I've been thinking about guns a lot lately. My eight-year-old daughter often sits and watches the news with me in the morning while I read the paper, and she's trying to understand why she needs to live in a world where any crazy person can bring guns into her school, and thus she has do these "run and hide" drills. She doesn't personally think she'd feel a lot better if there were more guns around, but as that appears to be the only solution acceptable to the 30% of the country that feels we live in the end-times and doesn't feel safe unless its armed to the teeth, and we can't hurt their feelings because their feelings are more important than our safety and otherwise they'll kill us all, and she's only eight, we don't really get a say in the matter. The saying "the constitution is not a suicide pact," which became very popular around the time we all collectively decided that fundamentalists with box cutters were scarier than a Bill of Rights without a Fourth Amendment, apparently doesn't apply to the Second amendment.
So clearly there's a longer post here. But I want to distinguish a point carefully, before I think through the broader points.
(The clip, by way of illustration, is from a very violent movie based on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, which is a sort of counter-terrorism manual, set in Butte, Montana in the early part of the last century.)
There's a very popular, if controversial position, that the Second Amendment is about protecting the people from their government. At its most ridiculous this position makes reference to Jefferson's comment about Liberty being a bloodthirsty death cult represented by a tree, and we must all gather 'round it on occasion and throw the bodies of our enemies onto its roots. Jefferson said a lot of things, many of them dumb, and if there's an argument to be made that the Founders were not really geniuses old Tom is surely one of the premises.
But there's something to the argument. The point of the First amendment, after all, is partly to ensure there's a robust and varied mechanism to keep the power of the state in check. There's a whole lot of other points in that amendment as well; the prevention of religious wars and state-sponsored persecution, for example, was still a big deal to the Founders because of what counted in 1776 as recent history. The Second amendment, on the "protect the people first" line of thought, is essentially about protecting the ability of the populace to defend itself from tyranny.
There's also though a well-thought-out position that the idea the Bill of Rights is a broad philosophical position about liberty is bunk. Many of the Founders were lawyers, after all, or at the very least politicians, and all of them were wealthy white men who weren't arguing for much more than their right to locally administer their various fiefdoms as they chose. How you come down on the perspective of the early amendments, then, depends on whether you see them on the one hand as philosophical statements - almost axioms, as it were - about what liberty actually consists of, or as very specific attempts to deal with issues of great importance to the day. Its difficult to say where we should actually stand, because while many of the Founders were lawyers many were also philosophers, and perhaps we should just accept the fact that the whole thing is squishy enough to both engage Philosophy departments in decade-long research projects and be used to figure out whether you can be sued when your apple tree drops an apple on your neighbor's car.
Many liberals and leftists laugh at the idea that the Second amendment is about protecting the ability of the populace to defend itself from tyranny, though, and not because of the philosophical and/or legal swirl around the original intent. Instead they think its ludicrous that the idea applies in the modern context. Back in 1776, the thinking goes, it made total sense that guys with guns could throw out an empire. But now? Well now, that's just crazy. Now the world is more like this:
Having a gun, even one of those super-powerful Barrett sniper rifles that can pop a pumpkin at 1500 yards, is useless because of all the high-tech capabilities of the modern surveillance state. Because there's tanks, and howitzers, and AC-130 gunships that can turn a thriving neighborhood into a pile of blood-drenched confetti in a matter of minutes. Satellites that can read your mail over your shoulder from geosynchronous orbit. Supercomputers that can spot your credit card use in seconds, read keywords in your email, and even analyze the content of the blog posts you're reading to figure out your network and infer intent.
And so the Second amendment is a joke, a relic of a time before the modern army came into existence. What hope, after all, does a bunch of crazy kids armed with automatic weapons or even deer rifles have against the might of the modern technological army? Red Dawn, on this view, is just modern right-wing fantasy, either the original one or the newer one.
Many years ago I spent a lot of time drinking beer with a young man who'd gone AWOL from the Marines. He'd been in a Force Recon unit at Mare Island Naval Station, where he'd been in a counter-terrorist unit assigned to protect nuclear weapons. They trained constantly, around the world, to kill terrorist cells that attacked naval facilities, and to recapture nuclear weapons that had been taken by the same cells. And when conversation would get around to urban counterterrorism, as it would in a bar in San Francisco late on foggy Friday nights when a group of politically aware left-wing young men had too much to drink, he'd take the adamant and thoroughly informed opinion that it just couldn't happen anymore. There was just too much technology, too much training, in the counter-terrorist forces in the US, for anything like Paris in 1968 or the OAS or the Tupamaros to happen again.
Those were always very depressing conversations. Because this kid had been trained to do this stuff. He knew the days of angry young men and women taking up arms against oppression were done for, by the very tools and techniques you see displayed to terrifying effect in the trailer for Enemy of the State above. And this was in 1994, too, before things really got advanced.
Except, of course, we now know that to be false. The mightiest armed forces the world has ever seen have been fought to standstills in Afghanistan, repeatedly - not just the British, who were the mightiest in the 19th century, but the Soviets in 1980 and then in the super heavyweight category the Americans. And in each instance, while the technology was able to kill lots and lots of people, often the wrong ones, it didn't change the outcome.
Or take Iraq. Ten years ago this week George Bush announced that the US had "won" in Iraq; ten years later, despite deploying technology in Baghdad that makes Enemy of the State look quaint, the US was fought to a standstill, lost tens of thousands of its own troops to death or dismemberment, and killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. And in the judgment of history, the US lost the Iraq war. You may quibble that it was "declare victory and go home" or "won the war and lost the peace" or even, if you're so inclined, "stabbed in the back by liberals who tied our hands." But in fifty years the Iraq war will be viewed as a failure, and we all know that. (Unless you're Doug Feith, aka the dumbest fucking guy on the planet, or George Bush, or Dick Cheney.)
That the invasion succeeded and the occupation failed in both Afghanistan and Iraq is a testament to the power of the assault rifle. It also failed in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and a number of other countries around the world. The assault rifle wasn't the sole cause of the failure of the tyranny, any more than it managed to prevent the violence that followed; similarly, non-violent persuasion was critical to the success of the resistance, and it was also a major factor in the creation of the tyranny. India and South Africa both managed peaceful transitions, as obvious counterexamples, but in actual brutal fact its likely the threat of mass bloodshed caused by angry young people that tipped the hand toward peaceful evolution. And, what's more obvious in the case of India and South Africa, the odds were stacked.
You used to hear people ridicule the idea of the gun as a means to defend against tyranny a lot more in the days before Afghanistan and Iraq, but you still hear it often enough that its become a kind of basic liberal article of faith.
But it isn't. Guns can still defend against tyranny, even against a modern highly-advanced integrated surveillance military like the one we have now.
That's no argument against regulation. But I want to make sure we don't operate under any illusions.