifestyles. It was not until gun control began to threaten whites’ access to guns (with the 1972 instatement of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) that the NRA became the Second Amendment advocate we know it as today.
In more recent memory, though the gun control movement is not ostensibly racially motivated, it nonetheless functions to disadvantage black communities. Increasing restrictions on and costs of obtaining firearms (where this can be done at all) couples with the increased danger of violence that blacks are exposed to, both from citizens in their locales and from law enforcement agencies. Moreover, in places with partial bans it is the local police department or sheriff that issues licences – so it is the same agencies which disproportionately target black people which regulate that community’s access to the means of self-defence.
The Second Amendment is leaned upon by conservativism when it is their rights to bear arms that are threatened, rather than the universal right to bear arms, and conveniently forgotten when it comes to managing the black community’s access to firearms. The only “right” to bear arms that can be found in American gun culture is the privilege of whites to both access firearms when they want them, and to prohibit firearms when blacks get hold of them. A privilege is not the kind of thing that can, even in theory, be universally shared; it is a right reserved to some and denied to others.9 The Second Amendment has functioned to permit precisely this state of affairs.
It is this inegalitarian political culture which so many conservatives identify with, and feel is threatened when the contemporary gun control movement talks about confiscating assault rifles, etc. The affinity to historical Second Amendment is, for conservatism, an affinity for being able to use the law to privilege themselves at the expense of the black community – not about a universal moral right to self-defence. Reference to the Second Amendment – while it may be strategic as well – is importantly about vindicating the historical veracity of their claim to American history: “this is our culture, and here it is in the Constitution to prove it.” American gun culture does not include a universal right to bear arms, so defending gun culture is not a way of defending the right to bear arms, and therefore, given the Second Amendment’s active and passive role in supporting gun culture, it should not be used in a discourse that seeks to promote and protect a universal right to bear arms.
Changing the Discourse
As was noted above, there is a degree of overlap between liberal and conservative discourse in the US,10 and their respective leaning on the Constitution is a large part of this. However, when liberals refer to protection of the right to bear arms in ways which implicitly argues for gun rights on the basis that they are “our Second Amendment rights,” or “our American freedom,” etc., they do not refer to a universal right to bear arms. They rather refer to a historical set of political relations which involve a large amount of white privilege, and which therefore threatens to alienate those who have been harmed by American gun culture.
The issue is well illustrated by an exchange between the respective leaders of Houston’s New Black Panthers and Open Carry Texas in August 2014. The Panthers were planning an armed march through Houston’s Fifth Ward, and Open Carry wanted to accompany them, believing them to share common cause. Krystal Muhammad of the Panthers told David Amad of Open Carry that their presence would be “an insurgence” in the community. Later, Amad, indignant at the accusation, said to a local TV station that he didn’t “even understand why this was a racial issue.” (Smith 2015.) To Open Carry, both groups believed in and wanted the same thing, at least, as it pertained to this particular rally: a recognition of their right to self-defence. To the New Black Panthers, Open Carry (which has Houston police officers as members) represents a fundamentally different, and opposing, set of ideals – those of the historically privileged and armed white majority.
Denying or ignoring the racial element in a political issue can play into and support the racism that makes it a potent issue in the first place. As Jacob Levy has recently argued, the fight for liberty must take critical notice of the fact that illiberalism has typically been identity-based (2016). Amid the increased rate of unprovoked murders of black people by police officers in the US, there has been an enormous outpouring of sentiment claiming that it is not a racial issue; that it is the disregard for human life that is worrisome. Those taking this view rally under the banner “All Lives Matter” in response to the “Black Lives Matter” campaign, and claim that the latter are looking for a racial issue where there isn’t one. Pretending that there is no particular racial element to the tragedies that occur as a result of unaccountable and increasingly militarised police forces that roam US cities rightly alienates those who make the claim. Claiming that police violence is as much of a threat to the white community as it is to the black community is false, and demonstrates an ignorance of the true importance of the issue. Likewise, claiming that the right to bear arms is not a particularly important right for black people in the US by saying that it is “all of us” that are under threat; that it is “our American rights” that are being compromised, displays ignorance. And as such, anyone seeking the right to bear arms in order to counterbalance the historical privilege that they have been a victim of has good reason to question whether Second Amendment advocates are really to be trusted allies. It is not appropriate for a white law enforcement officer in Texas to walk around a black neighbourhood armed to the teeth affirming his right to bear arms, when historically, the role of white men’s right to bear arms and patrol the streets has been to track down runaway slaves, or to disarm freed blacks, or more recently, to terrorise black neighbourhoods. This is not to say that groups such as Open Carry cannot play a role in the fight for universal gun rights. But it is crucial to remove language tied to “Second Amendment rights” from their rhetoric, and to explicitly recognize that the lack of gun rights in the US imposes a particular hardship upon those who are already systematically disadvantaged by the US government in a number of other ways.
