Thursday, June 09, 2005
I don't even bother to make this point when debating, although I consider it one of the primary decisive arguments. It makes you sound looney-fringey-nuts to bring it up. I simply argue that the right to engage in violent defense of life and limb is a human right much more fundamental than that to free speech. I consider that priciple universal whether applied to a thug with a knife or a troop of brownshirts.
OF HOLOCAUSTS AND GUN CONTROLI wonder if some of the implosion in popular support for gun control lately, even among the democrats, has to do with suddenly seeing them in all the positions of power.
DANIEL D. POLSBY
Don B. Kates, Jr.[*]
This essay seeks to reclaim a serious argument from the lunatic fringe. We argue a connection exists between the restrictiveness of a country's civilian weapons policy and its liability to commit genocide upon its own people. This notion has received a good deal of disdainful public attention over the past several years because of the Oklahoma City bombing, the "Republic of Texas" siege, and the inflamed subculture from which the defendants in those incidents emerged. Some Americans, it appears, believe that their country is on the verge--if not in the grip--of a virtual coup by a sinister international directorate of Jews, one-worlders, and Trilateralists. For them, acting on this belief means arming oneself and confronting representatives of government with distrust, if not open hostility. By now it is widely appreciated that people with this particular fixation can be extremely dangerous. Yet their delusions take a special bitterness from the fact that something real and terrifying, the problem of genocide, lies in the general direction of their paranoia.
The question of genocide is one of manifest importance in the closing years of a century that has been extraordinary for the quality and quantity of its bloodshed. As Elie Wiesel has rightly pointed out, "This century is the most violent in recorded history. Never have so many people participated in the killing of so many people." Recent events in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and many other parts of the world make it clear that the book has not yet been closed on the evil of official mass murder. Contemporary scholars have little explored the preconditions of genocide. Still less have they asked whether a society's weapons policy might be one of the institutional arrangements that contributes to the probability of its government engaging in some of the more extreme varieties of outrage. Though it is a long step between being disarmed and being murdered--one does not usually lead to the other--but it is nevertheless an arresting reality that not one of the principal genocides of the twentieth century, and there have been dozens, has been inflicted on a population that was armed.
Nor should this be altogether surprising. An armed population is simply more difficult to exterminate than one that is defenseless. This is not to say that the plans of a government resolved to eradicate an ethnic or political minority would necessarily be precluded by armed resistance. As elsewhere in life, raising the cost of a behavior, whether genocide, smoking cigarettes or anything in between, merely makes that behavior more unusual than it would otherwise be, not impossible for those willing and able to pay the price. No specific form of social organization will ever make genocide or any other evil literally impossible. Nevertheless, because most important questions are matters of degree, it is still worth inquiring into the connection between the virulence of a government and the degree of its effective monopoly on deadly force. And it is especially timely to do so now, in the wake of Oklahoma City, the "Republic of Texas" incident, and the increased public attention these have brought to the enigmatic civic denominations from which these plots evidently emerged, because now the philosophical and historical context that links genocide with the state of civilian arms has tended to become obscured.
Barry Bruce-Briggs pointed out a generation ago that public controversy surrounding weapons control laws degenerates into the venting of raw antagonisms between various factions more often than it matures into creditable public policy research. What gets lost in the contest is a sense of those points that are actually in dispute and those that are not. Virtually every gun control partisan in this country is, like the typical gun owner, a peaceable, educated member of the middle class who wants to put a stop to the mindless violence that has engulfed the streets of American cities.
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.
Hence, notwithstanding that it is hindsight, one may well reproach the liberal, democratic Weimar Republic and its successors for disarming the German people in the hope of taking back the streets from the right- and left-wing brawlers of the 1920s and 1930s. National Socialists had nothing to do with these firearms confiscations, but once in office, it suited them that Germany's laws left decisions concerning gun ownership to the administrative discretion of police or military authorities. The Nazis made only two important changes to the Weapons Law that was in place when they came to power. First, they forbade Jews from owning guns or any other weapon. Second, they exempted members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) and many Nazi party officials from the law's strictures.
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