R. Scott Clark has written here about the hermeneutics of the US 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. In this blog I am not setting out to dismantle his line of reasoning, in fact I don’t doubt it. The case he makes is probably entirely what the American founding fathers envisaged in drafting this amendment. The line of argument is simple: the right of civilians to bear arms is a firm check against tyranny, but particularly government sponsored tyranny.
But after interacting with him, and others, on social media I’ve a few questions for how Reformed believers in American can really support this part of their constitution. I accept most application sees this in terms of small scale tyranny – the thug across town, who comes to rob my home. But to really test the implications of this, you have to follow it through its most extreme context: keeping government tyranny in check.
I have to remember that these brothers I’ve interacted with over the last few days share with me a Reformed perspective. This means we agree on Just War Theory, where one principle is the use of force as last resort. So I understand the argument is that civilian arms are the final domestic check on government tyranny – the ballot box, peaceful protest, and legitimate appeal to the international (or outside) community having all failed.
These questions are:
1. Where do you draw a line in arming a civilian population against their government?
This is a serious question because, as recent history is showing us, governments can expect to be better armed than their civilian populations. Much better armed. If you are serious about facing down government tyranny, you need a means to dispose of soldiers in body armour, tanks, helicopter gunships, and emplaced crew served heavy weapons. The small arms that you assert the 2nd Amendment entitles you to are not sufficient to face down a modern military. The development of body armour makes armour piercing anti personnel rounds essential. In an American context, this implies you are asking for “cop killer” rounds to be commonly available. Or, what about anti-tank weapons? Or even automatic cannon capable of anti-aircraft fire? These are weapons already, and rightly, illegal. The only reason they are even available in Syria or Libya to assist in civilian uprisings was the prevailing lawlessness in these regions. But if the gun lobby in America is serious about gun ownership as a check against tyranny, what type of weapons do you think ought to actually be available, because the small arms you already have are not enough to achieve your stated aim?
2. How do you stop escalation to indiscriminate killing?
I appreciate the goal of keeping the government in check, but in the absence of a well armed militia (being a militia with access to AP, AT, AA and HE weapons well in excess of common domestic small arms) the alternative is to rely on asymmetrical warfare to achieve one’s goals. The Americas I’ve asked about this highlight the success of Insurgency tactics, and perhaps feel a romantic notion that this is in some way paralleled in their own history with the Minutemen, etc. But unfortunately, Insurgency tactics rely on indiscriminate killing. Insurgents do not rely on small arms, but more frequently use roadside bombs, with basic trigger mechanisms that are just as easily detonated by playing children as they are aggressive tyrannical opponents. This is, incidentally, why civilized nations avoid the use of indiscriminate landmines and cluster munitions – they are inhumane devices. But in the eventuality of an asymmetrical conflict with a better armed tyrannical government, how does this supposed right to bear arms prevent or deter the use of indiscriminate weapons?
3. Is the “check” you envisage in the 2nd Amendment complicit with Just War Theory?
In asking this, I am assuming that my American Christian brothers are neither advocating the serious up-armament demanded in question 1, nor the resort to indiscriminate Insurgency tactics demanded in question 2. But this leaves the problem of likelihood of success. Just War Theory not only demands war be a last resort, but also that it hold a reasonable expectation of success. Any military tactic (for military tactic is exactly what this 2nd Amendment understanding is) lacking a reasonable expectation of success is clearly unjust. In fact, there have been groups who have thought their 2nd Amendment right gave them the means to resist the government – but every such situation has ended in tragic loss of life, mostly on the side of those resisting authority. The government wins, unless heavy weapons are brought to bear, or indiscriminate means are used. So, without heavy weapons, and indiscriminate tactics, what reasonable chance is there of success?
4. Is the cost of maintaining, but never using, this supposed “check” a just price to pay?
I appreciate Freedom is an emotive subject, particularly for Americans, but I observe two simple truths. The 2nd Amendment means there are many, many guns readily available in your country. And you country has a horrific level of gun crime, for a civilised nation. It seems undeniable that fewer guns, under at least stricter ownership and storage laws, would result in fewer gun-related deaths each and every day. Given the daily blood price of your apparent “freedom” from tyranny, and the unlikely success your “check” actually provides should these freedoms be threatened, surely the price of about 30 lives each day is simply too high, not to mention the growing roll-call of massacres?
5. Does violent force really trump democracy, and underpin liberty?
I ask this question with your own history in mind. If we call to mind the civil liberties movements of the 1960s, was not violent force on the side of oppressors – wicked men who sought to dehumanise their black fellows, denying them what today we agree are universal rights? The struggle of black Americans was in the main a peaceful struggle, certainly not a struggled where violent force triumphed. Curiously, young black Americans are today far more likely to die violent deaths in gun-related incidents, despite the peaceful protest movement that purchased for them the same right to bear arms. Does not your own history prove that lasting liberty is not won through armed civilians, but rather through peaceful protest, against the masses? In fact, look beyond your own shores – was it armed uprising that finally toppled Communism across Eastern Europe? Are there in fact many armed uprisings where armed civilian militias have yielded stable, long-term, just, good outcomes? (I would add; your own Revolution is not a story of glorious civilian uprising – but one where a civilian militia played a part alongside well equipped and trained professional armies.)
Allow me one Biblical observation we agree on. The right to wield the sword of justice is a God-given right that carries huge responsibility. I believe it is a right vested primarily in the state, but we can at least agree it is a solemn responsibility. When I look at photos of young, civilian (and I stress that word!), Christian Americans proudly displaying their lovely military grade rifles, what do I see? I can’t judge hearts, but I have to confess, I have never for one second imagined these young men see themselves engaged in a solemn undertaking: bearing arms to provide a check against tyranny.
What I think I see in your young, civilian, Christian men displaying their lovely military grade rifles are young men who seem to overly cherish their guns, and perhaps the feeling of power and masculinity they are afforded through these experiences. Young men do this with cars too, and many other things. But it strikes me to be cherishing a worldly thing. Perhaps you do teach your sons what the 2nd Amendment meant, but it alarms me that if that is the case, there are still so very many gun related deaths in your country, where gun ownership is such a solemn thing. Sin so easily corrupts.
But is it possible that your hearts are deceived in this? Is that deceit assisted by what I can only assume to be huge financial interests in maintaining what are now about 300 million privately owned firearms?