Is A New “Assault” Weapons Ban the Correct Approach?

Following the immediate wake of the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last week, California Senator Dianne Feinstein stated publicly that she would reintroduce her legislation banning the acquisition of so-called “assault” weapons and large-capacity magazines nationwide at the seating of the 113th Congress this January.  Preliminary information indicates that the proposed legislation would look very similar to the preexisting ban whose sunset provision expired in 2004.

In keeping with this ideology, President Obama recently questioned if “we [can] honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” while addressing the nation at large.  Though I usually try very hard to avoid ad hominem attacks and reasoning, I must nonetheless point out that such a pretentious question from a man who refused to legally protect partially-born children and whose record is quite clear on his extremely pro-abortion stance is insultingly offensive.

But since the president asked the question and in light of Senator Feinstein’s immediate response we should evaluate both the practicality and the ethics of such perspectives.  If people wish to have a meaningful debate, a “national conversation” as is so often the claim, then these same people are necessarily going to need to exercise some reason, logic, and intellect – if they can – to temper the emotional rhetoric that typically frames such a discussion.  Clearly everyone wishes that this event would not have occurred, nor will happen again – no thinking person with an actual soul could feel otherwise.  But emotion, no matter how empathetically justified, is not a proper substitute for logic, reason, or ethics where the awesome and unilateral power of the State is concerned.

While the rabidly anti-gun activists and politicians have certainly wasted no time in opportunistically seizing upon this horrific tragedy to make their political hay, it is crucial for reasoning people to understand that such legislation is not just about regulating or even outlawing certain types of weapons.  Laws like these are ideologically driven, impractically rationalized, and ultimately intended as a beachhead to full social disarmament, the statist’s ill-conceived utopian objective.  There can be no other end state alternative if acquiescence is the preferred approach today.

As such and given the nation-wide attention this case has drawn this posting deserves significant attention and detail.

On Practicality

Disarmament goals in general, and “assault” weapons bans (as currently defined) in particular, are both demonstrably and intuitively impractical.  Fortunately for reasoning people, there is no need to speculate too much about the theoretical (or conjectural) outcomes of legislation such as Senator Feinstein’s.  After all, we have attempted her approach before and have the measurable results at our rather easy disposal.  Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania compiled a report for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice in 2004 that directly examined the efficacy of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994-2004).  The following are some of the key findings presented in the report.

[Assault weapons] were used in only a small fraction of gun crimes prior to the ban: about 2% according to most studies…

…[Mass public shootings] are very rare.

There has not been a clear decline in the use of [assault rifles], though assessments are complicated by the rarity of crimes with these weapons (emphasis added)…

…we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.

Should [an assault weapons ban] be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.  [Assault weapons] were rarely used in gun crimes before the ban.

…[Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] statistics are not necessarily representative of the types of guns most commonly recovered by police, and ATF statistics from the late 1980s and early 1990s in particular tended to overstate the prevalence of [assault weapons] among crime guns (emphasis added).

Finally, it is worth noting the ban has not completely eliminated the use of [assault weapons], and, despite the relative reductions, the share of gun crimes involving [assault weapons] is similar to that before the ban (emphasis added).

Attributing the decline in gun murders and shootings to the [assault weapons] ban is problematic…

Similarly, neither medical nor criminological data sources have shown any post-ban reduction in the percentage of crime-related gunshot victims who die.  If anything, this percentage has been higher since the ban (emphasis added)…

But a more casual assessment shows that gun crimes since the ban have been no less likely to cause death or injury than those before the ban, contrary to what we might expect…

If anything, therefore, gun attacks appear to have been more lethal and injurious since the ban.

Therefore, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.  And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury, as we might have expected had the ban reduced crimes with both [assault weapons] and [large-capacity magazines] (emphasis added).

The president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, consistently uses the term “common sense” when discussing the president’s gun control objectives.  But nothing could show more common sense (if such a thing truly exists) than recognizing that relatively minor administrative laws such as the proposed legislation are no realistic deterrent to those willing to commit murder, particularly if they happen to be mentally unstable.  Surely it can be considered common sense to acknowledge that a criminal who wishes to live – or inflict the most casualties possible if s/he does not – will target “gun free zones” over understood gun-friendly ones?  I cannot think of many mass shootings that have occurred at gun shows, shooting ranges, or police departments.  To that point, there is now reason to believe that James Holmes purposefully targeted the theater he chose in Aurora, Colorado precisely because it was the only one in the area that forbade the carrying of firearms by private citizens on its premises.  We further should not forget that the Columbine High mass shooting that occurred in 1999, right in the middle of the aforementioned federal “assault” weapons ban, by individuals who broke at least 20 laws before embarking on a killing spree of their fellow human beings.  Former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale put this succinctly enough in 1994 when he stated “gun bans don’t disarm criminals, gun bans attract them.”

