Justice Department To America: Lock and Load!

But the shooting will continue in the political war over guns


Last week, the United States Justice Department publicly released a long document, signed by three deputy assistant attorneys general, spelling out in great detail the linguistic, historical, and case-law reasons why it officially considers the right to own guns an individual one, just like the rights protected by the First Amendment, and not merely a collective right or a guarantee that states could manage their own militias.

In doing so, the deputy AGs couldn't help but note that they were not stating any obvious conventional wisdom, or even an uncontroversial stance embraced by the American government in all its manifestations. "The Supreme Court," the Memorandum Opinion for the Attorney General dated August 24, 2004, (but apparently only made public Friday) declared, "has not decided among these three potential interpretations [only one of which sees gun possession as an individual right], and the federal circuits are split. The Executive Branch has taken different views over the years." And the Supreme Court just last year declined to consider a Second Amendment-based challenge to a California ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Stories of guns used in criminal mayhem are available daily. Colorful and well-publicized recent examples include the tale of the Hmong hunter Chai Soua Vang, who allegedly killed five and wounded three hunters when they tried to make him leave a private deer hunting platform in the Wisconsin woods, and the gruesome, bizarre shooting of former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott, while Abbott was rocking onstage in Columbus, Ohio with his new band Damageplan.

After killing four people (including Dimebag) and wounding two others, and while holding his gun to the head of another potential victim, shooter Nathan Gale was himself gunned down by a sureshot cop who had rushed inside.

As Reason's Hit and Run commenter Stevo Darkly noted, had the shooter been an armed audience member rather than an officially sanctioned cop, the press coverage would doubtless have been along the lines of "Scarcely four months after the expiration of a federal ban on assault weapons, two gun-carrying fans…opened fire on members of the group, audience members, and each other."

It's difficult to make a reasoned policy decision regarding guns that isn't shaded with blood. Personal stances on gun law tend to pivot on whose bloodstains are more real and vivid to you—those of victims or criminals. Those stances also seem to depend on whether you believe in the efficacy of laws against guns, whether you can embrace the fantasy that laws against guns really will reduce the availability of guns to a significant degree, rather than merely disarming, or inconviencing, the otherwise peaceful and law-abiding.

Some try to squeeze and torture data forever over the question of whether guns really help or hinder societal peace and safety. This latest volley in that endless game, from the National Research Council, as summed up in this quick account from Volokh.com, concludes, "There is no credible evidence that 'right-to-carry' laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime."

To some people that sort of research is what should settle the political fight over guns. (More realistically, it gives them a new, seemingly authoritative reason to argue for something they already believed.) Guns—frightening, undoubtedly hazardous—do little to deter crime overall. And we know that every day they are tools of violence and mayhem and tragedy. Get rid of them, or severely restrict them.

And in the heavy metal shooting, note, it was a policeman—an officially licensed and sanctioned dispenser of justice—who ended the violence. This gives anecdotal support to an equation favored by gun control advocates:

Guns in state hands = good

Guns in private (lunatic, and oftentimes there seems little distinction between the two in the minds of gun-control advocates) hands = tragedy

But it didn't have to be a cop in that club plugging Gale—and most of the time, there won't be a cop around to save the day in such situations. The accidents of anecdote can't be relied on to define the permanent goods of policy.

The recognition of the non-omnipresence of cops is why people argue, for example, for policies like arming airline pilots—a policy authorized by Congress in 2001 but which has so far seen only 4,000 of 95,000 pilots take the requisite training course—partially, as reported in Human Events, because the training has to be done at one remote location in Artesia, New Mexico—"at least four hours from Albuquerque, N.M., El Paso and Lubbock, Tex."

Talk of arming pilots can't help but lead to thoughts of 9/11, an evocative anecdote of its own. And that can't help but remind us that, in a cold, dangerous, and often horrifically cruel world, government is not an efficient, or sufficient, protector, the occasional on-the-ball heroic Columbus cop notwithstanding.

In an America where most of the big minds on the progressive end of the Democratic Party are arguing passionately that the only way for the party to revive its seemingly waning fortunes is to vow even more ferociously and tenaciously that they shall be the covering blanket, the succor, the provider, for all Americans' needs great and small—from prenatal care at the start to education and health care throughout to pension provision in our dying days—it is dangerous to acknowledge the inherent limits of government's ability to make everything OK. This doubtless has something to do with Democrats' fervent belief in gun control (even as some of them argue the Republicans are actively creating a theocratic dictatorship, in which guns in citizens hands could be quite helpful, as those who gave us the Second Amendment in the first place understood so well).

It's undeniable down the line: Guns add enormous tragedy and regret to the world—as well as a fair amount of protection from the tragedies and regrets others might impose. They also provide, for many, opportunities to try out an interesting and rewarding skill—and for many others an opportunity for political posturing and sociological pigeonholing and rhetorical policy warfare.

The debate over how and to what extent, and based on what arguments, the state may interfere with its citizens' rights to self-defense—or to hunt for food with efficient tools, or even just to pursue sheer fun and games with explosive projectiles—will never end until we come to a settled decision on whether, and to what extent, our lives are our own property and our own responsibility. The empirical case as to whether in fact the police power of the state can efficiently protect our lives and property is settled pretty much every day in the favor of gun rights…for individuals, regardless of the overall result of studies like the National Research Council's. It's to individuals that guns are often necessary sources of protection and pleasure. Thus, the Justice Department was right, both historically and politically, to note publicly that the right to own guns—and the responsibilities that naturally arise therefrom—belong to individuals, not collectives, and are not to be blithely abridged.