In order to build a successful movement for the right to bear arms, liberals must stick to their moralistic guns, and not fall prey to the rhetoric of conservatives who care more about American gun culture—i.e., White identity politics—than about a real universal right to bear arms. When arguing for the right to bear arms, instead of saying that it is a constitutional right, make the moral case that it is a real moral right we all in fact have, and the government ought to recognise, and that more over it will make us all safer, particularly people in the black community who presently face so much danger both from other citizens and from police officers.
Barnett, Randy E. 2013. Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty. Updated ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bloom, Joshua and Martin, Waldo E. 2014. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of theBlack Panther Party. Oakland: University of California Press. (First published 2012)
Carter, Gregg L., ed. 2012. Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law, vol. 1, 2nd ed. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Cobb, Charles E. Jr. 2014. This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the CivilRights Movement Possible. New York: Basic Books.
Cottrol, Robert J. and Diamond, Raymond T. 1991. “The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro Americanist Reconsideration.” Georgetown Law Journal 80: 309-361.
Epstein, Richard A. 2014. The Classical Liberal Constitution: The Uncertain Quest for Limited Government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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The Guardian. 2015. The Counted: People killed by police in the US, recorded by the Guardian – with your help.
Hayek, Friedrich A. 1973. Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 1: Rules and Order. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Ingersoll, Thomas N. 1991. “Free Blacks in a Slave Society: New Orleans, 1718-1812.” William & Mary Quarterly 48: 173-200.
Johnson, Nicholas. 2014. Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
Kates, Don B., Jr. 1979. Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. Great Barrington: North River.
Levy, J. T. 2016. “The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics,” Niskanen Center, December 13.
Locke, John. 1924. Two Treatises of Government. With an introduction by W. S. Carpenter. London: Dent. (First published 1690)
Long, Roderick T. 1997. “Beyond Patriarchy: A Libertarian Model of the Family.” Formulations 4 (3).
Long, Roderick T. 2008. “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism.” In Anarchism/Minarchism, edited by Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan, 135-154. Aldershot: Ashgate.
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National Death Reporting System (accessed 18/08/2016).
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Pryor, Daniel. 2017. “How Gun Control Hurts Women,” Washington Examiner, January 8.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (First published 1971)
Richman, Sheldon. 2016. America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. Griffin Lash.
Smith, Aaron L. 2015. “The Revolutionary Gun Clubs Patrolling the Black Neighborhoods of Dallas.” Vice, February 17.
Spooner, Lysander. 1867-70. No Treason. 6 vols. Boston: Self-published.
Stanley, Tim. 2013. “Here’s the Conservative Take On Gun Rights in Three Simple Points.” Business Insider.
Walden, Michael. 2014. The Second Amendment: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Webb, Thomas J. 2016. “Our Gun Culture Versus Our Gun Rights.” Center for a Stateless Society.
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- He famously and controversially believed it implied a right to private property (Locke, 1924, 129-141) ↩
- The two most important liberal political philosophers of the twentieth century – John Rawls and Robert Nozick – both emphasised the importance of the separateness of persons (Rawls 1999, 30; Nozick 1974, 32-33). ↩
- According to the so-called “will theory” of rights (Wenar 2005). ↩
- In those years, black men were killed by guns at a rate of 34 for every 100,000, whilst white men were killed by guns at a rate of 17 for every 100,000. The rate at which women were killed by guns was significantly lower both black and white, with the rate for black women being marginally higher than that of white women (National Violent Death Reporting System). ↩
- In favour of this view see Barnett (2003) and Epstein (2014); however, against this view see Spooner (1867-70), Long (2008) and Richman (2016). ↩
- As Lysander Spooner said, “whether the Constittuion really be on thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it.” (1867-70, vol. 6, 6.20.1) ↩
- Men were often required to carry guns (Winkler 2013, 115) and to keep them safely locked up in their homes if they had slaves (Cottrol & Diamond 1991). ↩
- Also see Johnson (2014) and Cobb (2014) on the importance of armed self-defence in the struggle for civil rights. ↩
- Privilege derives from the two latin words privus (private) and lex (law or right). Where lex denotes law or right in a very particular sense of general laws or rights that apply equally to all persons, privilegium comes to denote laws or rights that only prescribe protection for a particular individual or class of individuals. See Maitland (1919, 382) and Hayek (1973). ↩
- This was conscientiously pursued by National Review magazine during the 1950s under the name “fusionism.” The editor William F. Buckley was explicitly seeking a coalition between libertarians (classical liberals) and conservatives. Those ideas live on to this day under the name “paleolibertarianism.” ↩
Ed. note: Minor revisions 3/13/2017.