Is an armed society a civil society? That is the assertion made more or less by a recent New York Times opinion piece. A friend tagged me on Facebook and asked my opinion as a “historian and gun owner.”
Rather than argue point by point and never get around to my actual argument (a good way to lose a debate), I think we should take a look back, a look at present conditions, as best we can, even a look forward. It would also behoove us to take a closer look at the term “civil society” and the underlying assumptions of such a phrase.
Since the latest incident in question was in the United States, and the main political discussion centers around the rights granted by the US Constitution, it makes sense to start with the American Founding Fathers.
Our Founding Fathers did not create the Bill of Rights—including the second Amendment—simply out of response to a one-time situation of British troops in homes. They were Classically educated, having studied the histories of Greece and Rome and read the philosophes of the Enlightenment. (Incidentally, the great “civil” orators in Greece eventually fought each other, and then were overcome by a large, armed force.) Some of the Philosophes, like Thomas Hobbes, argued that a strong government was the only way to prevent civil war. Yet even he named his governing creature the Leviathan, a monster.
The Founding Fathers understood human nature (more on that in a bit) and the inherent tension between Individual rights and Government power. Wrote Thomas Jefferson, in the proposed Virginia constitution: “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” And again, Jefferson wrote, quoting 18th century criminologist Cesare Beccaria in “On Crimes and Punishment”, “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1764
But even more than theories or words, they lived out what they believed. They had their neighborhoods overrun with enemy soldiers. They aimed and shot at the enemy through the woods. They froze on winter nights with too little clothing or shelter so that they could live freely. And then they debated how strong the government needed to be to keep basic order and provide for the “common defense”. They recognized that it needed some power do fulfill its role. But they were also leery of too much government power to the point that Individual rights would be trampled. And having firearms was part of the equation.
In the American West, there was an abundance of bad guys with guns—but also good guys, too. The recent remake of “True Grit” illustrates this through fiction. In a situation where law enforcement is unavailable or too far off, the only protection and justice was the armed citizen.
In the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin came to power in the late 1920’s and passed gun control restrictions in 1929, allowing only party members to own weapons. In 1930, Stalin made a sharp left turn in the USSR with his “New Economic Policy”, essentially making government in charge of economic decisions and furthering internal class warfare. He not only actually murdered millions, but indirectly killed more by creating a famine (the only thing up for debate among historians was whether the famine was intentional). Stalin killed upwards of 10 million unarmed citizens.
In Germany in the 1930’s, the Nazi’s came to power under restrictive gun control laws established after World War I during the Weimar Republic. But before the “Final Solution” murdering millions of Jews, gays, communists, and political dissenters, they changed their law with the 1938 “German Weapons Act” followed by the “Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons”.These laws allowed little or no restrictions for government workers and Nazi party members, but forbid Jews from owning any weapons.
Many other dictators have sought to manage unarmed populations as well, including Pol Pot and Mao. And dictators themselves are not figures only from the past, as we can see in several Middle Eastern and Asian countries today.
For those who argue that the Red Coats are long gone and the West has been tamed, and dictators are elsewhere, let’s take a look at the present. We have birthday celebrants killed watching a movie and children being shot in school. Do we really believe we live in a “civil” society today?
I find this article from PJ Media to do a good job debunking many of the myths surrounding modern gun control, including looking towards Europe, and comparing states with and without such laws.
What you will rarely hear about is the crime that didn’t happen. And while we do have public servants dedicated to catching bad guys, they cannot be everywhere all the time, and it takes them about 15 minutes to respond to a call. Many people can die in 15 minutes, as we’ve seen just this year.
In recent weeks we have heard about mall shootings, theatre shootings, and home invasions that did not have dozens of deaths precisely because each case involved a legally armed citizen. These stories have only surfaced out of the political discussion surrounding the latest school massacre. My absolute favorite story is that of a 14-year old boy in Phoenix who saved himself and 3 younger siblings by shooting the attacker. Four children are alive today because of a gun. This makes the recent horror of Newton all the worse. We will always wonder—who could have been saved if there had been a good guy with a gun on site?
