Does America Begin And End With The Right To Bear Arms?

Does America begin and end with the right to bear arms?

I don’t think so. To argue that it does demonstrates a lack of knowledge about American history. It also ignores the many instances where this nation’s citizens have expanded their freedoms through non-violent means. You would really have to reach to make the argument that the government caved to those demands because of the fear of an armed citizenry. Frankly, I think those who focus so much on the Second Amendment haven’t really thought about what makes a society like ours work.

However, I know people who will make the argument that the Second Amendment is indeed the most fundamental element of our democracy. I’ve had those conversations.

The Founding Fathers were on the same page as me, I think.

Adam Winkler, author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America,” recently wrote about this at The Atlantic in the article, “The Secret History of Guns“:

The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.

For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the “individual mandate” that has proved so controversial in President Obama’s health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.

At the New York Times, Firmin DeBrabander, an associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, reflects on just what a heavily armed society can do to civil society. His arguments certainly resonate with me. It is definitely worth reading the whole article, but I’ll pull out some excerpts for your consideration:

As N.R.A. president Wayne LaPierre expressed in a recent statement on the organization’s Web site, more guns equal more safety, by their account. A favorite gun rights saying is “an armed society is a polite society.” If we allow ever more people to be armed, at any time, in any place, this will provide a powerful deterrent to potential criminals. Or if more citizens were armed — like principals and teachers in the classroom, for example — they could halt senseless shootings ahead of time, or at least early on, and save society a lot of heartache and bloodshed.

As ever more people are armed in public, however — even brandishing weapons on the street — this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point.

And yet, gun rights advocates famously maintain that individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty. Deeper reflection on their argument exposes basic fallacies.


Guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment — they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

I often think of the armed protestor who showed up to one of the famously raucous town hall hearings on Obamacare in the summer of 2009. The media was very worked up over this man, who bore a sign that invoked a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson, accusing the president of tyranny. But no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate — though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech — and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free; there is or can be a limit to negotiation and debate — definitively.


Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases — these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be.


Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly — and everything conducive to that.

Or is increased gun ownership a symptom of increasing individualism and the crumbling of the fabric of society? There are arguments to be made for both perspectives, I think. In any case, this research done at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center shows the correlation between gun ownership and negative community relations:

We analyzed whether perceptions of safety might be affected if more people in a community acquired firearms, using data from a national random-digit-dial survey of adults conducted under the auspices of HICRC.  By a margin of more than 3 to 1, Americans would feel less safe, not safer, as others in their community acquire guns. Among women, but not among men, those who have been threatened with a gun are particularly likely to feel less safe.

Hemenway, David; Solnick, Sara J; Azrael, Deborah R.  Firearms and community feelings of safety. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 1995; 86:121-132.

Miller, Matthew; Azrael, Deborah; Hemenway, David. Community firearms and community fear. Epidemiology. 2000; 11:709-714.

There is more:

Increased gun carrying reduces community feeling of safety.
This paper uses data from two national random-digit-dial surveys to examine public attitudes about gun carrying. By a margin of 5 to 1, Americans feel less safe rather than more safe as more people in their community begin to carry guns.  By margins of at least 9 to 1, Americans do not believe that regular citizens should be allowed to bring their guns into restaurants, college campuses, sports stadium, bars, hospitals or government buildings.

Hemenway, David; Azrael, Deborah; Miller, Matthew.  U.S. national attitudes concerning gun carrying.  Injury Prevention.  2001; 7:282-285.

Among the other findings of the HICRC researchers are:

Guns are not used millions of times each year in self-defense;

Most purported self-defense gun uses are gun uses in escalating arguments and are both socially undesirable and illegal;

Firearms are used far more often to intimidate than in self-defense;

Guns in the home are used more often to intimidate intimates than to thwart crime;

Adolescents are far more likely to be threatened with a gun than to use one in self-defense;

Criminals who are shot are typically the victims of crime; and

Few criminals are shot by decent law abiding citizens.

A researcher at the HICRC also found this:

Gun advocates claim mass-casualty events are mitigated and deterred with three policies: (a) permissive gun laws, (b) widespread gun ownership, (c) and encouragement of armed civilians who can intercept shooters. They cite Switzerland and Israel as exemplars. We evaluate these claims with analysis of International Crime Victimization Survey (ICVS) data and translation of laws and original source material. Swiss and Israeli laws limit firearm ownership and require permit renewal one to four times annually. ICVS analysis finds the United States has more firearms per capita and per household than either country. Switzerland and Israel curtail off-duty soldiers’ firearm access to prevent firearm deaths. Suicide among soldiers decreased by 40 per cent after the Israeli army’s 2006 reforms. Compared with the United States, Switzerland and Israel have lower gun ownership and stricter gun laws, and their policies discourage personal gun ownership.

The author of the paper just did a fascinating interview with the Washington Post that elaborates on her findings.

At the end of the day, do guns only provide us a small — perhaps even false — sense of security while actually undermining the ideals that many Americans would associate with a free and democratic society? It’s something worth contemplating. Guns are not going to go away. The Second Amendment is not going to be repealed. So it’s important that we learn better ways to live with guns.

Otherwise, we just continue to die with them. Observe this news:

From 2001 to 2010, about 270,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reported. These figures include homicides, accidents and suicides. But homicides alone put the U.S. in league with countries such as Mexico and Colombia, according to United Nations data.

“This is a country riddled with multiple gun tragedies,” said Robert Sampson, a Harvard University sociologist who studies crime and its effects on cities and neighborhoods. “There is the sudden and concentrated tragedy of Newtown, but there is also this ongoing, steady slow drip of tragedies in so many communities that don’t share the spotlight. America’s gun violence problem, as I see it, is a problem of both steady violence and mass shootings.”

In the 1960s, gun violence in the U.S. began to climb precipitously across the country, peaking in crack-ravaged cities in the late-1980s and early-1990s. After that, U.S. gun deaths began to slide. But that slope is part of a larger global decline, leaving the U.S. with few peers in gun violence.

“The other Western countries really saw a significant drop-off, making us still very violent in comparison,” said Sampson.

Data compiled by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime confirms Americans are living with greater risk of gun-related death than are residents of other developed countries. From 2007 to 2009, the U.S. averaged 10,987 homicides per year by firearm, compared with an average of 182 in Germany, 75 in Spain and 47 in the United Kingdom. Mexico averaged 5,980 annual homicides by firearm during the period. Colombia averaged 13,174.

In the U.S., 8,583 of 12,664 murder victims in 2011 were killed by firearms, according to FBI data. California and Texas had the most murders by firearm in 2011, with 1,220 and 699, respectively.

Once again, we are left asking, what makes America so, um, special? I’ll post more on this soon.

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