What Will the Gun Rights Decision Do?

 Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down its opinion that the Second Amendment applies to the states and protects individuals’ rights to own guns for self-defense. That decided, the Court sent the case back to the lower courts to work out the implications of that basic holding. As those “details” are worked out, however, the stakes are enormous.

For most people, firearms are invitations to self-destruction or murder. A significant percent of the people killed by the police are unarmed. Tests show civilians are much more likely to pull the trigger than police. I’ve taught a descendent of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Murder leads to demand for revenge. But as we’ve seen around the globe, revenge is often exacted on the innocent, widening the circle of combat.

I was on a call-in program with Alan Chartok when the Court’s earlier gun rights decision came up. I commented about the danger of private paramilitaries and a caller interpreted that as meaning the decision was OK because it wasn’t about paramilitaries. It is a mistake to think of weapons only in individual terms. People will do what they will with firearms. They do it in gangs, in crime syndicates, and in private paramilitaries.

Both here and around the globe private unauthorized paramilitaries train for the day when, in their own uncontrolled opinion, they will have to take law into their own hands. We’ve seen what Blackwater has done despite officially sanctioned training. Their misbehavior deepened our difficulties in Iraq. Elsewhere, private paramilitaries have turned themselves into the death squads that made a mockery of law, order and justice in Latin America. Paramilitaries have served so-called warlords that turned their populations into serfs and soaked their countries in civil war. Arms will be misused.

Paramilitaries also spawn loners like Timothy McVeigh who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City and Faisal Shahzad who attempted to bomb Times Square.

Many of the takeovers by the most brutal dictators have supposedly been to quell the violence. Hitler was handed the keys to the German dictatorship on the supposition that he could stop the bleeding his own Storm Troopers were creating. The arming of a population is an invitation to mayhem and civil war.

Police rightly fight against the spread of weapons.

In the US, we are blase about the risks of private paramilitaries training in woods and on plains around the country, organized only by the most outrageous extremists because we imagine our Revolution as a popular uprising from below. In fact, we avoided the worst pitfalls of revolutions around the globe because ours was managed from the top, by state governments that reorganized themselves when freed of British governors. George Washington was chosen almost from the beginning to lead the Revolution by a national Congress meeting in Philadelphia. Our Revolution never lacked organization. It never amounted to self-appointed paramilitaries doing as they would. Thank heaven.

Politically, it’s harder to tell what this decision means. Some defenders of gun rights have objected even to bans on assault weapons on the ground of a slippery slope. Perhaps this decision can satisfy them that some level of gun rights is not going away so they can accept some controls – though the gun lobby’s lawyers have already said their first target will be to make it possible for people to get guns who are under court orders to stay away from women they have assaulted or threatened. That doesn’t sound like the voice of reason from the gun lobby. On the other hand, perhaps the decision will invigorate those of us who think the spread of guns is a threat to civil society.

The politics of Supreme Court opinions is not fore-ordained. And the level heads among us had better make sure that this decision doesn’t mark the plunge into the insane world of murder and reprisal that has dug so many graves in such a large part of this world – graves for millions of people, and graves for free and democratic government.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 29, 2010.

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