The Armed Society: A Reflection on the Birth of Democracy

take-notice-susan-carella printThe right to bear arms was codified by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 15, 1791. The Bill of Rights to which it belongs remains one of America’s most cherished documents defining the freedoms of an independent nation. And while many Americans believe that we “invented” this right, similar legislation actually predates its appearance in the United States by over a century.

On December 16, 1689, the British Parliament adopted a piece of legislation called An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown. The British people called it The Bill of Rights. It was created in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution in Britain to address issues of the British constitution and outline certain rights. The bill guaranteed that there would be:

• No royal interference with the law. Though the sovereign remains the fount of justice, he or she cannot unilaterally establish new courts or act as a judge.

• No taxation by Royal Prerogative. The agreement of the parliament became necessary for the implementation of any new taxes.

• Freedom to petition the monarch without fear of retribution.

• No standing army may be maintained during a time of peace without the consent of parliament.

• No royal interference in the freedom of the people to have arms for their own defense as suitable to their class and as allowed by law.

• No royal interference in the election of members of Parliament.

• The freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.

• “Grants and promises of fines or forfeitures” before conviction are void.

• No excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment may be imposed.

Several of the provisions within the Bill of Rights were direct indictments of King James’ actions as monarch which caused him to leave England. His flight was deemed an abdication of the throne which later became one of the historical memories that emboldened those living in Britain’s American colonies to launch a revolution of their own almost a century later.

The right to possess weapons for the defense of the people was codified and foreshadowed the right to keep and bear arms as declared in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, the weapons that one might equip during the late 17th and 18th centuries are nothing in comparison to the weapons of today. This fact has been pointed out regularly by contemporary proponents of gun-control in the United States. But when we place the debate within its historical context and recognize that the “freedom of the people to have arms for their own defense as suitable to their class and as allowed by law” was design for the express purpose of ensuring that the people have the means to defend themselves from autocratic and tyrannical governance. Logically, that means that the people would require weapons every bit as sophisticated as those of the state. With this understanding, it seems that many Americans on both sides of the “gun control” argument are missing the essential point.

Granted, there are weapons in existence today that were inconceivable even a century ago which should not be possessed by any individual or institution, government or otherwise. Nuclear and biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction cannot be said to be weapons of self-defense because they are indiscriminate. They are weapons of geopolitics designed for threatening and killing large sectors of an “enemy” nation’s population. But other modern weapons, like “assault rifles” or high-powered rifles with high-capacity magazines (long-range guns that can fire lots of bullets before reloading) are a stickier subject.

In the wrong hands, an AR-15 rifle with an effective range of up to 547 yards and (in a fully-automatic version) a rate of fire of 800 rounds per minute can have devastating effects. Even when handled legally and responsibly, such a weapon seems a bit excessive for hunters or even those who keep a gun in the home to ward off intruders. But then, a closer look at the historical development of the right to bear arms says nothing about hunting or protection of the family home. To be precise, the logic of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was the same as its 1689 English predecessor: simply put, the people mistrusted their government and, to ensure that their new democratic institutions maintained their integrity, the revolutionaries believed that it was prudent to maintain an armed populace for the safeguarding of the public’s own interests. That, in essence, is what the gun-control debate is about; and historically speaking, it was perhaps one of history’s greatest displays of trust between policy-makers and the people.

For politicians who pander to those afraid of school-shootings and such, we should respond with the facts. Add up the number of random shooting massacres in the United States since the first automatic rifles were commercially available to civilians. The number of deaths, while horrific, pales in comparison to the number of deaths caused by, say, improper use of automobiles, drugs or alcohol. Ironically, many of the same groups advocating prohibition of “assault” rifles are actively campaigning for the legalization of many drugs and would surely laugh at the idea of re-instituting the prohibition of alcohol. If the real motivation propelling gun-control advocates is protection of innocents, why is that the Democrats aren’t pushing for higher regulatory standards and consumer protections that would outlaw the use of known carcinogens in consumer products? Why is it that those pushing for restricting gun-ownership in the United States are not also pushing to end the use of weapons of mass destruction by our allies in the Middle East? The point is that, of all the problems facing society today, both inside and outside of the United States, gun violence is merely a symptom – not the cause.

Of course most politicians working the issue, both the advocates of gun-ownership and the advocates of gun-control alike, are intelligent enough to know this. But the debate over gun ownership has proven to be a very useful election tool that allows both parties to deflect questions into the deeper issues challenging our society – issues of institutionalized racism, class inequality, environmental degradation, the private prison industrial complex, peak oil, the war on terror, warrantless government wiretapping of citizens, etc.

The heart of the matter is this: gun rights were conceived to ensure the peoples’ ability to defend their rights from would-be tyrants. As Machiavelli notes in The Prince: “When you disarm the people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both of these opinions generate hatred.” Perhaps then the answer is not to disarm the people of the United States – an expression of the politicians’ distrust of the people – but to disarm the everyday police patrolmen and cause the state to lead by example.

Just as we once emulated our European forefathers in arming our citizens, perhaps it is time to begin emulating them again in disarming our police and allowing only the most specialized units to use firearms with a judge’s order. If we want a more peaceful society, we will not achieve it by inventing an ever expanding array of weapons and tools of oppression, either lethal or non-lethal. Likewise, we won’t achieve it by widening the rift between powerful state and corporate institutions and the civilian population by disarming the latter. Instead, we should begin working toward the model of policing used in Britain and Ireland.

If such shifts in policing policy are not open for discussion, then it will be difficult to convince the people of the United States – especially in light of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others by police officers – that now is the time to take guns away from Americans.