Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Guns: Liberty or Authority?

When in comes to gun laws, I am typically "pro-choice". There are several reasons that I oppose restrictions on gun ownership:
  1. Simple liberty: in general, a person should be able to do what he wants to do unless it directly interferes with the right of another person to do as they wish. To prohibit gun ownership is to instigate actual violence in the hope of restricting a remote potential for violence.
  2. Economic liberty: Guns play an important economic role for some people, particularly for use in hunting or removing predators from the vicinity of livestock.
  3. Personal security: some people reasonably feel that owning a gun increases their personal security.
  4. Political security: Political authorities have a tendency to transform into tyrannies; in these situations, guns may be useful as a last-resort form of resistance.
While those are my reasons for supporting a right to own guns, much of the "gun lobby" clearly does not share all of these concerns (even if we ignore the people who sell guns for profit). For one thing, much of the gun lobby is specifically pro-gun, rather than being pro-freedom, regardless of their rhetoric. Many of them clearly do not embrace the general libertarian principle of "live and let live", since they often favor drug prohibition and various other "conservative" restrictions on personal liberty. For all their talk about "free markets", they aren't even supporters of general economic liberty, since they are quite comfortable with restrictive zoning, professional license regulations, and state-granted monopolies, among other things. But it's really over the notion of political security that we part ways.

The mainstream gun lobby (e.g. the NRA, Republicans, and socially conservative Democrats) has quite an authoritarian streak. They may talk about the right to resist tyranny, but I often get the feeling that they are most concerned with their own ability to intimidate others into submission. This desire to intimidate and control others is apparent in their militaristic foreign policies, their obsession with severe punishment of criminals (even petty or victimless criminals), and their desire to limit the sexual options of others (e.g. restricting information about pregnancy and STD prevention, disparaging homosexual relationships).

So how is this desire to intimidate others displayed in their conception of political security?

First, despite their assertion of the importance of an armed citizenry, this group has no real critique of government, nor a theory of tyranny. Most of them regularly embrace the expansion of the state's surveillance and detention abilities. The only serious thought of resistance comes from the fringe militia movements, which are anxiously awaiting the initiation of mass arrests or a systematic civilian disarmament program, at which point they will rise up. The other place where people talk of imminent armed resistance is at the Tea Parties. But here, they assert the right to armed resistance even in the absence of any serious assault on our liberties, or any assault on the people's ability to resist tyranny. They speak as though abstract and mild restrictions on liberty are sufficient to warrant armed resistance -- "threats" as limited and fleeting as losing an election, or the implementation of moderate health care reform. Michael Austin documented and summarized how easily some conservatives turn to the rhetoric of rebellion:
[O]ur modern revolutionaries...have tried to co-opt the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers without accepting any of the responsibility that they pledged their lives to, who have repeatedly called the President of the United States a tyrant and a dictator, who have insisted (without a shred of evidence) that he is not a citizen of the United States, and who have equated government spending with slavery and health-care reform with satanic evil. People within this faction have accused entire congressional majorities of trying to destroy America, and they have called for revolution by any means necessary.
Here we see a startling partisan double standard -- a strong and active state is a good thing as long as their people are in control, but as soon as this group finds themselves in the minority and the state does anything that they dislike, armed resistance is appropriate. This is not a freedom movement: when one faction within society clings to power, that is tyranny.

It isn't only in their rhetoric that pro-gun conservatives show their authoritarian tendencies. If you look at the National Rifle Association's "law enforcement training staff", you'll see a man who had to resign from the Fort Lauderdale police after being video-taped abusing his authority. This obviously does not bother the NRA. As with many gun loving conservatives, they worship the police and military, and almost any excess on the part of the government's gunmen can be excused as either being necessary to keep the riffraff in line, or an unfortunate but unavoidable mistake resulting from the demands of the job. This is not the attitude of anyone who has seriously contemplated resistance to tyranny.

Their authoritarian streak is also apparent in how they respond to constitutional crises in foreign countries. At the only Tea Party rally that I observed, there was outspoken support for the coup in Honduras. These people who claimed to represent "regular Americans" were obsessing over an issue that most Americans could not have cared less about. While the coup was arguably a win for democracy, it was clear that their concern was with the specter of socialism, and fears that President Obama would support the ousted socialist President Zelaya.

