On Violence and the Right to Bear Arms

Nothing pushes a moderate from moderation like the extremism of the opposition.  And for the first time, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I’ve found myself questioning the validity of the Second Amendment.  

Where for years I’ve moved around in the space between practical libertarianism and cautious centrism, frustration and despair, I spend my time questioning the point of the argument in the first place.  The absurdity of the gun-rights absolutism on the right has tainted even those positions I thought were reasonable. Sure, guns are an absolute right for self-defense but the fringe is just taking that to an unreasonable extreme.  Sure, guns are a final line of defense against a potential tyranny, but the crowd that squawks about gun grabs and false flags are just marginal loons. I’m not sure I’ve come to the point where I’m ready to challenge the former, but I poked the latter with a stick and suddenly I was standing in rubble.

The notion that the individual right to bear arms is a means of defending against tyranny has proven far more tenuous than I would’ve though just a few weeks ago.  As mass shootings pile up and patterns become more and more undeniable, push-back against those patterns amongst gun-rights advocates necessarily becomes more and more direct.  It’s as though a rat were lured progressively further and further out of its hole; at some point it finds itself too exposed.

Following the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in February, the focus amongst gun-control activists on semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 was more even more pointed than in the wake of past atrocities.  While the response, in many cases, was exactly as it had been before – ‘you don’t know what an assault weapon is,’ ‘that idea won’t do what you think it would,’ ‘those guns are no different than gun x, y, or z.’ – a few people stepped out to defend the AR-15 and weapons like it in explicit fashion.  David French of National Review was among them.

After making a handful of the standard menacing rhetorical comparisons between commando criminals and castrated citizens, French stated of banning AR-15 style weapons:

It will also lead to such a yawning gap between citizen and state that private gun ownership no longer provides any meaningful deterrent to tyranny.

He continued:

A free citizen armed with an assault rifle is more formidable than a free citizen armed only with a pistol. A population armed with assault rifles is more formidable than a population armed with less lethal weapons.

I read that particular article, entitled “Assault Weapons Preserve the Purpose of the Second Amendment” a few weeks ago and wrote about my feelings in general.  My disagreement, at the time, was with the idea of violent uprising as a legitimate means of resistance at all. That particular line passed by me as incidental until I stumbled across the following passage in political theorist Hannah Arendt’s short study of power and violence On Violence:

The fact is that a gap between state-owned means of violence and what people can muster themselves – from beer bottles to Molotov cocktails and guns – has always been so enormous that technical improvements make hardly any difference [...] In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute.

Arendt doesn’t seem to reject the use of violence as a means of resisting government, but rather rejects the notion that technology itself has anything at all to do with its effectiveness.  While her words seemed a direct response to ideas that French put into writing nearly fifty years later, they served more to place her own ideas into this particular and peculiar context.

Throughout the eighty-eight page essay, she defines power as a means of influence that “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.”  That concept of “power” differs from “authority” which corresponds roughly to legitimacy and “strength” which describes individual capacity. She argues that when we “ say of somebody that ‘he is in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.”  Violence, on the other hand, is the use of weapons “for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until in the last stage of development they can substitute for it.”

The distinction is important to Arendt because she contends that violence is not an extension of power, but rather power’s opposite.  She states that “to substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.”  She claims that leaders and movements need to resort to violence only when their popular support fails them.

In other words, in the political context, violence is a tool used by a movement to achieve its ends when it is without support enough to achieve them otherwise.

I attempted several weeks ago to address French’s argument but passed over his contention that making technological advances in guns available to citizen preserves their ability to resist tyranny.  Where French argues that the quality of arms is important, however, Arendt argues that the notion is ridiculous on its face. I did, on the other hand, note that the idea of armed revolution or resistance may run counter to its defenders’ aims – freedom, liberty, democracy – and that it is more likely to repel support and legitimize opposition.  Where I argue that using violence can weaken a movement, Arendt argues that the tendency to violence is indicative of a movement that is weak already.

To cling to a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment in order to violently defend against tyranny not only weakens the cause of liberty, but betrays that the concept of liberty is weak already.  It's not.  David French and the respectable conservatives in his company are misguided.

Whether as an effective means of exercising power, preserving democracy, or challenging the state’s capacity for violence, our interpretation of the Second Amendment seems shakier by the day.  Conservatives lean harder and harder on grandiose and principled evocations of history and liberty with crumbling foundations. They ask incredible sacrifice in defense of a reading of the right to bear arms that collapses around them as they speak.  It’s probably time for pragmatists like myself to admit that.