The Socio-political Consequences and a Libertarian Solution
Americans, as citizens of the republic, have rights that transcend any government. These rights ensure the continuing operation and stability of the republic. Our founding fathers outlined these rights conspicuously after thoughtfully debating the specific wording that should be used. Though times change, these freedoms should not. Most Americans accept that with these freedoms come social responsibility, and I will delineate how this relationship can be maintained without the use of specific anti-gun legislation. The current opinions surrounding gun control range from desires to ban all privately owned firearms to disallowing any government (Federal, State, County, or municipal) from placing any controls on the citizens’ ability to own, possess, carry, control, and use firearms. On the other hand, some people are willing to accept a compromise of terms. There are socio-political consequences for each of the various levels of proposed gun control in the United States, including impacts on the U.S. Constitution and the Constitutions of the fifty States.
The anti-gun coalitions dispute the claims that crime rates soar when gun bans are put in effect, and admittedly, the correlation does nothing to prove causation, yet, a sober analysis of the matter reveals confirmation that the claim is, in fact, valid. Following the 1997 gun ban (Firearms Act, 1997), Great Britain suffered the highest crime rates in Europe, specifically domestic burglary, the forceful entering of residential premises. A Home Office report shows that violent crimes increased steadily by 26% over the next 5 years (2004). Johnston reports, “Britain has one of the worst crime rates in Europe…. It is the most burgled country in Europe, has the highest level of assaults and above average rates of car theft, robbery and pickpocketing” (2007, para. 1). In fact, the violent crime rate continues to grow 77% through 2006. Japanese crime rates increase dramatically 128% during the years 1997 to 2001, after adopting similar firearms legislation. The same phenomena was seen in Australia with robberies increasing 44% after a similar gun ban. Interestingly, the authorities in New Zealand found it difficult and cumbersome to enforce the Australian ban and they abandoned the effort. The crime rates in New Zealand decreased dramatically (robbery: 18% decrease, domestic burglary: 27% decrease). Unfortunately, after a rejuvenation of the gun ban in 2000, the report reflects an 8% overall increase in violent crimes (Home Office, 2004). Unfortunately, the research is still lacking.
Another component of the gun control debate in the United States is the consideration that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution refers not to individuals, but to State and Federal sponsored militias. Though the U.S. Supreme Court (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2007) has recently ruled that the Amendment proscribes an individual right, this is not a new opinion. A search through documentation of the Constitutional Conventions (Elliot, 1836; Ford, 1888) and previous Supreme Court decisions (United States v. Cruikshank, 1876; United States v. Miller, 1939) shows a consistent viewpoint, the Second Amendment refers to an individual right to bear arms. There certainly has been some confusion regarding the interpretation of this Amendment (Miller v. Texas, 1894; United States v. Cruikshank, 1876), but most of the experts now concede the individual rights interpretation.
Proponents of gun control have also sought to ban weapons described as assault weapons. The position of The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (http://www.bradycampaign.org) on assault weapons:
The Brady Campaign supports banning military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines. These dangerous weapons have no sporting or civilian use. Their combat features are appropriate to military, not civilian, contexts. (n.d., Position section)
Here many gun control advocates erroneously cite United States v. Miller (1939) as limiting the civilian ownership of military-style weapons. Justice McReynolds, in his opinion, states, “Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense” (p. 6). This ruling is problematic. Miller and his co-defendant were not represented by counsel, and before the proceedings took place, Miller was murdered (Aultice, 1990). With these issues in mind, the opinion was based on a lack of evidence that a sawed-off shotgun could be used as ordinary military equipment. An argument could have been made that might have impacted Justice McReynolds’ opinion. During the Civil War, Confederate cavalrymen regularly employed the sawed-off shotgun against the Union cavalry, and during World War I, American soldiers in Europe used short-barreled shotguns regularly to clear trenches (GlobalSecurity.org, n.d.). Had this argument been offered, perhaps the opinion would have been different. As Aultice (1990) writes, “by default it is acceptable to own weapons with a ‘reasonable relationship’ to the preservation of the militia, and nothing so fits the description as those creatures of their own distorted imagination, the so-called ‘assault weapons’!” (Viewpoint section, para. 1). During debates, the proponents of gun control find themselves requiring a different argument in the face of this.