To continue to pursue such ineffective policies at the expense of individual freedom demonstrates either an irrational escalation of commitment or reveals a deeper ideological agenda at work behind the presented façade of simply curbing firearms-related violence.  Thomas Jefferson, quoting his contemporary, Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, recognized the absurdity of such logic over two centuries ago:

Laws that forbid the carrying of arms. . . disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. . . Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.

Even in Australia, which forcibly implemented arguably among the world’s most restrictive gun confiscation and restriction programs in response to a mass shooting in 1996, disarmament has not worked as at least publicly intended.  “Research suggests the [Australian] government response… was a waste of public money and has made no difference to the country’s gun-related death rates.”  A University of Sydney academic, Samara McPhedran, further concluded that “the hypothesis that the removal of a large number of firearms owned by civilians [would lead to fewer gun-related deaths] is not borne out by the evidence.”

The underlying point here should be readily apparent.  Unfortunately, evil individuals persist and firearms are here.  They are not going away.  We cannot unring the bell, so to speak.  No politician can wave a magic wand and make them disappear, particularly where the evil are concerned, so disarmament policies only serve to disarm the law-abiding public that is willing to lay down its arms in compliance with the law.  Intuitively, the criminal that is willing – rationally or irrationally – to murder is not likely to respect these firearms restrictions.  As McPhedran correctly points out, “it’s very easy to raise what-ifs.  The what-ifs are interesting as discussion points.  But, ultimately, for policy making, we have to deal with what is (emphasis added).”

If policymakers are truly interested in harm reduction, they should pause to consider how many crimes – murders, rapes, assaults, robberies – are thwarted each year by ordinary persons with guns.  The estimates of defensive gun use range between the tens of thousands to as high as two million each year.

Self-defense [commensurate with the threat(s) posed] is one of our most basic rights.  Strict gun control regulations interfere with that right because ordinary citizens abide by the regulations while criminals acquire guns from underground markets.

And such practically unsound, ideologically driven policies do not often take into account the likely 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-order effects due to the notorious shortsightedness of political institutions.  For example, if people are at all dismayed or concerned about the over 60,000 deaths stemming from the Mexican narco/border war that has been waged over the last six years alone, what do we think the violence will look like once government bans firearms as it already does narcotics?  Is it likely that the dramatically increased per-unit profitability associated with restriction will serve as a strong enticement for the cartels to engage in large-scale weapons smuggling as well, as is the current case with drugs?  Will such legislated profitability further catalyze territorial and commercial protectionism, in turn likely resulting in even more deaths?

On Ethics

The fundamental ethical dilemma that underlies this issue goes well beyond the relatively superficial aspect of the guns themselves or attempts to restrict access to them.  It goes to the heart of why government exists and how it functions.  In his timeless classic The Law, Frederic Bastiat ponders this fundamental purpose for the State:

What, then, is law?  As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.  Nature, or rather God, has bestowed upon every one of us the right to defend his person, his liberty, and his property, since these are the three constituent or preserving elements of life; elements, each of which is rendered complete by the others, and that cannot be understood without them (emphasis added).

In any free society, and as inspired by America’s Organic Laws and required by the Constitution, the burden of proof of wrongdoing must always lie with the State.  But by associating an entire subculture of lawfully observant people with the criminal acts of a seemingly crazed individual, proponents of Senator Feinstein’s approach are essentially indicting responsible and ethical gun owners as de facto accomplices to the act.  This perspective is both nonsensical and offensively unethical, especially where government officials are involved.  It is one thing for society to form an opinion that is shared to some degree; it is quite another to lobby to convert that arguably popular opinion into legal action that preemptively infringes upon basic individual freedom without due process.

