in the safe embrace of the state

By Diogenes (articles ) | Apr 17, 2007

"What is needed, urgently, is stronger controls over the lethal weapons that cause such wasteful carnage and such unbearable loss." With pavlovian predictability, the better trained media have displayed the reflex reaction to homicidal madness: increase state control, curtail personal liberty. American intellectuals have become so Europeanized over the past fifty years that it may be worth remembering why America severed its European political ties in the first place, and why, having done so, it radically changed the relationship of governors to the governed.

The clearest statement I have ever read of the American theory of government came from Ronald Reagan, speaking on Soviet television before his 1988 summit meeting with Gorbachev. It came out in response to an interviewer's objection that Reagan seemed to have forgotten that the Soviet Union had a constitution too.

"You have a constitution; we have a constitution. The difference between our two constitutions is very simple. Your constitution says these are the privileges, rights, that the government provides for the people. Our constitution says: we the people will allow the government to do the following things."

Bull's eye. That's why a low-to-middle income American can have a rifle leaning in the corner of his dining room that the local chief of police knows nothing about, while his European counterpart cannot. Also, in part, that's why totalitarian statism has not been a serious threat to Americans. So far.

"We the people will allow the government to do the following things..." If the coercive power in a given nation belongs exclusively to government agencies, the notion of government "by the people" becomes vacuous. The Second Amendment reflects the ratifers' understanding of this grim truth; and the guarantee that "the right to bear arms shall not be infringed" was intended, in part, to diffuse coercive power among as broad a spectrum of the citizenry as possible. It makes a difference. When the state is the only armed party in the state-citizen encounter, it tends to consult its own convenience at the expense of other human goods.

As anyone who has lived abroad can attest, the police and other agents of the state who come onto one's property have one attitude when they know there's no lethal weapon on the premises, and another attitude entirely when they don't. It's true of friendly visits, and true of not-so-friendly visits. Would the ratifiers have approved the right to bear arms had they foreseen massacres staged by madmen? Almost certainly. Any liberty will be abused. All liberties come at a cost of life. Those who prefer life to freedom are traditionally given the name slaves.

In this vein, I was struck by an argument made some years ago by a constitutional scholar named Robert Cottrol, who gave the following justification for the Second Amendment (a very rough paraphrase): In pre-Enlightenment Europe, the notions of nobility and the right to own weapons were interchangeable. To be noble was to be "armigerous" -- a word that means not only to have a coat-of-arms, but more generally to bear weapons. Government was aristocratic, which in theory and in practice meant the government of the commons by the nobles, i.e., the un-armed by the armigerous.

Then two kinds of revolutions shook up the old regime. One was that of the French Revolution and its statist imitations, which obliterated the nobility: all persons were to be citoyens. Rule was by a cadre of political managers, in whom resided all powers of violent coercion. This produced the modern European state.

The other kind of revolution was the American. In this revolution (if I have Cottrol right) hereditary classes were abolished by declaring all men intrinsically noble. Thus all men were rightfully armigerous. Thus the right to bear arms was not to be infringed -- any more than the right to a trial or the right to free speech was to be infringed. The result was a distinctively American refusal to regard one's governors as one's superiors. An associate at a Washington law firm once told me that a Chinese intern at the same firm confessed her perplexity that many Americans criticized President Clinton so harshly and vocally. When told this was common she replied, "But why does the government let them?" Now that's the voice of the statist.

We see the divide very clearly in the way the decisions made by the European Union are enforced in the member countries. When the state has determined that a personal liberty is to be curtailed, the presumption is that the citizen who resists is in the wrong. Even if a reprieve is granted -- think of the two years given the Catholic Church in the U.K. to come to terms with gay adoption -- that reprieve is viewed not as a right but as a favor bestowed by the state, and at the state's pleasure. In the U.S., though it's becoming yearly less true, government initiatives to curtail freedoms are viewed as wrong until proven otherwise. We the people, to the extent that we still have a say in matter, are less inclined than statists simply to roll over and take it from the government.

