The Parkland Shooting has emboldened the gun control lobby yet again. The same activists who spent the better part of the last two years speaking about “police racism” now say, without any apparent awareness of the contradiction, that only the police and military should have guns. While it is true the right to keep and bear arms exists in part to effectuate the right of revolution rooted in a fear of tyrannical government, it also stems from a broader ethic of self-reliance.
Many state constitutions speak of the right to bear arms as one “for defense of themselves and the state.” A gun was a means, then and now, of self-protection.
The structure of American government as a whole evinces a willingness to sacrifice efficiency and even some amount of physical safety in the service of greater freedom, that is, of self-reliance. Thus, standing armies (which doubled as police forces) were anathema, and traditionally one’s safety was primarily his own responsibility or, at the largest extension, that of his local community in the form of the militia and its handmaiden, the posse comitatus.
If the Parkland shooter’s 39 prior encounters with law enforcement coupled with the FBI’s failing to “follow protocol” regarding a tip were not enough, the most recent report that School Resource Officer Scot Peterson did not engage the shooter, but instead waited outside for four minutes as the massacre took place, has truly changed the story from one of evil hardware to a story of a government unable to protect us.
Latent within the idea of gun control is the notion that guns increase aggregate danger, and if prohibited, police and other professionals might easily protect the disarmed populace from any remaining guns, as well as other risks. This is a dubious hope. We have relatively few police in this country, and they are spread very thin, particularly in rural areas. As the saying goes, “when seconds count, the police are minutes away.” As a general matter, police investigate crimes after they are completed. Their deterrent effect consists primarily in the general threat of detection and incarceration.
Broward County has nearly 2 million people and about 2,800 deputies. Divided into three shifts, that is about one deputy for every 2,000 residents. They are not a security detail with any legal duty to defend individual citizens, nor could they be. As courts have frequently ruled, it is a “fundamental principle of American law that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual citizen.”
The vast majority of people are law abiding, allowing police to concentrate their resources on a few bad actors and respond quickly to emergencies, but this is not always the case. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, overwhelmed by lawless masses, the police fled the scene. Over 50 deaths, the brutal beating of Reginald Denny, and countless arsons ensued. If you lived in one of these neighborhoods, you were truly on your own. We saw similar tactical retreats in Ferguson and Baltimore during race riots in 2014 and 2015. In New Orleans, a substantial number of officers fled to protect their own families during Hurricane Katrina.
In addition to resource constraints, there are political ones. Politicized law enforcement has sometimes turned a blind eye towards violence against disfavored victims, whether that is the harassment of civil rights activists in the 1960s, the Charlottesville clash of right-wing and left-wing demonstrators last year, or during the 2016 presidential campaign in Chicago and Albuquerque. These events are a sobering reminder that while there are many brave, honorable, and decent individuals in law enforcement, they are subject to orders much like the military, and those orders will reflect the will of the political leadership.
Much of what animates the gun rights discussion is the degree to which one adheres to traditional American individualism. Individualism entails a certain distrust of overly effective government, because efficient and effective government also by necessity has the capacity for oppression. The traditional American constitutional system reflected a broader individualist and self-reliant culture, where overlapping rights and powers, as well as inefficiency, would be tolerated to maintain a free, self-governing republic. The “monopoly on force” is a continental legal concept, not an Anglo-American one. As Benjamin Franklin stated, wisely, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
But the sociological “soil” in which American freedoms and self-government grew has changed. For starters, America is more urban, specialized, and proletarian. All of these traits breed a certain lassitude and dependency. It is also less united, more cynical, and more used to security. Thomas Jefferson famously preferred a society of yeoman farmers, believing them the most sturdy, self-reliant, and jealous of their liberties. Judging by regionally divergent views on taxes, gun rights, and constitutional liberties more generally, his assessment still appears correct.
Even in the best of times, it is simply unreasonable to expect a high degree of safety from disarming ordinary law-abiding people, while putting our faith in a small cohort of police. It’s true, some guns would be “off the streets,” but it would be impossible—even with an aggressive gun control regime—to limit guns exclusively to police and law enforcement. We cannot remove drugs from the streets, and they are consumed—their supply must continually be replenished. By contrast, we have 300 million or more guns in circulation, one of every two or three households has one, and they each could easily last 100 years or more. When gun control prevails, guns do not disappear, but tend to be confined to one of two groups: hardened criminals and the police. This is the situation in New York, Chicago, and other large urban centers with strict gun control laws. In these cities, largely disarmed individual citizens facing a largely armed criminal class, must either submit, improvise, or be harmed. The police, while numerous, simply can’t be everywhere at once.
Even when they are present, all police officers are not created equal. Through a combination of department culture, the wearing effects of the hostility of a criminal underclass, personal obligations, just-around-the-corner cushy retirement packages, and the prospect of criminal punishment for a “bad shoot,” there are many reasons individual officers may simply not be up to the task of engaging a well-armed shooter. This was evident in the infamous Columbine shooting, where the first responders formed a perimeter and followed the old hostage-negotiation protocol of waiting for SWAT, while the crazed gunmen went about their lethal business. After Columbine, many departments changed their protocols and developed “active shooter” training, emphasizing the need to find and dispatch the shooter immediately. But is this kind of spirit going to be found in the average “school resource officer”? And for those law-abiding people willing to carry their own firearms, is this outsourcing of personal defense going to make them safer?
Florida led the way in expanding concealed carry in 1987 after a heated statewide debate, replete with the usual nonsense about vigilantes, shootings over parking spots, and the state becoming the Wild West. In reality, the program largely has been popular and successful, with 1.7 million people now possessing an active concealed carry license, and relatively little abuse. That is nearly 1 in 10 Floridians. Since that time, more than 40 states have adopted its “shall issue” concealed carry regime, where a permit is provided after a modest training requirement and a detailed background check. These concealed carry holders, over 16 million strong, in many ways represent the older spirit of American individualism. They are taking responsibility for their own safety, and there are thousands of stories of these guns being used in defense of themselves and others.
The right to bear arms is fundamentally about affirming the right of citizens to take care of themselves. Police are public servants with an important and necessary job, but the ordinary people have the same right and same duty of defense in the face of madmen who would harm the innocent. Donald Trump in his sensible call to end “gun free” zones like schools recognizes the benefit of a layered defense that engages ordinary citizens.
Police are rightly lauded as first responders, and their bravery and dedication was under attack for most of Obama’s second term. And, while many are brave, it remains that some fail in their duty. The police live in the same disunified country as the rest of us, and they are subject to the same centrifugal social forces and human failings. When they are the only line of defense and they fail to engage, as in Parkland, they are quite simply the worst responders.