Contrary to what they may believe, such proponents do not in fact possess any substantive or principled moral high ground when they embrace such an approach (no matter the context).  This idea gives the State, which exists to guarantee equal protection and due process to its citizens, the power to use force – or the threat of it – to infringe upon the individual rights of law-abiding citizens that have not been charged with violating any constitutional law, afforded a chance to legally defend themselves, or been judged guilty of the alleged crime.  And because of this unconstitutionally preemptive punishment, the government cannot claim ethical legitimacy and thus functions in a purely might makes right capacity.  This perspective is the moral equivalent to rationalizing a ban on the internet to preemptively prevent any irresponsible exercise of free expression or speech (China and Iran both employ internet censorship, incidentally), or banning the practice of Islam simply because most modern international terrorists use the religion to rationalize their unethical behavior.  Perhaps we should seek to ban certain “dangerous” dog breeds as well, thereby further eroding the individuals’ culpability in their own behavior.  In fact, should we just ban certain “dangerous” individuals?

And in the interest of collectivizing both people and things, we should probably look into banning high-capacity airliners as well, given that the single largest mass murder event in our nation’s history was carried out with four passenger aircraft and resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent people.  Given that almost 100,000 rapes occurred in 2009, significantly more than firearms-related homicides of all types, this rationale would seemingly justify forced castration and/or impotence amongst the American male population, since clearly some of these men are abominations.  How many innocent child victims of rape, pedophilia, and incest could be prevented with such a policy?  A society that means to remain free must reject such collectivist nonsense and put the onus for these actions where it truly belongs.  The administration and Congress should heed a point that the State Department’s report on the Benghazi embassy attack conveys clearly enough: “responsibility for the tragic loss of life [and] injuries… rests solely and completely with the terrorists [i.e., individual(s)] who perpetrated the attacks (emphasis added).”

The right to free expression and thought, like the right to self-defense (or anything for that matter), can be wielded irresponsibly or illegitimately – this point is not in dispute.  But people who are making these collective associations are themselves illustrating the height of irresponsibility and are thus demonstrating a remarkable unfitness for proper decision making.  This failure of logical reasoning is a form of the fallacy of composition and typically leads one to draw significantly inaccurate conclusions based on inferences drawn from, in this case, an incredibly small subset of the given population.  Associating ownership of weapons – be it in general or with respect to arbitrarily distinguished types – with the actions of a clearly deranged mass murderer is such a staggeringly illogical leap in reasoning as to be downright laughable were it not so tragic.

Further, consider the gross double standard supported by the following contradiction.  As a veteran, it is socially acceptable for me to have been armed with scary-looking “assault” weapons to defend other peoples’ rights to even express an opinion openly on this matter but it is not acceptable to some for me and others like me to possess similar means in the interest of protecting my own life or those of my family?

The president himself is entitled to constant protection, which “ordinary” citizens like myself must pay for, who are undoubtedly armed with similar weapons to what are now under scrutiny (actually, even more restricted given their likely fully automatic and modified characteristics).  How can the president credibly justify the “need” for such self-defense measures given that a commander-in-chief has only been violently assaulted twice in the past 100 years (I am discounting the infamous “shoe” incident with President G. W. Bush) – and neither occurred with a weapon of the type currently scrutinized, by the way – while simultaneously desiring to deny the citizens these same rights?

On that note, since a government derives its just powers from those rightful powers already naturally possessed by its constituency (a central tenet of both American Organic Law and the Natural Law), the State cannot legitimately wield the power to do things its people cannot.  If so-called “assault” weapons are unnecessary to the self-preservation of law-abiding citizens, commensurate with the available arms of those whom would do them harm, then law enforcement must be disarmed of these implements as well.  After all, police officers are simple human beings themselves, as fallible or pious as the rest of us; a uniform does not automatically make someone altruistic, magnanimous, or otherwise faultless.  Even federal agents’ weapons can contribute to mass murder.  How many innocent men, women, and/or children have been killed with firearms illegally supplied to mass murderers by the federal government itself?  It is not exactly as though law enforcement officers are inherently betterthan other human beings, or are incapable of unethical and/or irresponsible behavior with firearms.

The only real question that differentiates the legitimacy of individual action and state action is the question of scale (i.e., self-defense versus common defense).  This principle lies at the heart of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clauses applied to the federal government (Article IV, Section 2) and incorporated to the States (14th Amendment).  Even President Obama himself acknowledges the importance that “everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

As outright disarmament (as currently couched) is inconsistent with the principle of equal protection, so too does arbitrarily restricting certain types of weapons likely violate the necessary means-end relationship.  The means of exercising the right to self-defense, as with the means to exercising the institutional duty of common defense, should be commensurate with the existing, realizable threat in order to realistically secure the end.  The Founders recognized this simple but crucial principle that necessarily binds a legitimately operating government to its free people:

…the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained (Hamilton, emphasis in original).