Many people will scoff at the "nobility" of an armigerous Nebraskan farm hand with his gun rack hanging in his pick-up. They prefer their nobles more -- dare we say it? -- European. Like the Europeans, they'll be shaking their heads at the Virginia Tech massacre and sniffing, "if the proper laws and proper enforcement were in place, this never would have happened." In the final analysis there's no reply to this, because it declares a difference of first principles. Sure, we can point to the backpack bombing in gun-free Madrid, and we can ask why a maniac with a match and a coffee can filled with gasoline can't out-Columbine Columbine, but it in the end it's a question of -- when civil amity breaks down to the point that coercive force is necessary -- which armiger we want on the business end of the arms. I'll take the Nebraskan in the Dodge Ram.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 32 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Apr. 23, 2007 8:39 AM ET USA

    geocar, get this straight: You said, "However, in the Port Arthur Massacre, Martin Bryant killed 35. Not a good record for Australia to have". The Port Arthur massacre took place before Australia enacted strict gun control laws in which millions of guns were called in and destroyed and it was made much more difficult for all (including the loopy ones) to get a gun. We haven't had any trouble since. America, wake up! You don't need the Second Amendment anymore.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2007 7:12 AM ET USA

    In the case of Virginia, the militia issue is a non-issue: ยง 44-1 of the Code of Virginia states, "The militia of the Commonwealth of Virginia shall consist of all able-bodied citizens of this Commonwealth and all other able-bodied persons resident in this Commonwealth...who are at least sixteen years of age and...not more than fifty-five years of age...The militia shall be divided into...the national guard, Virginia Defense Force, naval militia and the unorganized militia."

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 8:06 PM ET USA

    There were a number of heroes @ VT who, if they had access to a firearm, could likely have ended the slaughter before the total killed rose as high as it did. Those heroes appear to be responsible people who would only have used a firearm as a last resort. However, they were deprived of that opportunity and, thus, we will never know for sure. God Bless the deceased, the injured, their families and friends.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 7:29 PM ET USA

    "Where is the armed citizen who could have stopped this killer?" The law abiding gun owner could not bring a gun onto campus because it was against the law. The killer bore no such pain in his conscience. Gun control laws work wonders, don't they?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 6:05 PM ET USA

    Not to belabor this point but the right to bear arms is that of the individual and the introductory clause about the state malitias explains why it was necessary in the eyes of the supporters of the 2nd amendment to insist on that point. However it is not obfuscation to insist that there is a difference between a mass killing weapon and one needed for self defense. It is a moral question not one of constitutional law. If any weapon can be used to defend oneself why not a nuke?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 4:59 PM ET USA

    "I presume the formulation originated from his speechwriters or prep crew." Your presumption is presumptious. Reagan had honed his views on government long before he became President. As he flew around the country making speeches on free enterprise for his sponsor, GE, he at on the airplane and wrote them himself in longhand on yellow tablets. A few years ago those yellow tablets were discovered and transcribed in book form, and they are full of such well-formulated gems. No speechwriter needed

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 4:45 PM ET USA

    You must ignore the writings of those who actually implemented the Second Amendment to claim that the readiness of militias was the primary reason for it. The consistent theme throughout their commentaries is that the individual citizen had a right to remain armed so that his own government would be hesitant in attempting to take away his other liberties. And lumping everything from .22's to nukes is obfuscation, used to paint opponents as rabid peddlers of violence.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 12:44 PM ET USA

    All states had malitias and the new federal government had no army. Since every man needed a weapon should he be called into state malitia service his right to keep and bear arms was guaranteed in the 2nd Amdt. It did not depend on being in active malitia service. The right can't be taken away without amending the Constitution. I only need a weapon in proportion to my need. A rifle, yes, But firing 500 rounds a minute? If massive force is OK maybe I could use a nuke if I had one.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 11:56 AM ET USA