There is only one “solution” to these events that is Constitutionally compatible, historically supported, economically affordable, and provides nearly omnipresent coverage. And that is to simply remove “gun free zones” and allow willing, armed citizens who are equipped and trained at their own expense to protect themselves and others around them at the moment such a need arises.
The school shooting at Columbine wasn’t the last. Virginia Tech wasn’t the last. And Newtown won’t be the last, either. Whether lone gunman or groups, those bent on the destruction of others will continue to try, and some will inevitably succeed.
What if armed intruders come knocking at my door to kill my husband, kidnap my children, rape me, and take what we own?
What if my family is shopping or at the movies and someone starts shooting at us?
What if there’s a regional natural disaster and civil law is unenforceable for a period of days or weeks?
What if none of this happens, but the government simply continues to slowly, quietly remove more and more of our “guaranteed” Constitutional rights?
Jefferson also stated, “The Constitution of most of our states, and the United States, assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves: that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed; that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of the press.” (Proposed Virginia Constitution, 1776)
Our rights stand or fall together. While the attention has been on the 2nd Amendment (the right to bear arms) Congress and the President have been dismantling your other rights, including the 4th Amendment (unwarranted search & seizure) and even the 1st Amendment (freedom of speech, press, and religion).
Frequently throughout history—the American Revolution and the various Nazi Resistance movements among them—a small number has tried to prevail against a much larger number backed by “the state,” or the government in power at the time. Thomas Jefferson also said, “When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” Such a situation could certainly come to pass again, even in the United States.
The Leviathan is still a monster, and it will become hungry for that which it supposedly protects. Let’s hope no American leader is ever added to the list of mass murderers above. But we need to be aware of the small steps each of those historical situations took to become so monstrous.
But beyond how history relates to recent events, the root of the cause and any solutions has to be a discussion of human nature. The French diplomat and spy wrote:
“But if men were angels, they would not need religion to enlighten them, law to govern them, magistrates to restrain them, or soldiers to subdue them, and the earth, instead of being the living image of hell, would be a heavenly place. But in the end, one must take men as they are…. Hence it follows that any politics is founded on imperfect principles…” ~Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, 1775
And centuries before he made the observation, the Apostle Paul who wrote “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” And observed even of himself that it was a constant struggle to do that which he ought to do. He was preceded by the Prophet Isaiah, who noted “There is none righteous, no, not one.”
Without the ability to choose—and therefore be morally culpable for our own actions—there is no need for the Redemption as offered by Christ. No one who claims Christianity can do so without acknowledging this truth—people are innately sinful. Which means that this seed of evil exists inside every single person—including you and me. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know it is a daily struggle for most people to overcome this nature—the will power to get out of bed and go to work rather than sleep in (defeating laziness); holding your tongue when you want to say something harsh to your children (choosing kindness); not flirting with a co-worker when you are married (practicing fidelity). True, some people’s dispositions or life situations make these choices seem easier. But it is in these smaller struggles that we either reject or feed or starve our innate evil within.
To denote a gunman as a single, lone case where the individual needed mental health services may be true, but only in part. He was also acting out of his human nature that had been fed and allowed to grow over many years. “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” And you. And once we embrace this truth, we know that we can never have a truly “civil society” because evil will always exist.
People do not wake up one day and decide to murder dozens. Governments do not build death camps overnight to exterminate millions.
Why do we have guns? Because we believe evil exists in human hearts and could come close to us and our children anywhere, anytime.
Evil exists. The world is a broken place. People all have an internal struggle to choose good. Governments inevitably drift towards tyranny. Peace will always be temporary. And “civil society” is only the veneer of a just-controlled state of nature.
The sooner we embrace these truths, we can make both public policy and personal choices to be ready to prevent and fight it at every level.
Is an armed society less dangerous? Absolutely. Is an armed society a place where business and personal transactions can occur more easily? Yes, it is. Is an armed society one that distinguishes right from wrong? Definitely. Is an armed society one that cares deeply about justice, freedom, and personal rights? Without a doubt.
Evil will never be eradicated, but through constant vigilance and the willingness of some to do good, we can try to keep it at bay. And that is the closest to a “civil society” we can hope to come on this earth.