The means of security can only be regulated by the means and the danger of attack (Madison, emphasis added).

This principle is further represented by even older intellectual liberal theorists that inspired our Founders, notably among them the British Enlightenment philosopher John Locke:

He that is master of himself and his own life has a right, too, to the means of preserving it;… (emphasis added).

…It being reasonable and just I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction;… (emphasis added).

For quitting reason, which is the rule given between man and man, and using force, the way of beasts, he becomes liable to be destroyed by him he uses force against, as any savage ravenous beast that is dangerous to his being.

How to resist force without striking again, or how to strike with reverence, will need some skill to make intelligible.  …  And then let our author, or anybody else, join a knock on the head or a cut on the face with as much reverence and respect as he thinks fit.  He that can reconcile blows and reverence may, for aught I know, deserve for his pains a civil, respectful cudgeling wherever he can meet with it.

If firearms as things are justifiably on the chopping block, aforementioned ethical considerations notwithstanding, then certainly ethics demand that other things associated with mass death in this country should be restricted as well.  Last year, the leading cause of non-natural death (that is, by diseases of various forms) in the United States was automobile-related.  Nearly 35,000 people lost their lives to such activities.  For context, vehicle-related incidents are the fifth-highest overall death causation among the population, of which crime-related violence – whether carried out with a firearm or not – did not even crack the top 15.  Vehicle-related deaths accounted for more than three times the firearms-related homicides, regardless of the type of weapon used.  The single most dangerous thing any one of us can do on a daily basis is to strap ourselves into our 2-ton wheeled bullet and take to the roads. Assuming that every single person murdered with a firearm in 2011 was killed by a unique individual (legal) gun owner, and using a rather conservative estimate of individual gun owners in the nation, both inflating assumptions to be sure, this still means that somewhere around 0.0002% of legal American gun owners commit violent homicides per year.  Clearly this reality represents a pervasive problem that warrants the gross infringement of a basic natural right.

And let us not forget those 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-order effects in this context either.  As evil simply cannot be legislated away, unfortunately neither can mass murder be eliminated.  It can be transferred, however.  In fact, there is reason to believe that disarming populaces tend to increase the incidences and victims of mass murder, though the perpetrators tend to change.  The difference in this scenario is that the mass murderers themselves tend to shift from individuals in a given society to the State itself.  Former Democratic Vice President and Senator Hubert Humphrey acknowledged this rationale when he stated that

Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of the citizens to keep and bear arms.  …  …the right of the citizens to bear arms is just one guarantee against arbitrary government and one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.

While I am not ready to assert that America will become Nazi Germany, I am a student of history and history has demonstrated that unilateral power centered in an oligarchy, or even a tyrannical majority, is capable of some astonishingly horrific acts against their fellow man that make the Newtown tragedy pale in comparison.  And it is certainly not an infringement of any individual right that the state possesses by preventing such a power transfer, given that the government is not a natural thing in and of itself.

Laissez-faire gun ownership is feared for the same reason that Hitler would have been afraid of a gun-owning Jewish population or Stalin a bunch of pistol-packing Ukrainians. Well does the State know Mao’s dictum: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The rulers realize that the only way to retain their control over the people is to monopolize the firearms. The powers-that-be perceive that the people can never exercise their right to be free if they have no might to be free.

In my view, people who dismiss such possibilities are simply not attentive students of human history.

Conclusion

In order for a law to be justly implemented and executed in a free society, it must be both practical and ethical.  For it to be legitimate, it must at least satisfy the latter requirement.  The central problem with ideologically rationalized prohibitions such as this is that they collectively scapegoat an entire subculture, directly infringe upon individual freedom, and unduly tip the scales of balance dramatically toward the State in such a way that it is neither practical nor ethical.

