On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a dreadful Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld a violation of what the Supreme Court has called a “basic right” — the right of self-defense. San Francisco’s police code states that no person may keep a handgun in his residence unless the handgun is either carried on his person or “stored in a locked container or disabled with a trigger lock.” The Ninth Circuit upheld this restriction despite compelling evidence that this restriction rendered handguns “inoperable for the purpose of immediate self-defense” during the hours when “robberies of occupied dwellings” are most likely to occur. And so the law remains in effect, with violations punishable by up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $1,000.
If I lived in San Francisco, I would violate that law. San Francisco’s anti-gun ideology is simply not worth risking my family’s safety. I do not have confidence that — even with practice — my wife and older children would be able to unlock a safe as quickly as necessary, under extreme stress (nor am I completely confident that I could do it). In fact, it’s hard to see a clear downside to violating the law. Yes, there are criminal penalties for noncompliance, but San Francisco isn’t doing house-to-house searches for gun safes. It simply doesn’t have the resources to systematically enforce this law, and it never had any intention of systematically enforcing the law. Instead, it’s counting on the least dangerous gun owners in America (the law-abiding cohort) to voluntarily render themselves more vulnerable. I would dissent. In fact, I have dissented in other, similar jurisdictions in years past.
The possibility of conservative civil disobedience is in the news of late, mostly due to Charles Murray’s new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty without Permission. Murray is advocating systematic, intentional disobedience of regulations he terms “pointless, stupid, and tyrannical.” Yet he doesn’t want the people to face a vengeful state without powerful help. He also envisions a massive, corresponding conservative legal effort, a superfirm that would attack the federal government at every turn, making it pay a high price for enforcing its regulations. The superfirm would aggressively attack their validity.
Putting aside, for the moment, the practicalities of Murray’s proposal (people have been trying to build a conservative superfirm for a long time, with no real success), he’s taking fire on the merits. Writing in The Atlantic, James Poulos argues that conservative civil disobedience would fail as a social movement precisely because it’s conservative. In other words, the movement will fail unless it transcends ideology. Writes Poulos:
Without a shared understanding of the nature of American freedom, any attempt to use civil disobedience to resist a particular set of policies will come off as just another expression of the thirst for political rule.
Ben Domenech declares that Murray’s argument is “impossible to justify if you are a serious traditional conservative.” To Domenech, Murray combines populism, libertarianism, and “occasionally” anarchism with a “rejection of judicial restraint.” “Turning to the courts to save us from the force of the administrative state,” Domenech writes, “is ultimately an indication of surrender on the part of representative government as a path toward reining in bureaucratic regulation.”
I’m focused less on civil disobedience as a means of coordinated social change and more on the simple preservation of life and moral integrity.
My own view of civil disobedience is less ambitious. I’m focused less on civil disobedience as a means of coordinated social change and more on the simple preservation of life and moral integrity. Overly restrictive gun regulations represent one example of the government’s choosing to risk your life — and violate your fundamental constitutional and human rights — for the sake of advancing very particular (and highly ideological) state interests. Other state actions attempt to compel participation in acts that citizens find repugnant to their deeply held beliefs. The Hobby Lobby case is perhaps the most famous recent example, where compelling the company to provide abortifacients to employees would have placed the owners in a terrible bind — comply with the law and violate their conscience, pay the fine and potentially cripple their business, or close down entirely. Christian bakers, florists, and photographers now face the same dilemma when confronting same-sex marriage.
#related#While Hobby Lobby and Christian bakers gained headlines, Christians on campus have been engaging in civil disobedience for more than a decade (sometimes with legal help and sometimes choosing to go it alone). Told that they can’t use religious criteria to choose their leaders, hundreds of Christian groups have rejected this limitation and continued to operate in defiance of campus rules until forced off campus. Other Christians have been told they must affirmatively declare that homosexual sexual activity is morally acceptable, and when they refused, they’ve been expelled or faced other serious sanctions. These Christian individuals and Christian ministries haven’t called their actions “civil disobedience”; instead they’ve simply said “no.” Echoing the choice of the apostles, they chose to obey God and not man.
As the state continues to grow, intruding into homes, regulating speech, and sometimes even compelling participation in immoral acts, more Americans will choose to protect their families and their integrity over conforming to state ideology. Their choice won’t be a matter of political calculation — or part of an effort to build a larger social movement. Instead, it will be a matter of simple moral necessity.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.