A Modest Proposal

I think if we’re going to have guns they shouldn’t be concealed. They should have day-glo grips, stocks, and cases — mandatorily lurid pink I suggest, have built-in GPS sensors, and make wah-wah noises when they’re moved around; the battery that runs the GPS and buzzer also allows the gun to be fired; and every gun should have sample fired bullets and casings registered in a national database (paid for by the bullet tax, see below). After all, if they’re supposed to deter crime shouldn’t criminals know they’re there? I certainly want to know who has guns and avoid them.

Now of course people will argue “if it’s illegal to conceal weapons then only criminals will have concealed weapons”. That’s true, but they need to be careful, especially if the penalties are harsh. E.g. if someone doesn’t like you they can just tell the police you habitually carry a gun. Similarly, it would be illegal to sell guns without these things and when you tear out the mechanism your last known location would be in the cloud.

The GPS sensors and buzzers will run out of batteries and also could be gouged out but not keeping your batteries charged would also be a crime and when your gun stopped responding the authorities would know when and where.

We could require gun ranges to run every bullet fired on the range, and every casing to be matched against the database (expensive, but the bullet tax will pay for it). If a bullet doesn’t have a registered match (e.g. the gun’s owner is not the right person or the gun’s rifling has been tampered with) then we either arrest the owner or register the new bullet.

The buzzers and day-glo would kind of mess up hunting, but the right to go hunting is not enshrined by the constitution — the second amendment is solely there for purposes of preserving us from tyranny, and at such time as we desire to overthrow the government we can always pull the crap out, right? After all, armed insurrection is also illegal. Perhaps to honor the second amendment we can require the mechanisms to be removable in some straightforward way — on the strict understanding that it’s a felony.

All this might sound horribly draconian. It’s supposed to be. The argument is that the 2nd amendment protects our right to overthrow tyrants. I would argue the 4th amendment is far more important (and we can set up the GPS system so it merely tracks your gun anonymously until it’s involved in a shooting).

When a gun owner moves into your neighborhood they should be required to post a public notification in the “known sex offenders and gun owners” registry.

Chris Rock suggests that we simply put a huge tax on bullets. (“That guy must deserve it, they put $50,000 worth of lead in him.”) I would point out that the right to bullets is actually not enshrined in the constitution, but certainly we can put a hefty federal tax on them or require a prescription. After all, they’re kind of a potentially lethal drug (“lead poisoning”) and should be properly controlled. Better make sure you have all your tax stamps and prescriptions ready when you get your hunting license.

The bullet tax can also pay for free kevlar body armor for all citizens who want it, and perhaps provide guns and bullets (which are after all rather expensive as a result of all this) to the poor.

The Second Amendment

protesters with guns and confederate flags
Protestors with guns and confederate flags. (Photo from dailymail.co.uk.)

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.

As a result of the sideshow over the Confederate flag that has replaced any substantive debate about racism and gun violence in the US (something had to, right?) I ended up having a bit of an argument with a pro-gun commenter on an Economist article suggesting that it may not [just] be guns that are the problem in the US.

This isn’t a particularly novel argument. People generally assume Bowling for Columbine is a standard left-wing anti-gun polemic, but at the end Michael Moore — a card-carrying member of the NRA — ends up discussing Canada, which is nearly as well-armed as the US and yet has a far lower homicide rate, and concludes that there’s something paranoid at the heart of American culture that may be the real problem. Well, this blog post isn’t about the flaws in American culture — it’s about the right to bear arms.

Anyhow, my anonymous adversary argued that the point of the second amendment is that it has kept the US safe from the kind of ethnic cleansing and other large scale atrocities that afflicted Europe and Asia during the 20th century. In other words, for the enormous benefit of not having large scale ethnic cleansing occasionally we pay the price of having a high murder and suicide rate. “A well regulated militia” is meant to be understood as “The regulation of the militia by civilians”.

OK, I get it. My adversary is right. The NRA is right. The right-wing militias are right. The purpose of the second amendment is to allow us to regulate the militia — i.e. to overthrow the government so as to maintain our “free state”. Their interpretation is correct.

My adversary is wrong, I think, on his history.

The US has had plenty of opportunities for unjust government or corporate actions to be prevented by the armed populace — consider Douglas Macarthur’s use of cavalry and tanks against the Bonus Marchers — unemployed veterans no less! Or the Battle of Blair Mountain (John Sayles’s movie Matewan depicts the prelude to it). Oh yeah, and slavery. Where is there an example of real government excess being prevented by the right to bear arms? There are plenty of examples of government excess being resisted by the right to bear arms, the largest and most depressing examples being the resistance of some American Indians to the government, others (such as Ruby Ridge and Waco) simply being unsuccessful.

Perhaps the best example in favor of this argument — i.e. the one case where people bearing arms were able to inflict a defeat on the over-reaching Federal government — is Little Big Horn (and that victory was Pyrrhic).

And if you believe that the Confederacy was right, then that’s the largest example of the populace (including a large proportion of the military) being unable to prevent government overreach, no?

On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi defeated a superpower without using weapons. And when the injustices that were not prevented by the right to bear arms were mitigated (Congress paid the Bonus Army, Roosevelt allowed the miners to unionize), it wasn’t the right to bear arms that made it happen.