By my observations, American society is growing ever more irresponsible with its decision making in general and its assessment of cause and effect in particular.  “Equally as dangerous as having no theory is having a bad theory that is assembled not by means of logic but by an incorrect view of cause and effect.”  Never is it the fault of the individual who made a choice and carried out an act; the fault always lies at the feet of an object, an environment, or a culture.  By this standard of reasoning it would be just as easy to assert that the Newtown tragedy is at least partially due to society’s devaluation of human life through various means.  But in the real world, responsible people tend to refer to this approach as simply making excuses.  Such perverse reallocations of blame border on downright stupidity and demonstrate exactly why it is so crucial to a free society that individual rights always remain safeguarded from majoritarian tyranny.  And people are particularly irrational and tyrannical when the mob/flock mentality sets in.

If safety in general and that of children especially is worthy of restricting individual rights then there is a an appropriate way, i.e., a constitutional way, to go about affecting such a policy.  The fact that modification or outright appeal of the 2nd Amendment is difficult is no excuse to consistently attempt detours around it.  If the Constitution is too difficult to amend, then clearly the cause celebre does not stand strongly enough upon its own merits to justify the work and/or potential political cost.  The Constitution is either sovereign or it is not; either all individual rights and freedoms must be respected or none of them can be.  Either the government abides by the rules that properly restrict its prerogative, derived from the same agreement that grants it its very authority and power, or it chooses to pursue a consequentialist governing mentality, with subsequent consequences in tow.

Everyone claims support for freedom.  But too often it’s for one’s own freedom and not for others.  Too many believe that there must be limits on freedom.  They argue that freedom must be directed and managed… thus making it acceptable to curtail, through force, certain liberties.  …  Why do so many accept the deeply flawed principle that government bureaucrats and politicians can protect us from ourselves without totally destroying the principle of liberty?

Some may ask in the face of the Newtown tragedy, why so much pushback?  The answer to that hypothetical question is simple: people wish to be free, pure and simple.  Though I do not presume to speak for all gun owners in America, or even any of them, I can speculate that we are growing increasingly sick and tired of being sick and tired of receiving the lion’s share of the blame by proxy for actions that we have no hand in.  I can speculatively state that we are collectively weary of capitulating to the special interest-driven erosions of our individual rights in pursuit of disarmament agendas that demonstrate no appreciable effects on crime.  Responsible gun owners have habitually given of their constitutionally-protected rights and the means to secure them to the ultimate net benefit of the very criminals (both in the public and government) that further incite their scapegoating, and all of this to achieve the only discernible result of making people feel better.

To some, firearms are far more than just things.  They are the ultimate physical manifestation of a way of life.  While I can certainly understand some others’ inability to comprehend or appreciate this perspective, I nonetheless ask simply to be left alone to live my life in peace and by my own discretion, and in turn, as a responsible and free individual should, I intend to afford those others the same courtesies even if I disagree with some aspect of their lives.  The bottom line is that we are all blessed by God with the sovereignty to live our lives however we see fit, provided we do not infringe upon another’s right to do the same, which is the sole just reason that government is instituted among men.

People have a choice.  They can pursue impractical and unethical courses of action that do nothing appreciable to increase safety while simultaneously eviscerating individual rights and freedoms.  Or, they can take a relatively new approach and embrace the key element to the ethical exercise of any rights or freedoms: individual responsibility.  We simply cannot have our cake and eat it too, and I would posit the currently proposed legislation would usher in an environment in which we lose both the cake and the ability to eat it.

An unarmed citizenry creates the conditions that lead to tyranny.  The right to bear arms is preventative; it reduces the demand for a police state.  When people are incapable of protecting themselves, they become either dependents of the state or victims of the criminals.

Then vice presidential candidate and current chair of the president’s “task force” on gun violence, Joe Biden, explaining his stance on disarmament in 2008.

 Biden Video

*  On a related but side note, the Discovery Channel has cancelled one of its more popular shows, American Guns, due to apparent public outcry on social media and the like.  While as a free market advocate I certainly support Discovery’s right to present or cancel shows at its discretion, I nonetheless find it pathetically inconsistent that it would cave under public pressure to cease airing a show that depicted exactly zero illegal activity while simultaneously choosing to glorify illegal behavior for revenue, whether factually accurate or not, with its shows Moonshiners and Amish Mafia.  I guess it just goes to show that we are a society of sheeple that must be led around, told what to think, are slaves to our emotions, and are unable (or unwilling) of independent thought…

, , ,

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  4. “Assault” Weapons Ban, Mark Kelly (Again), and “Dangerous” Animals |
  5. The Effectiveness of Background Checks |
  6. California Governor Vetoes Semi-Automatic Rifle Ban |

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