    Bottom Line: The ruiling prohibiting the bringing of firearms onto campus prevented only those who obey such rulings from doing so. The only actual (as opposed to feel-good, head-in-the-sand) result was the disarming of those who might have been able to prevent some of the slaughter. Also: The Second Amendment has nothing at all to do with hunting, and the "dispute" over its intended restriction to militias is a very recent invention by those wanting to disarm us.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 8:42 AM ET USA

    It's appalling that practicing Catholics would even consider surrendering their rights, especially a right as significant as the 2nd amendment, to the state. For those of you so oppsed to certain guns how firm would your principles remain if I had to use them in your defense? Would you say no, please I only wish to be defended by a small handgun? This is a far greater issue than just guns folks. Wake up! The wolves are at our door; I will be a sheepdog, not a sheep.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 7:41 AM ET USA

    One man, armed only with a handgun, goes into two buildings, kills over 30, wounds over 30, and is stopped only by his own hand. This looks like sheep being slaughtered. Where is the armed citizen who could have stopped this killer? Prior to the Second Coming, there will always be predators. For these predators, the first line of defense will always be the people being threatened. One can assume that it is the rare predator who will wait to begin his attack until he sees the police.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 5:44 AM ET USA

    Cupertino, You might consider that mass killers and terrorists have never paid a lot of attention to gun laws. Secondly, that there are a plethora of gun laws on the federal and state books (passed by pandering politicians)that are not rigorously enforced. So, more of the same are of questionable value. And third, your interpretation of the Constitutional right to bear arms being limited to militias is widely disputed, most recently by federal courts in overturning a DC gun prohibition.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 5:06 AM ET USA

    Relax: just before his Press Conference on Virginia Tech, the President's Press Secretary stated that all Americans have the right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment. What did Jesus do when Peter drew his sword and cut off an ear?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 4:32 AM ET USA

    Having fired thousands of rounds, Cupertino, I can assure you that a 9mm is a legitimate weapon for self defense, and only a fool, or a man who has chained the doors behind him, would seek to cause mass murder with a pistol-it is simply too inefficient. A rifle on full auto is much better for the job.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2007 4:08 AM ET USA

    Why the backhand to Reagan? "I presume the formulation originated from his speechwriters or prep crew." Even liberal historians reading his personal, handwritten correspondence and radio addresses have conceded that - contrary to liberal revisionism - he really was a deep thinker. Gosh, heck, I just thought he was an actor who costarred with a monkey, yuck yuck.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 11:43 PM ET USA

    No doubt we can keep and bear arms. The Second amendment recognized this right because every state needed a militia to maintain order and all men were members of their state malitia in those days. But I can't connect this right with the possession of weapons for mass killing. These aren't used for hunting and are not needed for self protection. Morally self defense justifies having a weapon appropriate to that purpose and the weapons used in this slaughter are for mass destruction in combat.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 10:24 PM ET USA

    Sterling, you might want to consider Kosovo and the Balkans in your calculus.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 8:52 PM ET USA

    I ask this with an open-mind - I really want to know. My question may not rest on "first principles," but here t'is: Does it matter at all that Europe hasn't lost so many people from gun-wielding maniacs and fiends? I don't think we can deny Europe has had far fewer gun bloodbaths than we have. So does that fact enter into this discussion at all? Or is it just entirely irrelevant? If so, why? Also, if outlawing guns means only outlaws get guns, why is that not the case in Europe. Thanks!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 6:48 PM ET USA

    The hackneyed "debate" after something inexplicable like this has become so predictable that I hardly pay attention. More guns would have "prevented" the massacre, more control would have accomplished the same goal. Does the media "encourage" striking acts of violence by covering them so prominently? And so it goes, to quote a recently-deceased writer. (84 years old and a chain smoker. But that's another topic.) There should be a DSM-IV diagnosis for the shooter: homicidal maniac.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 6:11 PM ET USA

