By Griffin Edwards ‘17
A friend of mine who lives in Faribault invited myself and some other Oles to a shooting range back in November. He emerged from his car at the range wearing a black t-shirt reading “From my Cold Dead Hands” over a picture of an assault rifle. He then opened up the trunk to reveal a veritable arsenal: three or four pistols, a black-powder flintlock, an old-fashioned percussion cap revolver, and an AK-47, among others. Our eyes bugged out of our heads a little: never before had so many of us seen so much firepower in the hands of one person only a few years older than ourselves. We hesitantly reached for the weapons, while their owner proudly and enthusiastically told us about each one. The afternoon passed safely, and we returned to campus a few hours later, reflecting on the fun time we’d had.
I begin with this story to provide some background. I didn’t grow up around guns- I spent most of my childhood in a San Diego suburb- but during a few years when my family lived in Helena, Montana, I did take hunter safety, took grouse-hunting trips with my father and his friends, and even shot a .50 caliber sniper rifle on a farm near the Canadian border. So I have some level of comfort with guns and know how to respect them and handle them safely, which I hope gives me some authority to talk about guns in the United States.
Every time a mass shooting happens, whether in the United States or elsewhere in the developed world, discussions seem to erupt surrounding the United States’ gun regulation laws. This is truly a tricky subject, with valid arguments both for and against more gun control. Some statistics point one direction; others counter (if there’s one thing I learned in AP Stats in high school, it’s that you can make statistics say whatever you need them to). America truly is “exceptional” in how we regard firearms; nowhere else has as many guns per capita- 112 for every 100 citizens (in second place is Serbia, with 69.7). Furthermore, the supreme law of the land, the US Constitution, contains a certain problematic Second Amendment that guarantees citizens the right to keep and bear arms and form militias (I fear my rephrasing of it here fails to accentuate the ambiguity of the actual wording). Because of the Second Amendment, guns occupy a special place in American culture unlike anywhere else in the world.
But at its core, what the Founding Fathers were aiming for (no pun intended) was a dulling of the “monopoly of force”.
The monopoly of force is a term used in political philosophy- typically by more libertarian-leaning students and scholars- that seeks to characterize one aspect of the nature of government: the fact that government does not abide by the same rules as the rest of humanity when it comes to use of force. In short, if I as a private citizen went into a foreign country and systematically slaughtered its armed forces, or held someone in my basement for doing something that displeased me, or tortured someone, that would be wrong. Just about anyone would agree that you shouldn’t, for instance, kill people just for being from a foreign country or hold someone against their will or torture someone. But it’s different when the state does it, because the state holds the monopoly of force; that is, only the government and its agents can use force without it being unacceptable to society. Vigilantes, citizens that take justice into their own hands, are considered lawless. So people get imprisoned and armies get killed and people get tortured by the government, holder of the monopoly of force.
To some extent, the monopoly of force ensures that the “good guys” can have enough power to protect us private citizens. The police can catch criminals and put them in prison and the military can protect us and deter foreign invaders. But the monopoly of force can also break down. If the government does something that is socially unacceptable, that violates basic human rights- for example, torture- it therefore abuses the monopoly of force. (Of course, there are other arguments and ideas surrounding this concept, many more nuances and stances that address it, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll ignore those for now).
To the Founding Fathers, when drafting the Constitution, it’s easy to see that they were concerned by this idea of central government being able to abuse its power in such a way, as is consistent with their beliefs. So they felt it necessary to ensure that private citizens be able to exercise force as well, perhaps against the state itself, for the sake of ensuring the people stay free.
However, this breaks down today. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, a citizen might own a musket or two, while the government might have cannons and cavalry. Although it’s a big jump from bayonet-and-musket to dragoon or 12-pounder, it’s an even bigger jump from AK-47 to Abrams tank or F-18 fighter jet or nuclear missile. In a few words, it is unfeasible for the common citizen to own weaponry that could compete with the government on a scale large enough to put a dent in the monopoly of force today.
Therefore, there is no reason for a private citizen to own a gun as powerful as an assault rifle. This does not imply that all military-grade forearm owners are automatically criminals; it’s simple fact. The purpose for “bearing arms” has drastically changed, and with it, the type of weapon needed to exercise that right. Wanting to protect yourself from being mugged or raped or shot? Carry a pistol. Learn how to use it responsibly, of course, and don’t abuse it. Enjoy hunting? Keep a rifle or shotgun in a safe place. Upping restrictions may be in order, it may behoove us to increase background checks and other barriers to keep guns out of the hands of those that can’t be trusted with them, but most gun owners are good people using them for sport or protection. It ought not be a crime to own a gun, only if it is used to hurt someone else. Furthermore, there are several times when potential mass shootings were stopped by armed citizens, most recently in Chicago in April of 2015. When the police can’t get there immediately, sometimes citizens can step up and successfully protect their fellow citizens.
In fact, there are still instances where these firearms can be used to combat the government monopoly of force today, albeit on a smaller scale than the full governmental overthrow of the Revolution. In the 1960s, Malcolm X urged his followers to purchase firearms to protect themselves from crooked officers and racist neighbors. Today, with so many instances of police brutality against peaceful American citizens- especially the African-American community- it begs the question of whether we ought to trust police with the monopoly of force more than the common citizen.
It is politically feasible to outlaw certain types of guns without taking others from well-meaning citizens. After all, in the plurality of opinions flowing through the United States, we must be respectful of all points of view, so a large-scale confiscation would be difficult to say the least. But thinking of firearms in the context of protection allows us to take a stance that lies somewhere in between the two extremes of total disarmament of private citizens and free reign of citizens. Here we can find the best of both worlds, a compromise, perhaps, where citizens are neither powerless in the face of those who wish to do us harm, nor so powerful that they are dangerous to their fellow citizens.