According to supporters, Biden was going to restore boring predictability to the country after the chaos of the Trump years. But crime, racial friction, and partisan politics are all getting worse. Defying his stated goal of restoring social peace, he has reached for the one issue that guarantees a huge political fight and can only succeed in uniting the fractured Right: gun control.
The unserious proposal is a hodgepodge of rules rooted in the anti-gun myth of rogue gun dealers and glaring loopholes. Because most criminals get their guns illegally, this latest stunt won’t affect the violent crime problem.
Lowering violent crime requires locking people up, and this requires serious and well-funded police, prosecutors, and prisons. In other words, what works are the type of crime bills that Biden supported in the 1980s and ’90s.
Today, Biden is boxed in by his party’s race-based criticism of the criminal justice system. Rather than dealing with a real problem, he invokes the phantom bogeyman of the hour: the specter of right-wing terrorism, which apparently has in reserve every suburban dad who legally owns an AR-15.
When introducing his gun control proposals, Biden said something that is, frankly, insane:
The Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited the type of people who could own a gun and what type of weapon you could own. You couldn’t buy a cannon. Those who say the blood of lib— the blood of patriots,’ you know, and all the stuff about how we’re going to have to move against the government. Well, the tree of liberty is not watered with the blood of patriots. What’s happened is that there have never been—if you wanted or if you think you need to have weapons to take on the government, you need F-15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.
Biden is wrong on the facts. There were no classes of weapons banned at the time of founding. Rather, laws of the time required every man to be armed so that he could be of service to the militia. The only notable restrictions were laws aimed at restricting free blacks—not exactly the crowning achievement of the early American Republic. His broader point was not that laws or elections are a sufficient bulwark of our liberty, but rather that the military is de facto invincible. This conceit also falls apart under scrutiny.
America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the earlier war in Vietnam, show that Biden fails both early American history and very recent military history. An armed populace is as formidable today as it was in 1776. Peasants with rusty AK-47s and homemade bombs have managed to tie up the world’s most powerful military three times in the last 50 years. Other nations have fared little better. The things that make a modern military effective—extreme firepower and sophisticated technology—are generally of limited use in counterinsurgency.
United States law only permits the military to be employed domestically in limited circumstances. Law enforcement is the preferred tool for dealing with domestic threats, not least because our legal system includes ample protections for the accused. The Vietnam-era Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, while imagining themselves as guerillas waging a war against the American government, were brought down by ordinary law enforcement.
Even when military forces have been used for riot control, the results can be politically disastrous. The bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War became an international cause célèbre. In the run up to the Iraq War, the neoconservatives never ceased telling us how Saddam Hussein gassed his own people. President Trump similarly called Bashar al-Assad of Syria a “gas killing animal” to justify airstrikes against his regime.
Joe Biden seems confused about what an appropriate response would be to a real insurgency. Nuclear weapons cannot distinguish combatants from noncombatants—they would kill millions by design, and poison the soil for generations. Are the American people to be annihilated in order to preserve “our democracy?” Who will be left?
Our political system is supposed to be “of, by, and for the people,” deriving its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. While one cannot expect the government to bow down meekly to armed resistance—particularly extremists representing a tiny minority—it also should not have the power to oppress the majority. In this sense, an armed populace serves as a counterweight to the government. It is one of the key checks and balances in our constitutional system, a “doomsday option” when other forms of political resistance prove insufficient. As with actual nuclear weapons, the mission is accomplished chiefly through deterrence.
Trump’s desire to use the National Guard to put down last summer’s riots was widely criticized, but Biden’s strange remarks have been greeted with a shrug. There have been no hand-written notes from General Mark Milley reminding servicemen of their “oath to the American people.” He’s too busy reading Marx, I guess.
In normal times, one could shrug off Biden’s strange words. He is, after all, prone to gaffes and incoherent statements, and there are many institutional safeguards surrounding the president. But consider the context. After the events of January 6, the organizing principle of much of the ruling class has become fear and hostility towards vaguely defined domestic extremists, variously labeled as “traitors” and “insurgents.” At the same time, the military’s leadership has walked away from its non-partisan heritage and become a key pillar of the deep state, embracing partisan fads and treating ordinary Americans and their beliefs as suspect. These are ominous developments.
Biden would do himself and the country a favor if he spent some time studying our country’s founding, along with the “people’s wars” of the 20th century. These conflicts are invariably brutal, often persist for a very long time, and their outcomes are uncertain.
But they are never inevitable.
A lighter touch, regional autonomy, and power sharing have been used effectively in other nations to diffuse tensions. The January 6 protest, though greatly exaggerated, should be a “canary in the coal mine,” revealing serious disaffection among the populace. Biden could cement an important legacy for himself if he steered his party towards real moderation and championed federalism to permit mutual accommodation between red and blue states.
Unfortunately, Biden and his inner circle seem dedicated to imposing aggressive leftism everywhere along with a self-fulfilling prophecy of confronting armed domestic resistance.
If he comes for people’s guns, he will set in motion what he aims to prevent.