Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hunter Finds 'Right To Bear Arms'

Anton Scalia, a hunter, wrote for a 5-4 majority that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution (which states that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed") is an individual right and not a right held by local governments solely to maintain formally-sanctioned militias if they chose, as opponents urged.

The majority was quick to point out that the right to own firearms, like the right to free speech, is not unlimited. After all, despite that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" one can't expect protection when one yells "fire" in a crowded theater or publishes known falsehoods about business competitors to undermine their professional reputations and steal their customers. The longstanding bans on felons' possession of firearms, or the possession of firearms in schools, were offered as examples of reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right the court found to exist.

Europeans must be rubbing their eyes with disbelief. There is apparently no well-loved tradition of individuals going armed as a solution to violence or tyranny in Europe. (I offered to send a pistol to a friend in Germany when I was in high school, and the friend's parents didn't seem to get the joke. Apparently, Texans are known to be crazy.) In fact, the tradition of self-defense seems to be eroding in some parts of Europe; when Ozzy Osbourne found an intruder in his house, there was public debate whether Ozzy's decision to confront the burglar was wrong -- after all, a man who shot an intruder elsewhere had been jailed (photo of jailed shooter Tony Martin here). From the BBC link:
Ozzy was right, but he could have got into a lot of trouble (like Tony Martin). It seems the police and judiciary are failing to protect the public, perhaps the government wants to further cut costs by encouraging vigilantes?
-- Jason, London
As it turns out, local government hasn't got a an enforceable duty to protect citizens in the United States, either -- even if the state itself helps make sure the peril keeps recurring. Since the state faces no liability for failure to protect the public, pleas for help from citizens in distress need good salesmanship or the genuinely-concerned ear of someone with the authority to effect a solution. In Deshaney v. Winnebago County, was unable to get effective intervention to protect her son from a man whom social services had repeatedly documented to have physically abused the boy, yet was under the state's court order to keep relinquishing custody of the boy to his abuser; when he was hospitalized and left with permanent brain damage, the United States Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion by its chief justice, stated that government officers had no duty "to the public for protection against private actors". Maybe someplace the police have a duty to protect the public from harmful individuals, a disarmed population makes more sense.

The Second Amendment's language invites thoughts about public safety, though, and does not so obviously invite thoughts of self-defense. Here it is at length: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Has the Second Amendment led to public safety? Some have tried to show a connection between concealed carry laws and violent crime decreases, but confounding variables like regional trends over time independent of laws make this more complex to study. John Lott has made an effort to make the case and presents his results here. Still ... even if personal safety is a happy consequence of the Second Amendment, was that its intended result?

Years ago, Soldier of Fortune ran an article describing a postwar document find evidencing that Japan during the Second World War created detailed plans to invade and occupy the western United States, but abandoned the idea. SOF editors pointed out Japan had received and documented intelligence reports making clear that Americans were too naturally unruly to be effectively pacified in such a fashion. I haven't got the cite, and there are lots of other issues in play (like whether Japan ever held a logistical position able to support such an effort), but if it's true it might be the kind of thing that supports the theory the Second Amendment isn't just a guarantee of a reaction force, but has some preventative power. The presence of large numbers of hunting-quality and military-quality weapons among a population steeped in a mythology of rugged resistance to tyranny is certainly a persuasive reason to suspect the United States is safe from successfully being overrun by a foreign power using traditional military tools, even in the absence of a standing army. (The concept of the nation being redeemed by civilians rather than being defended by a professional military is reminiscent of Red Dawn.) Assuming this all works out to be true, there's a problem: the nation's present enemies, realizing a frontal assault is hopeless, plan nothing that smells of a military attack, but are content to plot murders in an effort to create dismay and expense. (Mere murder, in large scale, has proven to be a very effective tool to get media attention. On the other hand, some enemies take a page from the German effort in World War II, and embarrass the U.S. by undermining its currency directly.)

Hmm. Of what protection would Madison's contemporaries propose individuals avail themselves from such perils? Yet, we have some clue: though it took decades of conflict, significant embarrassments, and no lack of blood, the United States obtained something like peace from the northern coast of Africa in 1815, and with it freedom from demands for tribute, which European allies also stopped paying around 1830.

Note: discharging firearms in celebration is likely unlawful within the city limits.

No comments: