Gun Ownership, “Assault” Rifles, and Legally Targeting the Mass Shooter
Ever since my beautiful, curious son was born, it’s been hard for me to sit with the thought of people killing children. I’m aware of how cliche that is to say, but it’s been so true for me that any talk about guns, especially “assault-style” weapons, inevitably makes me think of it in the wake of these mass killings over the last few years. It’s not just the mass killings, either: the uncounted incidents in which people unsafely store guns and little kids pay with their lives bother me just as much. In my desire to protect my happy little toddler, I feel a desire to do a better job protecting all of our children from the bullets of the idiotic or the murderous. It is for that reason especially that I think a great deal of change is required.
This is somewhat new for me as a supporter of the Second Amendment and the general interpretation of it that gives the citizen wide latitude to arm his-or-herself. For the record, I’m also not a fan of “top-down” universal legal fixes for what are essentially cultural problems. Responsible gun ownership should be an issue our culture can handle: hence organizations like the NRA (a member of which did an excellent job training me in the right attitude to have about firearms in addition to what little skill I have in gun safety and shooting). But our culture (and the NRA in particular) has miserably failed on this issue. As in the past, when individual freedom was irresponsibly exploited to infringe on the freedoms of others, including future generations– I’m referring here to the sweeping labor laws, environmental regulation, food purity laws, etc of the 20th century, we need some new laws with teeth.
These laws, however, do NOT begin with the banning of guns or even “assault weapons” in particular. I have a view that seems to put me (in the eyes of others, maybe) on the “lunatic fringe” of the right wing: that the Second Amendment exists in part to protect us not from criminals alone, but from our own government. While there are loads of fake quotes attributed to the Founding Fathers and paraded around the internet by gun nuts on this issue, there are enough real ones in support of an armed citizenry to keep government in check to give us a clear idea of what they supported:
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Constitution, Draft 1, 1776
“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787
“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787
“The Constitution of most of our states (and of 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.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to to John Cartwright, 5 June 1824
“To disarm the people…[i]s the most effectual way to enslave them.”
– George Mason, referencing advice given to the British Parliament by Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adooption of the Federal Constitution, June 14, 1788
“Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops.”
– Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, October 10, 1787
“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined…. The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able might have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry, Speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1778
“[I]f circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”
– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28, January 10, 1788
You get the idea.
Some of my friends object that “they had flintlock muskets that could only fire twice per minute and weren’t accurate.” This is true, but I’m not sure how it’s relevant to the discussion. The implied point seems to be that our Fathers would never have allowed the AR-15 with a high-capacity magazine. Aside from being impossible to prove, I’m skeptical of this idea. Our government in their time was also using muskets. If the idea was to be able to keep the government in check, are we to have hope in flintlocks against our modern professional army? Insomuch as their intentions matter at all, clearly the citizens are intended to be on a somewhat level playing field technologically.
I know the next objection: what about artillery? Helicopters? Tanks? Bombers? Etc. etc. etc. Yes, these toys are for professionals only. That’s where the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment comes in. This is assuming of course that any group of regular citizens could pool the resources to purchase, maintain, and operate equipment of this kind. “No, you idiot– I’m talking about the practical reality of fighting a professional military that has this stuff. Are you honestly saying we can resist a force like that, whatever weapons we have?” I can hear people saying already. I see this objection a lot. It’s nonsensical on two fronts: first, so because a government has access to high tech violence, the principles of fighting (and dying) for freedom go out the window? I don’t follow. Either basic human rights are worth fighting for or they’re not. Fascists possessing helicopters does not mean we give up. Secondly: Are you implying that low-tech guerrillas armed with basic assault rifles can’t resist the armed might of a world superpower? Google Vietcong, the war in Afghanistan, and the First Chechen War, for starters. When an armed people are unified in their resistance to unwanted rule, they are extremely difficult for any professional military to defeat, even assuming the complete disregard for human life (as shown by the Russians in the case of the First Chechen War). The great lesson for the imperial powers of the 20th century was that you cannot simply bomb and rocket your way to victory unless you are pursuing a war of total extermination– nearly impossible in a civil conflict.
If you are already rolling your eyes at the ‘paranoid’ idea of war with fascists here in the United States, I will come right out and say: I fear fascism. It’s always closer than you think. Ancient Athens and ancient Rome both found this out the hard way, seeing democratic and/or republican institutions slip into tyranny. Some of my friends that would sneer the hardest at me speaking ‘like a gun-toting militia right wing fanatic’ are the ones freaking out right now about the indifference of our current President to basic democratic institutions– who were freaking out 16 years ago about the Patriot Act and government surveillance. These same friends speak with passionate conviction about how corporations run the country, pay off politicians, and care little or nothing for the life of the working person.
