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The Last Line of Defense

The right to bear arms is a matter of individual safety and, ultimately, freedom. The issue goes far beyond gun nuts.

November 07, 1999|ROBERT J. COTTROL | Robert J. Cottrol is a professor of law and history at George Washington University. His most recent book is "From African to Yankee: Narratives of Slavery and Freedom in Antebellum New England" (M.E. Sharpe, 1998)

The central premise of the gun control movement is that society becomes more civilized when the citizen surrenders the means of self-defense, leaving the state a monopoly of force.

That this premise goes largely unchallenged is the most remarkable feature of our gun control debate. We are ending a century that has repeatedly witnessed the consequences of unchecked state monopolies of force. University of Hawaii political scientist Rudolph J. Rummel, one of the leading students of democide (mass murder of civilian populations by governments), has estimated that nearly 170 million people have been murdered by their own governments in our century. The familiar list of mass murderers--Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot--only scratches the surface. The mass slaughter of helpless, unarmed civilian populations continues in Sudan, Rwanda, parts of the former Yugoslavia and East Timor.

The reluctance of outside forces to intervene is well documented. And yet the obvious question is strangely absent: Would arms in the hands of average citizens have made a difference? Could the overstretched Nazi war machine have murdered 11 million armed and resisting Europeans while also taking on the Soviet and Anglo-American armies? Could 50,000 to 70,000 Khmer Rouge have butchered 2 million to 3 million armed Cambodians? The answers are by no means clear, but it is unconscionable that they are not being asked.

Need Americans have such concerns? We have been spared rule by dictators, but state tyranny can come in other forms. It can come when government refuses to protect unpopular groups--people who are disfavored because of their political or religious beliefs, their ancestry or the color of their skin. Our past has certainly not been free of this brand of state tyranny. In the Jim Crow South, for example, government failed to protect blacks from extra-legal violence. Given our history, it's stunning that we fail to question those who would force us to rely totally on the state for defense.

Nor should our discussion be limited to foreign or historical examples. The lives and freedoms of decent, law-abiding citizens throughout our nation, especially in our dangerous inner cities, are constantly threatened by criminal predators. This has devastated minority communities. And yet the effort to limit the right to armed self-defense has been most intense in such communities. Bans on firearm ownership in public housing, the constant effort to ban pistols poor people can afford--scornfully labeled "Saturday night specials" and "junk guns"--are denying the means of self-defense to entire communities in a failed attempt to disarm criminal predators. In many under-protected minority communities, citizens have been disarmed and left to the mercy of well-armed criminals.

This has led to further curtailment of freedom. Consider initiatives in recent years to require tenants in public housing to allow their apartments to be searched. First, police failed for decades to protect citizens in many of our most dangerous public housing projects. Next, as the situation became sufficiently desperate, tenants were prohibited from owning firearms for their own defense. Finally the demand came, "Surrender your right to privacy in your home." The message could not be clearer: A people incapable of protecting themselves will lose their rights as a free people, becoming either servile dependents of the state or of the criminal predators who are their de facto masters.

All of this should force us to reconsider our debate over arms and rights. For too long, it has been framed as a question of the rights of sportsmen. It is far more serious: The 2nd Amendment has something critical to say about the relationship between the citizen and the state. For most of human history, in most of the nations in the world, the individual has all too often been a helpless dependent of the state, beholden to the state's benevolence and indeed competence for his physical survival.

The notion of a right to arms bespeaks a very different relationship. It says the individual is not simply a helpless bystander in the difficult and dangerous task of ensuring his or her safety. Instead, the citizen is an active participant, an equal partner with the state in ensuring not only his own safety but also that of his community.

This is a serious right that takes the individual from servile dependency on the state to the status of participating citizen, capable of making intelligent choices in defense of life and ultimately of freedom. This conception of citizenship recognizes that the ultimate civil right is the right to defend one's own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless and that without the means, the right to self-defense is but an empty promise.

Our serious thinkers have been absent from this debate for too long. The 2nd Amendment is too important to leave to the gun nuts.

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Robert J. Cottrol is a professor of law and history at George Washington University. His most recent book is "From African to Yankee: Narratives of Slavery and Freedom in Antebellum New England" (M.E. Sharpe, 1998). E-mail: bcottrol@main.nlc.gwu.edu. This article is adapted from the September-October issue of American Enterprise magazine.

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