Rights and Security in the US
by Martin Overby
The word firearm casts a shadow going back more than 300 years. Describing a combination of potent chemistry and mechanics, it enabled a moderately skilled individual the power of lethal force in a small device. The military and explorers relied upon it initially, followed by individuals emigrating into hostile territories in the new world. Before government was effectively established in the growing United States, security was a personal responsibility.
The Historical US Setting
The US Constitution (1789) guaranteed that private possessions and property rights could not be deprived by the government. This harkened back to the old world where the monarchies had the rights to take whatever was needed from the subjects without contestation. The Bill of Rights articulated that citizens’ rights (subject to the Constitution) were superior to Federal or State powers (10th Amendment) and that the citizenry, rather than government, were the holders of “undeclared rights”. The second clause of the 2nd Amendment secured an individual’s right to the use of force.
At the time when America’s founders wrote the Constitution, the small government wasn’t responsible for education, welfare, healthcare or retirement. All those necessities were an individual’s responsibilities, and supported by family ties.
Security and the Origin of the Police
Public police forces emerged from private security companies in the second half of the 18th century in Eastern US cities to manage urban areas. The city forces were formed initially to handle (newly formed) trade union unrest and immigrant problems – and were specifically for the purpose of maintaining order.
(C) Saul Steinberg illustration for Paul Tillich’s My Search for Absolutes
Current Public Sentiment About Gun Ownership is Polemical by Nature
The hot button subject of guns used against the innocent in American society is raised regularly by mass shootings. There are a few deeply troubled individuals who use the considerable power of modern guns to devastate groups of people as a murderous protest or as an infamous bid for notoriety. These instances in particular, and approximately 35,000 gun deaths per year generally (suicide, homicide and accidents), drive the issue regularly to the forefront of public attention.
In America, which is a large country, it’s difficult to legislate because of the citizens’ “right to bear arms”. There are approximately 1.2 guns per US citizen. Current US regulations haven’t diminished gun deaths of any kind (they are rising), whether that’s due to police, federal or health system inadequacies (funding, personnel or failure to act).
US States Concealed Carry Laws-May, 2015
Additionally, each state sets its own gun laws with varying levels of enforcement. Western states have limited gun laws and small populations, with roughly half the population owning guns. Eastern states have large populations, high population density, restrictive gun ownership laws and considerably more crime (and police). Gun ownership is less than 25% in the Eastern states, where the majority of urban areas are located. Gun crime follows closely the peaks and troughs of education and prosperity.
Today, more than 200 years after the Constitution was written, the government is now the guarantor for many necessities (and entitlements) which citizens expect -- including education, security, healthcare and welfare. Many people believe legislation to limit 2nd Amendment rights would easily improve their security. The logic is that if fewer people had guns, then fewer people would die. And potentially -- if no one has guns – then no one could die by guns.
This logic works theoretically but not outside the thought experiment. If some guns are owned by bad people, and no guns are owned by good people, then there’s no security. If guns are only possessed by the government, and the government is ineffective – then there’s no security. Nor are there provisions for citizens protecting themselves against governmental oppression.
It’s hard for Americans to imagine their government becoming an oppressor of individual freedoms -- but some maintain that America’s founders foresaw what happens to all nations or empires eventually. (Thomas Jefferson considered this a possibility -- that the US might conceivably experience a rebellion every 20 years. * ). Surveying history, governments inevitably become corrupt, bureaucratically out of touch, and society becomes hedonistic. At that point, an individual’s 2nd Amendment rights enable them to defend their personal safety and property rights against all who want to take them away.
This was illustrated in the 1960’s by the Black Panther movement. Blacks in portions of the US felt that the police were oppressing them (they correctly suspected institutional racism) and they legally armed themselves (citing the 2nd Amendment) to draw attention to their circumstances. This specific problem persists 40 years later sadly -- so it’s not an anecdotal incident.
Keeping a gun is an awesome responsibility, and an ongoing task. Many people are passionate about this issue. May we keep the passion within the conversation, where it belongs -- and by all measure of self-restraint keep it off the streets. We are citizens of one country.
Final Thoughts on Security
Regarding the underlying issue of life security, it is certain that neither we as individuals, groups within society, nor the government can fully provide the security we desire. This deep feeling of personal security will never be assured by our paper “rights”, or by our skills acquired with gun ownership. There can never be absolute security. (A recent lesson to us all from 9-11). This is not to say that we can’t feel secure or be prepared for many circumstances, including our own inevitable death.
If our security can’t be assured on earth, perhaps we should seek it in another place.
* Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend William S. Smith candidly in 1787 the following: “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ... And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”