Friday, January 11, 2013

"Assault rifles"

I just saw a debate between Ben Shapiro and Piers Morgan:

 Shapiro handily won the debate, despite the fact that he was arguing at a disadvantage inasmuch as Morgan artificially restricted the discussion to “assault rifles.” In addition, Shapiro is handicapped by a poor speaking voice. But he can think on his feet. He won on points, not presentation.

Shapiro defended the right to own semiautomatic “assault rifles” on Constitutional grounds. According to him (and he’s a Harvard Law grad), the original intent of the 2nd amendment was to furnish a deterrent against tyrannical gov’t. I’d like to briefly discuss that.

In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t own an “assault rifle,” so I don’t have a stake in this particular debate. Likewise, I’m not a member of the NRA.

i) People like Morgan think the deterrent argument is delusional. The stuff of tinfoil fanatics.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that that’s a wildly unrealistic scenario. Suppose that rationale is obsolete.

Even in that case, it’s not unreasonable for Shapiro to defend the 2nd amendment on those terms. Even if (ex hypothesi) the 2nd amendment has outlived its utility, that doesn’t mean the state has the right to set it aside. The reason conservatives defend the Constitution is not out of blind allegiance to a bunch of dead men who wrote a piece of paper in the 18C. Rather, conservatives defend the Constitution because the Constitutional rule of law protects us from tyrannical gov’t. We uphold the Constitution as a matter of self-interest. Self-defense. By defending the Constitution, we defend our liberty. Even assuming the 2nd amendment is obsolete, that’s a judgment to be made by voters and their elective representatives through the process of Constitutional amendment.

ii) In addition, I think many gun-owners oppose a ban on “assault rifles” because they regard that as an incrementalist strategy. You start by banning and confiscating “assault rifles.” But that’s just the first step. That’s a wedge issue. That becomes legal or judicial leverage to extend the ban. A fatal precedent.

iii) But let’s revisit the original rationale. Is that delusional? If gov’t were moving in a totalitarian direction, wouldn’t disarming the general public, so that only the military, police, or secret police, had guns, make it much easier to control the populace? Wouldn’t that be a logical and practical preliminary? It’s a lot easier to police a defenseless population. Where one side has all the firepower.

iv) There’s also a distinction between the deterrent value of the 2nd amendment, and the effectiveness of an armed citizenry to actively repel gov’t tyranny– if that were to transpire. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that armed citizens would be no match for the US military if it came down to an all-out fight. That doesn’t mean the 2nd amendment would have no deterrent value in preventing the situation from escalating to that point. Gov’t officials who might be otherwise inclined to impose totalitarian gov’t on the masses would also have to consider whether that’s worth the risk of civil war. Even if, after the dust settles, the military won, that might be far too destructive to the physical and economic infrastructure of the country to justify the ruinous cost. If you take a city by destroying the city, you win by losing what made the city valuable in the first place.

v) Whether or not the military would win depends on the scale of the insurrection, and how far a dictator would be prepared to go. What’s the ratio of soldiers to insurgents in our hypothetical scenario? Is the dictator prepared to bomb cities?

vi) In addition, American soldiers usually have American parents, siblings, spouses, and friends. There’s a limit to how far the US military would go. Mutiny (or worse) would be a danger if the dictator gave extreme orders.

Obviously I’m discussing a very extreme scenario. But since that’s how the debate has been framed, it’s useful to consider the worst-case scenario. To take the alternatives to their logical extremes.


  1. Let's not forget that while most people don't need an AR-15 to protect themselves, if I owned a ranch on the border with Mexico, I would certainly want to have one.

    1. Good point, since the Federal gov't as well as border state politicians often refuse to protect homeowners from incursions by the Mexican Mafia et al.

  2. Let's not forget store owners protecting their property and homeowners their family's lives after a natural disaster or civil unrest, say, during the LA riots. In some of those situations I would certainly prefer to have something that can quickly fire off 30 rounds if needed and not just 10 before having to change a clip.