While Zelaya may have been leading Hondoras towards a dictatorship (albeit a popular one), the current crisis in Egypt has presented a clear alternative between a brutal tyrant and a popular uprising. Yet in this case, popular "anti-government" conservatives, such as Glenn Beck, have sided with the tyrant. They have chosen fear-based "stability" over the uncertainty of a democratic election, where socialists or Islamists could win power. This decision has clearly demonstrated that these conservatives fear freedom more than they fear tyranny. In such a context, the apparent purpose of the "right to bear arms" is to keep the rabble down.

Look to the rhetorical foundation for this "right to armed rebellion"--the Revolutionary War--and the "imperative to suppress slave rebellions" will be clearly seen as an equal basis for this concern with guns. As described in Founding Myths, one of the main fears of the rebellious colonists, particularly in Virginia and the southern states, arose from the risk of "domestic insurrection", i.e. slave revolts. In essence, if the British crown had disarmed the Southern colonists, then the colonists would have had this sword dangling over their heads, restrained only by the will of the British military. Much of today's pro-gun rhetoric evokes the same fears of a rampaging underclass.

Given the evidence above, there is good reason to suspect that their concern with gun ownership is driven by a desire to exclude poor people from political power. My final evidence for this takes us back to the gun lobby's dismissal of any form of direct resistance other than armed rebellion -- they don't talk of non-violent mass actions such as boycotts, strikes, or the less-violent disruption of commerce; instead, the conservative gun advocates go straight for bodily violence. This suggests that they do not expect to have the numbers needed to effectively implement the less-violent strategies. Their power depends on their control of property, including weapons -- not their numbers.

Having seen the authoritarian nature of the conservative (i.e. mainstream) pro-gun lobby in the USA, what is a libertarian to do? Participation in mainstream, single-issue advocacy groups is often presented as a strategy to achieve the limited goals of that group and to publicize libertarian ideas. However, if these mainstream groups are providing support to anti-libertarian activists and politicians, then any achievements on that single issue may be outweighed by regression on other issues. To anyone with a libertarian perspective on government, protection of the right to own guns would have to be a lower priority than resistance to military adventurism and the expansion of a police state.

Is there any way to protect the right to own guns without undermining more fundamental rights? Might there even be some synergy to be had? An extreme strategy would be to subsume all pro-gun activities inside of the libertarian movement -- essentially creating a "gun rights committee of the Libertarian Party". What this gains in purity, it loses in popularity (even if "Libertarian Party" is understood to be the decentralized, informal libertarian movement). The alternative is to try to establish non-political organizations that appeal to gun owners. Competing with the NRA may be difficult, but there may be other constituencies of gun owners who are not well served by the NRA -- the Pink Pistols may be a prototype for such a group, as may others who are turned off by the NRA's authoritarian and Republican tendencies.

In the end, I won't personally do much about this because I am not a gun owner, and I don't think that they are a terribly important issue. However, every time that I give a passive defense of the right to bear arms (e.g. "live and let live") or point out the numerous weaknesses in the arguments to ban guns, I'm going to get branded as one of those people (described above). While the actual prohibition of guns would not be a crippling blow to liberty, this issue is one of the main battlegrounds against the authoritarian mindset. Any time someone tells me that we have to establish a structure of systematic and widespread violence against non-violent people (e.g. confiscating property and arresting people) in order to prevent sporadic and relatively rare violence by others, I'm going to have to respond.

Update: Shortly after I wrote the above post, news came in that the PATRIOT act re-authorization had a mild setback in the House, as several Republicans defected from the party leadership and voted against re-authorization. Rumor was that this had something to do with the Tea Party, strengthening their claim to being a libertarian movement. Upon further consideration, there seems to be no difference between the Tea Party and the Republican Party in general, both groups overwhelmingly supporting the re-authorization.

I also came across a nice example of a conservative trembling at the thought of Democracy, because most people just can't be trusted.

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