    Australia has a Constitution, which is an Act of the British Parliament. Australia had no revolution. Australians don't have the 'right to bear arms'. However, in the Port Arthur Massacre, Martin Bryant killed 35. Not a good record for Australia to have. A rogue individual can undermine any system. carpark711

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 6:11 PM ET USA

    A Good Man is Hard to Find

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 6:11 PM ET USA

    Ours is a contitution that proscribes very specific and limited powers to the state. Our national ancestors were also suspicious enough of government to required 10 specific rights bestowed upon the citizenry; specific that the government could not become confused as to the limitations imposed upon it. Yearly we seem to confuse those limitations. It began to seriously erode in the FDR administration and has only accelerated. Consider the "hammer" which the "commerce clause" has become!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 5:50 PM ET USA

    The freedom to bear arms... does this have to include hand guns and AK 47s? Are the latter hunting rifles? How many death by guns are there in Europe? Talk about knee jerk reactions. The gun lobby also has knee jerk reactions. Virtus stat in media res.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 5:30 PM ET USA

    From the Roanoke Times, 1/31/06: A bill that would have given college students and employees the right to carry handguns on campus died with nary a shot being fired in the [VA] General Assembly. Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker was happy to hear the bill was defeated. "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus."

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 3:57 PM ET USA

    Speculation about motive for the VT killings may or may not be accurate. The killer is dead. He won't be talking. Every "know it all" may therefore advance a reason and a solutiuon with impunity. The killer exercised the ultimate choice using free will. Even God does not legislate against that. God does legislate against such choices. Perhaps, following the Ten Commandments needs to be stressed by society. Law enforcement is mostly reactive. They can't be blamed for an individual's choice.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 3:37 PM ET USA

    This is one of the best explanations of the American Constitutional system I've seen in a long time. As a practicing attorney for over 30 years, it's pleasant to see our basic American principles so clearly enunciated.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 2:26 PM ET USA

    Bulls-eye. So few will look at what happened in Blacksburg as an unfortunate but vital part of American constitutional government. Any time the state bans a citizen from bearing arms, the result is tyranny-witness the gun registrations in France prior to WWII-once the Germans marched in, they only needed to consult the records in the local gendarmerie to know who was packing. The US is going down the same slippery slope. And this ties in with the rest of the liberal agenda. God help us.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 2:13 PM ET USA

    Hmmm. But I thought the school had declared itself a "gun free zone," thereby preventing anything like this from happening. And last year they did prevent the law-abiding student with the legal concealed-carry permit from bringing that evil gun onto campus. And I'm sure that their solution will be to further restrict the freedom of the law-abiding to protect themselves from those who laugh at their laws and silly, feel-good resolutions.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 1:54 PM ET USA

    If there would have been a few Tech students practicing their second amendment rights there would not have been a massacare.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 1:52 PM ET USA

    The erosion of our own civil liberties and morality (which our liberties are based) is precisely because those elected to power do not understand the full scope and responsibility of their roles. They are more interested in reading and measuring opinion polls than determining what is right and what is truth. Our form of government is a god given gift that should be treated as such, not as tool to further the asperations of the politco. God help us all.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 1:50 PM ET USA

    Our leftist media elites play politics whenever they can. Rather than examining the reasons which motivated him in these senseless killings they rush toward restricting freedom and fostering state control. Perhaps if a few more people were armed at VT this murdered might have been stopped. Europeans, in general, have become a feckless bunch when it comes to protecting themselves from Islamic terrorism just as they have squandered their Catholic and Christian heritages.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2007 1:38 PM ET USA

    Excellent summary of American freedom. As in Deuteronomy 30, man is offered the choice, as an individual, to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. And each man is answerable to God for his compliance or rejection of this command. The America system, wisely considered and crafted by our founding fathers, did not place the state bewteen the moral decisions of man and God--it made the state answerable to man as a God fearing and endowed individual.