The school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut cut deeper than usual. It happened just before Christmas, during the season of Advent, when Christendom is in a celebratory mood. We wait for glad tidings and a Gospel message, not horror and evil. The victims were so young, toddlers almost, in a place we usually associate with coloring books, wooden blocks with pastel letters, and those miniature plastic chairs. The stories of courage are the stuff of legends, almost too heroic to believe in these cynical times. There is hardly a more idyllic American setting than Newtown: this story could have been a fictional tale designed to starkly contrast beauty and evil.
But fiction it is not, nor, alas, is the utterly debased political discourse that has come in its wake. As usual, gun-control and gun-rights advocates lined up and recycled their old arguments. One can almost excuse the NRA's unrealistic call for armed guards in every school, given the constant drumbeat for confiscation and prohibition. Why not propose something equally unpalatable and at least head off the most restrictive measures? Disarming citizens and arming teachers are equal policies at least in their impossibility.
I won't purport to offer a full analysis of all the arguments. What I want to do instead is look at a recent al-Jazeera article that purports to casually dismiss all arguments against restrictive gun laws. This will offer an opportunity to examine some of the most salient issues, after which perhaps I can offer my own humble perspective.
The article opens with a double-barreled (heh) blast to the NRA's proposal for armed guards in schools. First, armed response to armed crimes is problematic. It is sometimes ineffective, as it was in Columbine.The first sign of disingenuousness comes here, early in the article. A statistic from the Children's Defense Fund is thrown out: 5740 children and teens killed by guns in 2008-2009, enough to fill over 200 classrooms. How many of those children were killed in gang-related violence in cities that have enjoyed decades of uncontested liberal rule? How many were killed by family members or friends states with already-strict gun laws? And by the way, those numbers include suicides.
I agree that if the presence of armed protectors is usually ineffective, the risk and cost of such measures would outweigh its benefit. But Columbine is only one high-profile example. Once, while visiting a friend's apartment, I picked up his copy of an NRA magazine. A feature in every single edition was a story of crimes either deterred or stopped by armed resistance. Sometimes no one got hurt; sometimes the criminal was lightly injured; sometimes the aggressor was killed. Now, obviously the first of these scenarios is ideal, and stories can be mulitplied of criminals thinking twice when their victims were armed. But the point is that armed response is not conceptually flawed, even if it may turn out, empirically, to be unsound policy. For example, I agree that it is unwise to increase gun ownership in unstable or insecure environments, and for that reason it may well be unwise to have armed adults in schools with rowdy minors.
The second point Rosenberg makes is about the way armed citizens go about their business. He cites David Frum for the proposition that most instances of defensive gun use are not legal. But for a piece that purports to be about political theory, it is conspicuously missing any discussion of the validity of laws that make self-defense a crime. Then, as if to be intentionally insulting, he quickly cites a sociological study that Southerners are a "herding culture" whose conception of honor leads them to shoot each other more.
The piece goes to an odd place, with an exposition of Locke's political theory as the underlying basis of gun rights arguments. But Locke's modern apostles - the consent
theory libertarian types - are not the intellectual force behind the NRA
or really much of anything. For some reason, NRA members are described as radical libertarians,
reflexive individualists who don't believe in any kind of collective
action.Consent theory itself is disfavored in
political philosophy (did you ever consent? what if you actively refuse consent?) and I suspect many NRA
members are not libertarians anyway. In any event, Lockean theory does
not say that we have guns to settle disputes. A Lockean argument would
be that, in entering the state of nature, man gives up the right to
settle disputes with violence in the first instance. This does not have
to include surrendering his means to self-defense, or even a limited
means of offense (see final paragraph below).
Some NRA types may be living in a kind of psychological state of nature, and in some neighborhoods that is probably a reasonable fear. But that does not equate to a war of all against all. It just means that some citizens are unwilling to rely on others for their protection in all cases. In a dangerous situation, the ideal outcome is for the police to show up immediately. Failing that, it is hard to convince these citizens that they should be disarmed as a condition for living in society.
So the political theory part fails to be relevant. Then the author walks through a tired refutation of two claims. First, the correlation between gun ownership and gun violence. For every study showing a correlation, there is another one showing a reduction in crime with more guns. For every horror story of gun violence, there are probably twice as many unreported stories of violence deterred (an NRA magazine publishes 5-10 of these stories in each issue).
The other claim is the real problem. The right to bear arms is indeed in support of the republican purpose of resisting tyranny. But the absurdity is on the other side here. The sneering retort to the republican purposes of the Second Amendment is that while resistance was possible with late 18th-century technology, it is impossible in the era of guided missiles and armored fighting vehicles. But no one suggests that the people are going to line up and square off against the U.S. Army. The point is in resisting unlawful authority in more fundamental ways - make the police think twice before they enforce a speech code, warning off an ideology-enforcer who comes knocking at your door, etc. The disarmers in history have wanted the population toothless and placid. Not here.
The article concludes by paying homage to nonviolent resisters in history. I agree that peace is superior to war, and that nonviolence is preferable to violence. So did Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson when they petitioned king and parliament for years before reluctantly declaring independence. But these normative comparisons are difficult to translate to an imposition on all Americans that they must not be armed, that they must choose nonviolent victimhood over armed and violent defense.
Some NRA members may be "gun-crazed", a description Rosenberg paints on with a broad brush. I have not met any. All of the gun enthusiasts I have met are sober, self-possessed, and simple Americans. The policy proposal in this article is to keep guns out of the hands of "bad men," which should hardly exist in the first place since civilization, on the Lockean model, is supposed to force dispute resolution to nonviolent fora. So long as Mr. Rosenberg's civilizing quest for Utopia remains partial and ineffective - and especially as long as the left's destructive family and urban policies are ascendant - the rest of us would prefer not to be forcibly handicapped when savagery comes to our doorsteps.
And those policies are where our greatest minds must focus, not on competing superficial proposals like confiscation and arming school security guards. Schools detached from their communities; sons free to rampage and kill their mothers; the sentimentalization of the good, the true, and the beautiful; the psychologization of wickednes: these are just symptoms. The disintegrating spiritual fabric of the nation is the disease, a flailing detachment from any transcendence or even permanence that has set a generation adrift in a sea of relativism, egoism, and a perversion of equality.
Remedies for this kind of sickness are well beyond my limited capacity. Where we went wrong is somewhere in the abyss of no-fault divorce and sexual liberation and reforming schools to remake our children in another image - but where exactly, and how to undo the harm is too complicated for one law student ruminating on New Year's Day. It will have to be enough to suggest that we look at deeper than public policies, deeper than public policy itself, deeper than government, beyond to the culture that leads us to look to those things for our salvation.
We thought we were getting "free" of the chains of absolutism - absolute truths, moral truths with which our fathers were binding us in the present. Without the past, without God, without transcendent standards, it is no surprise that government, constituted of the people, is the only thing in view that binds us all together. A population that is not fit to be armed is a population that is fit only to be ruled. So it is that the Hobbesian ideal collapses in on itself, the great liberator and provider Leviathan becomes instead the devourer.
In this state of liberation, we have looked around and discovered that we are not free. We are just alone.