Gun control advocates ask a fairly simple, though outlandish, question: Where does it end? The gun control advocates are simply asking if there is a boundary to the militaristic weaponry that a civilian should be able to possess. I have to agree that this is an excellent question to ask. When exercising our rights, it is important to understand the social responsibility that must be exercised. I, and most firearms enthusiasts, concede that it would be troublesome for the citizenry to possess weapons of mass destruction. Where is the line? Libertarian principles dictate that no law should preempt freedom so long as the exercise of that freedom does not interfere with the rights of a third-party. Block and Block (2000) developed a theory based on geography and spatial relationships. They describe a constant where, as long as the weapon can be used defensively and the effect of the weapon can be isolated to the user and the target, the spatial relationship must fall between two extremes: (a) proportionally using the entire universe and (b) proportionally in a crowded phone booth. These are obviously not realistic situations, but the theory must transcend the boundaries of reality in order to prove all-encompassing. In the case that a population is spread over the entire universe, it would be acceptable for each person to have nuclear weapons for defensive use. On the other hand, in the latter scenario, perhaps only a small knife would be acceptable. To draw this theory back into the realm of reality, consider the spatial population differences between a highly populated city where a handgun would be acceptable, but a high-powered rifle may not be safe. Also, consider the population density of the many rural areas in the United States. In these areas, it might be plausible to own and use a tank, bazooka, and machine gun without fear of infringing on the rights of some third-party. This theory creates a direct relationship with the destructive power of the weapon and the likelihood of impacting an innocent person. Perhaps, this is the commonsense gun control that the gun control advocates are searching for. It appears that gun control advocates would like to remove the rights of the people instead of holding the individual responsible for committing crimes. As I believe, the right is certainly an individual right, and the responsibilities are also individual responsibilities. Using this theory as the predominant philosophy of responsible gun ownership would limit the need of any further legislation, as we already have laws enacted which seek to protect the public from endangerment; punishing the criminal, not the victim.
Is this theory realistic? What are the chances of its actually being considered? Ultimately, what is at stake here is the continuation of our government as we know it. Our founding fathers developed the U.S. Constitution in such a specific way as to protect ourselves from ourselves. Politicians with Socialistic views, though motivated with good intentions, could certainly lay a legislative foundation enabling future politicians to create a totalitarian regime, controlling the populace in the future with no fear of a reprisal by an armed citizenry (Savelsberg, 2002). We must keep this possibility in the front of our minds as we discuss and debate the focus and depth of the Second Amendment. Admittedly, there is a public safety component to the debate (Winkler, 2007, p. 727). On the one hand, it appears that large urban areas are fraught with gun violence. On the other hand, as Rand’s (1994) report shows, handguns are used in 17% of violent crimes in the U.S., and defending one’s self with a firearm reduces the likelihood of victim injury by more than 40%. Rand continues to show that guns are used in defense against violent crimes over 60,000 times annually. Firearm ownership is an absolute fiber in the fabric of American society, for the defense of self, State, and Country. We should approach this topic with care and knowledge. Although firearm issues may seem of concern to only a small group of Americans, it should, in fact, concern anyone who cares about the Constitution of the United States and the American way of life.
Aultice, P. L. (1990). United States vs Miller Court Opinion and Documents. Retrieved from http://rkba.org/research/miller/Miller.html
Block, W. & Block, M. (2000, October). Toward a universal libertarian theory of gun (weapon) control: a spatial and geographical analysis. Ethics, Place & Environment, 3(3), 289-298.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. (n.d.). Military-style assault weapons. Retrieved from http://www.bradycampaign.org/legislation/msassaultweapons
District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 290 (2007).
Elliott, J. (1836). The debates in the several State Conventions on the adoption of the Federal Constitution: June 14, 1788. Elliot’s Debates, 3, 365-410. Retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwed.html
Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, c. 5 et seq. (1997).
Ford, P. L. (1888). An examination into the leading principles of the Federal Constitution proposed by the late Convention held at Philadelphia. With answers to the principal objections that have been raised against the system. By a citizen of America. Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, published during its discussion by the people, 1787-1788, 25-65. Brooklyn, NY. Retrieved from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1670
GlobalSecurity.org. (n.d.). Shotguns. Retrieved from http://www.globalsecurity.org/military /systems/ground/shotgun.htm
Johnston, P. (2007, February 6). Britain tops European crime league. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1541699/Britain-tops-European-crime-league.html
Home Office, Research, Development, and Statistics Directorate. (2004, October 24). International comparisons of criminal justice statistics 2001. Retrieved from http://www.csdp.org/research/hosb1203.pdf
Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535 (1894).
Rand, M. R. (1994, April). Bureau of Justice Statistics crime data brief: Guns and crime: Handgun victimization, firearm self-defense, and firearm theft (NCJ-147003 Rev. 2002, September 24). U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/ascii/hvfsdaft.txt
Savelsberg, J. J. (2002). Socialist Legal Traditions. Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. Retrieved from http://www.sage-ereference.com/crimepunishment/Article_n404.html
United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876).
United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939).
Winkler, A. (2007, February). Scrutinizing the Second Amendment. Michigan Law Review, 105(4), 683-733. Retrieved from http://www.michiganlawreview.org