Monday, 10 January 2011

Gabrielle Giffords and the second amendment

I've been out of the loop the last few days so sorry if this isn't a response to what most people are saying, but needs to be said.

Firstly the attack on Gabrielle Giffords and others is tragic, all human deaths are tragic. Attacking a serving politician is doubly a crime, firstly the human crime and secondly the attack on the right of her constituents to the representative of their choice. But that's not what I want to write about. I want to caution liberals (I use this both in the American sense of left wingers and the British sense Millites) that, as much as it may seem that this gives further proof to your idea, using today to attack the second amendment is seriously dangerous. I honestly believe it's at lest arguable that it's more dangerous than a madman with a gun.

The text of the amendment is:
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 amendment exists for two reasons:

Firstly, defending the US from enemies at home and abroad requires the creation of armed forces in emergencies. This is best done by arming the entire body of the people, It's very hard to fight against the the entire population of a country with an army of almost any size. For this reason the body of the people should know how to use guns.

Secondly, the government is required to have access to arms, this is deeply worrying as armed forces are the primary tool of any tyranny. The people needed to feel secure that they could never again be oppressed by their government. For this reason the body of the people should know how to use guns.

So we should remember that given the American Revolution and the history of Enlightenment liberal thought it was inevitable (and in my view correct) that such a right to have arms should be given in the Bill of Rights. This wasn't some strange obscure part of the constitution that we can ignore as not what was intended. The Federalist Papers, a very authoritative cometary on the constitution, makes strong argument that the general population should be armed, note that the Federalist was written *before* the Bill of Rights. The regulation of the militia in the body of the constitution requires as an assumption that the people will be armed. The second amendment simply guarantees this.

So, it was good, or at lest, not discrediting, that it was introduced. The situation has now changed, the US does not face a treat from abroad that a militia could help with. The US now has a large standing army in time of peace (regardless of "war on terror" rhetoric the US is not under existential threat, certainly not from a sovereign state), something the Revolutionary War generation would have been appalled by. Times change, people change, all constitutions are variable. What one amendment can bring in another can remove. The question is, should fire arms be banned in the US?

To me it's one or the other, either we keep a 2nd amendment right to own guns and regulate it well or we introduce an amendment banning the civilian ownership of guns. If we have the constitution silent on this then some states will have them, some will not. This seems to support neither end, it neither creates the intended security against enemies of the people or prevent crime. If anything a legal market in guns over the road from an area without them would make violent gangs more likely.

We have to remember in discussing this that there have been two things in constitutional history that individuals have been banned from doing, owning slaves, which was instigated by a terrible and bloody struggle that lives down to today but ended well and selling alcohol, which was a disaster that ended well. In short, America's history of controlling individuals via the constitution is not good. This is exactly the opposition of the intention of the constitution.

What would happen if you did try to get such an amendment through? Well it would never work for a start. You just cant get that many states on your side, so it's a non starter. But importantly it would set a precedent.

One very easy way to portray such a move would be as Constitutional Rights v Law and Order. Now it's not hard to see where this ends up. Obviously in cases of terrorism or other serious organised crime it's not always possible to have a speedy and public trial it may be argued. It may be argued that the US has a long history of cruel and unusual treatment, so it would be easier to just legalise Guantanamo etc. There's already a substantial movement in the South to get the 14th Amendment scrapped.

I dont want to suggest that on repeal of the 2nd amendment that the South would separate again or that the Bill of Rights would instantly burst into flames. What I want to suggest that there is a risk. A serious risk that in giving the government a new power to stop crime you would empower others to try giving it powers that it seriously should not have.

I dont presume to say that these risks mean that Americans should be gunned down daily with no response. I just want to ask liberals to make sure they know the risks before talking up a rather dangerous course of action.


  1. The NRA's 'Armed Populace" Doctrine has encouraged the idea that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to create a heavily armed citizenry that (here is where they go wrong) *can supposedly serve as a check on the allegedly predatory Government.* This is the wacky nonsense they speak of when they utter words about a "Second Amendment Remedy," i.e. ARMED REBELLION. But the US constitution is not perverse, it does NOT guarantee an illusory right of armed rebellion against itself. To say this is a "hypothetical right' is no remedy-- there is NO SUCH THING as a hypothetical right, if the behavior in question cannot be enacted in everyday life without incurring a response from the FBI, then **that right does not exist.** Bottom line? The NRA has been lying to America in order to frighten gun owners into voting a certain way. Result? More deaths as a consequence of more lies.

    The Second Amend may indeed guarantee a right to own guns, but not for the purposes that the NRA wants people to think. They are a very negative influence in our society.

  2. On the initial point. The right to rebellion against tyrannical government was a large part of the discussions around the constitution. Remember of course the authors of all these documents are Revolutionary War veterans. The Declaration of Independents says of the people that "it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security". So that intention and that argument is not an invention of the NRA or any other modern group.

    But, allow that that right is not part of second amendment gun right laws. Suppose that the second amendment is interpreted incredibly narrowly, the people have a right to guns if they are part of the militia and under its control, fine. My general argument is that an attempt to deny or oppose 2nd amendment rights are dangerous regardless of the actual wording of the amendment.

  3. "if the behavior in question cannot be enacted in everyday life without incurring a response from the FBI, then **that right does not exist.** "
    If that is the case then the FBI is the law and we have no need for the constitution.
    Rights are not given by the FBI. They are given by the Creator. Read the constitution.

  4. ... Sorry to nitpick. But "They are given by the Creator. Read the constitution." - you mean read the Declaration of Independence. The two documents have a very different concept of rights. In the Declaration rights are given by God as this is the only authority that could be turned to which was higher than British Law. In the Constitution rights arise from "we the people" as given body in the constitution.


Feedback always welcome.