Monday, 17 December 2012

An Armed Society Is Not Free

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

So runs the Second Amendment of the US constitution. This is the reason that firearms are freely available in the United States. If, like me, you believe that the ready availability of guns enables tragedies like what happened on Friday, then you must be willing to seriously address the moral arguments for a gun owning society.

The US was founded by an armed revolution against an undemocratic government. The Americans won their freedom by fighting for it, a fact that was recognised by George Washington in his 1790 State of the Union Address. The “well regulated militia” referenced in the Second Amendment were the armed Americans which he had led to freedom. If they had not been armed then they would still be subject to tyranny. It seemed logical that US freedom depended on this ‘common defence’ against overbearing government.

It is 2012. The time has come to make the case that the conditions which required an armed society no longer hold true. This is not because the idea of freedom is no longer important. It is because an armed society is impinging on the freedom of its members, who cannot in any meaningful sense be said to have a defence against their government through their possession of small arms, yet must live in fear of the consequences of mass gun ownership.

Consider the weapons that are available to US citizens. In some jurisdictions it is legal to own fully automatic assault weapons (e.g. the Colt M-4). These weapons are devastating in a school, or in a cinema. But does anybody seriously think that they provide any form of defence against the means available to the US government? The last US citizens who tried to find out were the Branch Davidians at Waco in 1993. Small arms were of no use against armoured vehicles. In the modern world, freedom from overbearing government can only come from democratic control of that government by the governed. There are no other realistic means available.     

In 1941, in a speech which echoed round the world, President Roosevelt defined freedom by four simple points. Free people can worship as they please, speak as they wish, live without the ravages of deprivation and be free from fear. Yet today it is fear which stalks the United States. The fear felt by parents who leave their children at the school gates, knowing that others who have done the same never saw their children again. The attempt to ensure a free society by arming its members has reached the point where the freedom of those members is actually diminished. Seen from this perspective, gun control is consistent with US liberty. We can only hope that this can be recognised before the next mass killing.       

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