Politics & Policy

Disarming We the People

The question is not whether there will be guns, but who gets them.

When composing their unlettered overtures to disarmament, those who agitate for “gun control” tend to do three things. The first is to ask for a “national conversation,” the second is to ignore that such a conversation is already happening, and the third is to neglect that its interlocutors extend well beyond the halls of power and offices of K Street.

In the immediate aftermath of last Friday’s horrific murders in Aurora, Colo., New York mayor Michael Bloomberg walked this path with a dull predictability. “Soothing words are nice,” he said in an interview on WOR radio just hours after the story broke, “but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it.” “There’s something more important than being elected,” he continued, “and that’s standing up and saying what you think is right.” On Monday, speaking to CNN’s Piers Morgan, the mayor completed the trifecta: “I think there is a perception among the political world that the NRA has more power than the American people. I don’t believe that.”

This last declaration is progress of a sort. Were the uninitiated to listen to most gun-control types talk about the NRA, they would be forgiven for presuming that the organization held a constitutionally enumerated position in the legislative branch and that all new legislation — however mild — was at the mercy of its veto. PBS’s Bill Moyers demonstrated this nicely in the wake of the Colorado shootings, describing the NRA as an “enabler of death” and “the best friend a killer’s instinct ever had.”

In reality, the NRA is powerful only because its policy preferences align neatly with those of a significant majority of the American people and have done so increasingly since the early 1960s. If “the American people” disagreed with the NRA, then they would be wholly capable of calling for restrictions on firearms or of repealing the Second Amendment, just as they banned and then relegalized alcohol in spite of the “beer lobby” in the early 20th century. Thing is, they don’t want to do that, even to the limited extent that Bloomberg claims is necessary. Thus, to complain about the position taken by most of our representatives — as Bloomberg did to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Monday — is to complain that you are sick of elected politicians “pandering” to overwhelming public opinion and endorsing a right that is enshrined in our Constitution. It is simultaneously to reject the virtues of democracy and republicanism — quite the feat.

Undeterred, talking to Piers Morgan on Monday, Bloomberg attempted to recruit an unlikely group to his crusade:

I don’t understand why the police officers across this country don’t stand up collectively and say, “We’re going to go on strike. We’re not going to protect you unless you, the public, through your legislature, do what’s required to keep us safe. After all, police officers want to go home to their families, and we’re doing everything we can to make their jobs more difficult.”

Aside from the fact that this move would most likely have precisely the opposite effect from the one intended — what greater incentive to arm oneself does one need than for law enforcement to publicly advertise that it will be totally absent? — the very notion that the police and armed forces should hold a monopoly on legal violence and that there is no right to self-defense betrays both foundational constitutional principles and the long-established role of law enforcement in American society. In cases ranging from Warren v. District of Columbia to Castle Rock v. Gonzales to DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, the federal courts have determined that the police have no constitutional duty to protect us. Predictably, this has outraged some. But it is wholly consonant with the manner in which the United States was established. In America, there were no “police” forces as we understand them today until 1835, and their creation by no means negated either the citizenry’s unalienable right of self-protection or the expectation that ultimate responsibility for the individual’s safety fell squarely on his own shoulders. The police are public employees, there to add to the safety of the citizenry; they are not the sole arbiters of public order. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the role of government and its relationship to the individual.

It is also to ignore reality. Even if the police were constitutionally required to protect us, in many — if not most — cases they are unable to achieve much beyond cleaning up crime scenes after the event and initiating the judicial process. The United States is a vast country, and in many areas it is quicker to have a pizza delivered than to have an officer dispatched. And even if the desires of the police were allowed to trump the Bill of Rights — as opposed to vice versa — Americans would soon find themselves dangerously exposed. This is one of the reasons that it is foolish to distinguish between what weapons the police may have and what weapons the citizenry may have — a construction of which Bloomberg is fond. The weapons’ purpose is one and the same. The police know this, which is why most officers support the right to bear arms.

In turn, this brings us to Bloomberg’s most telling contention. In February 2011, while discussing the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the mayor complained that “every day, 34 Americans are murdered with guns, and most of them are purchased or possessed illegally.”

As it happens, this is the crucial point, and Michael Bloomberg appears incapable of recognizing that it destroys his own argument. The debate over firearms is sometimes conducted as if in a sandbox: Were the nation being designed from scratch with each societal variable up for contention, the number of guns could be set at zero, restrictive gun laws imposed, and the murder rate feasibly decreased. (For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the impact this would have on liberty and the fact that the advantage would pass to whoever obtained other weapons.)

But, for better or for worse, America is not a game of SimCity. There are currently 200 million privately owned guns in the United States, and this fact renders the question not whether there will be guns, but who gets them. As Bloomberg himself observes, most guns used in murders are obtained illegally. This is because nobody who is prepared to transgress the ironclad prohibitions against assault and murder cares one whit whether his firearm is legal or not. To outlaw guns with so many in circulation (a fact of life that is not going to go away, whatever government attempts to do: See “War on Drugs”) would be to create a duopoly on violence, held between the state and the criminals, and leave out the one group in American life for whom the social compact was constructed: We the People.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.


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