Wednesday, June 22, 2005

MLP: Of Holocausts And Gun Control

This essay by Daniel Polsby and Don Kates in the Washington University Law Quarterly may not be new, but it is still among the best on the subject. It opens with a very clear and even-handed view of the source of the disagreement (all emphasis mine):

However, the convictions of gun controllers do differ from those of gun owners in several important ways. First, they make different estimates about the usefulness of firearms for defensive and deterrent purposes. Second, they often differ in how they appraise the morality of using violence against violence. Third and perhaps most important, they are inclined to make very different guesses about how much potential for evil to ascribe to the government of the United States. Few if any of those who are hostile to the institution of an armed civilian populace consider the possibility that our government, with its Constitution, its checks and balances, and its traditions of free speech, civility, and respect for the individual, could ever degenerate into the sort of pitiless totalitarian instrument that has, at one time or another, afflicted most of the peoples of the Old and Third Worlds. The question is whether to label this attitude serenity or insouciance. Whichever it is, the fact remains that from time to time, genocides and other extreme forms of tyranny do occur, even in the midst of high civilization.

In our view, the failure to acknowledge the prospect of rogue government represents a serious failure of imagination. Trusting in the free press and the right to petition government to redress grievances, firearms abolitionists do not envision a world in which satanic rather than benevolent bureaucrats possess the effective monopoly of the means of force. Their gaze is not on more-or-less probable future worlds in which civil atrocities could become just one more idiom of political discourse, but on the world here and now, where criminals and lunatics find it all too easy to acquire powerful weapons and reasons to use them.

We argue that there is a great deal more to weapons policy than some sort of cost-benefit calculation of firearms' crime control benefits versus public health costs. The larger point, that no one who has lived through the greater part of the twentieth century may conscientiously disregard, is that sometimes people in power behave like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong rather than like President Clinton. Of course public policy must acknowledge that exceptional brutality is indeed exceptional rather than commonplace. But it is senseless to pretend that what has happened many times before cannot possibly happen again. Sound policy makes allowances for even remote contingencies when they are grave enough, and denies opportunity to predators whenever it can.

Then it provides a chilling and meticulously documented study of the political views of those who would ban guns (and self-defense):
A preoccupation with stripping civilians of military weaponry, including even some utterly cosmetic attributes of military arms, is one of the dominant ideological strains in the American gun control movement. The idea is that defensive firearms ownership by laymen is alienating and dangerous, and therefore must be banned as part of what has been called the "civilizing process."[9] Garry Wills, one of the country's most distinguished historians, has argued

Mutual protection should be the aim of citizens, not individual self-protection. Until we are willing to outlaw the very existence or manufacture of handguns we have no right to call ourselves citizens or consider our behavior even minimally civil. There is something obscene about a person's appeal to our basic social contract to justify [this] anti-social behavior [i.e., defensive gun ownership].[10]

It is questionable, however, whether individual and collective defense can be divided so nicely. The idea of general deterrence often assumes that these values are intertwined: "my safety" and "the community's safety" overlap substantially. Vindicating the rights of individuals by force means imposing costs on a wrongdoer; placing oneself in a position to put wrongdoers at risk benefits private citizens by ensuring individual security and the public by making wrongdoing more costly.[11] Yet on the commanding heights of our popular culture there remains an abiding reserve of disbelief in the notion that private and public security might be connected. In fact, just the opposite principle is widely accepted. For example, Betty Friedan has called the trend of women buying guns "a horrifying, obscene perversion of feminism."[12] She believes "that lethal violence even in self-defense only engenders more lethal violence and that gun control should override any personal need for safety."[13]

The Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church takes the point a step further, stating that women have a Christian duty to submit to rape rather than do anything that might imperil the rapist's life. "Is the Robber My Brother?" the Board's official publication asks rhetorically, to which it rhetorically answers "yes": although the burglary victim or the "woman accosted in the park by a rapist is not likely to consider the violator to be a neighbor whose safety is of immediate concern . . . , [c]riminals are members of the larger community no less than are others. As such they are our neighbors or, as Jesus put it, our brothers. . . ."[14] (Let it be noted that the Board is the founder of the Coalition to Stop Gun violence, formerly known as the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, the country's premier anti-gun advocacy group, with which it still shares offices.)

(Comment: this is a feckless and despicable position which cannot remotely be described as being Christian. It seems these Methodists have never read the extremely graphic description of the proper Biblical way for a victim to deal with a rapist in Judges 5:24-27, for example.)

If individual and collective security are antithetical, if violence does in fact beget more violence, if the welfare of wrongdoers and innocents occupy the same moral footing, then it follows that firearms, and for that matter weapons of any kind, should not be used for self defense. ...

To lawyers steeped in the defense-privileging traditions of common law, these accounts of right conduct seem curious, so lest they be considered mere offhand remarks rather than a thought-out view of the matter, we quote Professor Wills as to why "individual self protection" is in and of itself a form of "anti-social behavior": "Every civilized society must disarm its citizens against each other. Those who do not trust their own people become predators upon their own people. The sick thing is that haters of fellow Americans often think of themselves as patriots."[18]

Professor Wills, resonating the views of a large and influential constituency, asserts that not seeking to possess the means of self-defense is a defining element of civilized life. Good citizens should depend instead on the military and police for their physical safety. The mere desire to defend hearth and home counts "among the worst instincts in the human character."[19] The ownership of firearms for defensive purposes is "vigilantism,"[20] a usurpation by citizens of what should be the exclusive prerogative of the collective power, "anarchy, not order under law--a jungle where each relies on himself for survival."[21] It follows, many gun control activists argue, that there ought to be a national gun licensing program, which would assign to whomever sought to own a gun a burden of explaining the reason. The need or desire to defend oneself or one's neighbors would not be counted as an acceptable reason to own a firearm.[22]

Finally, the essay gets to the meat of the argument with lots of historical examples of genocides, including some American ones that didn't happen (and if you don't know what those might be, you really need to go and read the essay now).

(courtesy of a brief mention in InstaPundit as a rebuttal to this piece of elitist crap).