It seems quite clear that given the intent of the amendment, we should have the right to nuclear submarines, tanks, nerve gas, atomic warheads, and so forth. After all, how can we credibly regulate the militia with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns? The disparity in power between the government’s forces — military and paramilitary — and ordinary citizens has never been greater and shows no sign of narrowing. Even when the gap was considerably smaller, the second amendment proved of little use in preventing horrible injustices (or defending slavery). The only real conclusion is that we need to abolish the second amendment — it fails to provide the promised benefits; it costs us too much and gives us nothing.

Gun Control & Democracy

“Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” Winston Churchill

I’m not sure if I qualify as “old” by Winston’s definition … or liberal. I don’t know if Winston Churchill would consider the current Republican mainstream to be “conservative” or just nutty. But, I have slowly been rethinking one of my long-held beliefs recently, and it’s regarding a signature political issue that puts me at odds with most “liberals”, and that is gun control.

Gun-control advocates can point to all kinds of evidence that having too many guns around is a bad thing. There’s no question that, for example, a gun in one’s house is statistically more likely to be involved in a suicide or an accidental death than in self-defense. There’s no question that hundreds of children die, every year, from firearms accidents (or suicides reported as accidents).

But one compelling argument against gun control, and it’s made fairly well by Penn & Tell in one of their Bullshit! programs is that there needs to be some kind of check on the power of the state over its citizens. The fact that nuts use guns to shoot the police doesn’t mean that decent and/or sane people (such as John Brown) might want to also. The first amendment of the US Constitution is freedom of speech, second comes the right to bear arms.

It would seem foolish to argue that its being second means that it’s the second most important. The third amendment (protecting us from having to board soldiers) seems pretty quaint, and it hardly seems terribly farsighted to have given this amendment greater weight than — say — the right to a fair trial, or against unreasonable search and seizure. For most of my life I’ve been convinced that the framers were, perhaps, right at the time but that times change and what made sense then might not make sense now. Let’s make the extreme case — that nuclear weapons are “arms” and that the people should therefore be allowed to have them. I think even hardened anti-gun-control advocates would not take this position.

I think it’s also fair to say that there were some things that the “founding fathers” did not anticipate and, if they had, they might have worded things slightly differently. All this aside, it’s quite clear that the framers of the constitution thought that it was very important that people be allowed to keep personal weapons — as a balance against the power of the militia. The wording of the second amendment is odd, and different from that of the other amendments, but it’s quite clear that it’s the militia that is being well-regulated, and the people who get the arms. These guys weren’t idiots, if they wanted the people to be regulated and the militia to have the arms, they’d have said so.

I think this is a time when “liberals” need to rethink gun-control, both because it’s sensible electorally, and because the political agenda here is no longer driven by liberal values. When the Federal government was, in essence, taken over by the liberal agenda in the 60s it seems to me that many conservatives took solace in their guns. If things got really bad, if — say — the government sent agents into your neighborhood to stop you from using the n-word, or desegregate your elementary school, you could go out in a blaze of glory. Now that the Federal government has been taken over by a reactionary agenda, you may need to protect yourself against Federally sponsored missionaries turning your kids into Baptists and forcing your family to say grace.

I currently live in Alabama so I’m only half joking.

One reason the right likes guns is that they feel put-upon by liberals who won’t even let them call people they don’t like by nasty names. Civil wars are fought over one bunch of people trying to tell another bunch of people how to speak.

Once you throw away the ad hominem attacks and emotionally compelling but essentially irrelevant arguments that form the bulk of Penn & Teller’s arguments, you’re left with the central libertarian* argument, which seems at least defensible and certainly emotionally compelling, i.e. that one of the things that makes the United States more resistant to totalitarian impulses is the profusion of guns. Thomas Jefferson famously suggested that a democracy needs a little revolution now and then.

* Libertarianism deserves an episode of Bullshit! all to itself, but I doubt Penn Jillette is quite that fair-minded.

Here’s a thought experiment: what might happen if Hitler rose to power in the USA. He spouts anti-Jewish rhetoric. Crystal Nacht. Brownshirts in the streets. Would Jewish Americans buy guns? Would they be prevented from buying guns? Assuming that Jews were known to be well-armed, would it hinder efforts to round them up? It’s hard to say. After all, the two countries in Europe which did their best to protect their Jewish populations were Denmark and Bulgaria. I don’t think the right to bear arms had much to do with either.

Now there are plenty of countries with lots of guns and no civil society. Take Sierra Leone, Somalia, or Lebanon for example. It’s pretty clear that you don’t get a great place to live just by giving everyone guns. Similarly, Britain, Canada, and France are all pretty nice, pretty free places to live that don’t seem to rely on private citizens being heavily armed. (And, Britain and France both had revolutions that overthrew the established government without a “right to bear arms”.) Given Germany’s martial traditions, it seems unlikely that it was a lack of privately owned firearms that allowed Hitler to gain power.

But the question remains, would the United States be the country it is without the right to bear arms? Does this right, in the long run, help maintain the better aspects of American society, or not? Are the unmeasurable and unverifiable benefits of the right to bear arms worth the measurable and verifiable costs? In any event, is there any practical set of laws or policies that might “fix” the US gun “problem”?

These are all imponderable, and the next question is even more difficult: is it worth losing elections over?