If these elements take the next step and officially hijack our government, who will fight them? How will those elements be fought? I see so many objections to “assault rifles” as inappropriate for the citizen, due to their express purpose for combat. This is exactly the kind of gun that SHOULD be in the hands of a trained, capable, and responsible citizen. There is a massive difference between a handgun and a rifle in combat. If the citizen is to combat tyranny, that citizen requires a rifle.
This also does not mean that any idiot who wants to buy or sell a gun can or should be able to do so. Gun ownership is not just a right, but an important responsibility. The NRA should be at the forefront of this philosophy. My own instructor’s countenance would turn dour at the mere hint of improper gun safety on my part. Every small facet of every part of my instruction reinforced the idea that guns required respect and careful use– that neither the idiot, the tough guy, nor the enraged had any business handling a firearm. I would love to see the NRA leadership extend this attitude toward the ownership and handling of guns nationwide. The “gun culture” some of my friends denounce should not be erased; rather elevated to the status of real culture, with certain traditions and attitudes etched in stone for all to follow.
To achieve this, responsible gun owners and real American patriots should not object to some basic regulations about who can sell guns and under what circumstances. I think we can keep the right to own and carry guns and ammunition while introducing some regulation (“well-regulated militia”-style as per the Second Amendment) to make it more difficult for the idiot, tough guy, or enraged person to buy and keep guns. Some ‘common sense’ regulations already in place (e.g. criminal background checks and wait times) are fine, but as many “gun rights” advocates point out, would have been powerless to stop most of the famous mass shooters of the last several years. I have a few in mind specifically to deter these lost souls.
‘Assault rifles’ and their trappings remain the right of a free people to acquire, however, all such purchases should require the furnishing of certain proofs that correctly reflect the solemn responsibilities of owning such weapons:
- Training provided by licensed instructors, each of which have a database of who they have trained and periodically re-certify in particular classes of arms for training. These instructors reserve the right to report possible character concerns by hotline. Completion of rigorous training grants a license for a period of time.
- Certification of gun safe ownership. Combat rifles should not be “easy access” for anyone. These gun safes should be of a specific make and construction to ensure that there is no “easy access,” ie, large metal combination safes. While I see plenty of general wisdom in this idea, I like it as a de facto layer against some of the sullen loners who have committed these shootings– an expensive, large safe personally registered to the owner requires more stable financial and living “storage” requirements than many of these guys have. “NOT FAIR” cry the gun rights people! “That’s elitist!” Please. If you can’t be bothered to save up several hundred more dollars and get yourself in a situation where you don’t have to move every single year and lug a safe around, you are not grounded enough to have a personal combat arsenal. It’s not that hard.
- Three hand-written, notarized character references. This may sound absurdly old fashioned, but I think it would go very far. If you want an “assault” weapon, you and your reference show up at a notary public, and that reference writes out a simple recommendation of your character and fitness for owning advanced firearms, which is then notarized and sealed. Hand-writing in front of a notary circumvents many possible forgery methods. How many of these mass shooters could have met this requirement? I’m willing to bet close to zero. Read about these mass killers and you see most of them had very few, if any friends and several family members that were concerned about their isolation and anger issues. Many “gun rights” folks talk about how the issue is not with guns; it’s with mental health. And yet, there are a lot of problems with that attitude. First of all, we stigmatize mental health issues when we say stuff like that. There are many, many people with documented “mental health” problems that are absolutely no danger to themselves or anyone else. Secondly, our system for dealing with ‘mental health’ is broken. Underfunded, under-evaluated, and with unclear ways to enter loved ones into that system involuntarily and before major crimes are committed, relegating mass murders to “mental health” problems doesn’t solve anything. In Florida, for example, there is basically no recourse for concerned friends and family members around a violently disturbed individual: they have to commit a crime first. Requiring the notarized, handwritten character reference for “assault” weapon purchase means that the people close to the potential owner would have to take the inconvenient and important step of signing their name (in front of a stranger) next to an endorsement of the person seeking the rifle. How many of us would do that for that one relative or acquaintance about whom we’ve had “anger” concerns for several years? Aside from our own sense of honor and moral correctness that should compel us to do the right thing (or in this case, the much easier “don’t go out of your way to do the WRONG thing”), imagine making the news as one of the people that had put pen to paper for a mass murderer. Meanwhile, for real patriots in the classic sense: the responsible gun owners, members of clubs, and community watch folks, this step should be easy and even an affirmation of their good standing. It feels good to know three people will put their day on hold and their reputation on the line to endorse one’s character.
I do not claim that these proposals are perfect: dialog starts with ideas and open minds. But the famous General George S. Patton once said that a good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan next week. We are a representative democracy after all, and can tweak or change things as we go along. I think my plan protects and elevates the true patriots, protectors of their communities, and freedom advocates while placing targeted layers in the way of the people who cannot handle weapons responsibly or worse, intend to handle them murderously.
What do you think?