This essay seeks to reclaim a serious argument
from the lunatic fringe. We argue a connection exists between the
restrictiveness of a country's civilian weapons policy and its liability to
commit genocide upon its own people. This notion has received a
good deal of disdainful public attention over the past several years because of
the Oklahoma City bombing, the "Republic of Texas" siege, and the inflamed
subculture from which the defendants in those incidents emerged. Some Americans,
it appears, believe that their country is on the verge--if not in the grip--of a
virtual coup by a sinister international directorate of Jews, one-worlders, and
Trilateralists. For them, acting on this belief means arming oneself and
confronting representatives of government with distrust, if not open hostility.
By now it is widely appreciated that people with this particular fixation can be
extremely dangerous. Yet their delusions take a special bitterness from the fact
that something real and terrifying, the problem of genocide, lies in the general
direction of their paranoia.
The question of genocide is one of manifest
importance in the closing years of a century that has been extraordinary for the
quality and quantity of its bloodshed. As Elie Wiesel has rightly pointed out,
"This century is the most violent in recorded history. Never have so many people
participated in the killing of so many people."
Recent events in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and many other parts of the
world make it clear that the book has not yet been closed on the evil of
official mass murder. Contemporary scholars have little explored the
preconditions of genocide. Still less have they asked whether a society's
weapons policy might be one of the institutional arrangements that contributes
to the probability of its government engaging in some of the more extreme
varieties of outrage. Though it is a long step between being disarmed and being
murdered--one does not usually lead to the other--but it is nevertheless an
arresting reality that not one of the principal genocides of the twentieth
century, and there have been dozens, has been inflicted on a population that was
Nor should this be altogether surprising. An
armed population is simply more difficult to exterminate than one that is
defenseless. This is not to say that the plans of a government resolved to
eradicate an ethnic or political minority would necessarily be precluded by
armed resistance. As elsewhere in life, raising the cost of a behavior, whether
genocide, smoking cigarettes or anything in between, merely makes that behavior
more unusual than it would otherwise be, not impossible for those willing and
able to pay the price. No specific form of social organization will ever make
genocide or any other evil literally impossible. Nevertheless, because most
important questions are matters of degree, it is still worth inquiring into the
connection between the virulence of a government and the degree of its effective
monopoly on deadly force. And it is especially timely to do so now, in the wake
of Oklahoma City, the "Republic of Texas" incident, and the increased public
attention these have brought to the enigmatic civic denominations from which
these plots evidently emerged, because now the philosophical and historical
context that links genocide with the state of civilian arms has tended to become
Barry Bruce-Briggs pointed out a generation
ago that public controversy surrounding weapons control laws degenerates into
the venting of raw antagonisms between various factions more often than it
matures into creditable public policy research.
What gets lost in the contest is a sense of those points that are actually in
dispute and those that are not. Virtually every gun control partisan in this
country is, like the typical gun owner,
a peaceable, educated member of the middle class who wants to put a stop to the
mindless violence that has engulfed the streets of American cities.
However, the convictions of gun controllers do
differ from those of gun owners in several important ways. First, they make
different estimates about the usefulness of firearms for defensive and deterrent
purposes. Second, they often differ in how they appraise the morality of using
violence against violence. Third and perhaps most important, they are inclined
to make very different guesses about how much potential for evil to ascribe to
the government of the United States. Few if any of those who are hostile to the
institution of an armed civilian populace consider the possibility that our
government, with its Constitution, its checks and balances, and its traditions
of free speech, civility, and respect for the individual, could ever degenerate
into the sort of pitiless totalitarian instrument that has, at one time or
another, afflicted most of the peoples of the Old and Third Worlds. The question
is whether to label this attitude serenity or insouciance. Whichever it is, the
fact remains that from time to time, genocides and other extreme forms of
tyranny do occur, even in the midst of high civilization.
In our view, the failure to acknowledge the
prospect of rogue government represents a serious failure of imagination.
Trusting in the free press and the right to petition government to redress
grievances, firearms abolitionists do not envision a world in which satanic
rather than benevolent bureaucrats possess the effective monopoly of the means
of force. Their gaze is not on more-or-less probable future worlds in which
civil atrocities could become just one more idiom of political discourse, but on
the world here and now, where criminals and lunatics find it all too easy to
acquire powerful weapons and reasons to use them.
We argue that there is a great deal more to
weapons policy than some sort of cost-benefit calculation of firearms' crime
control benefits versus public health costs. The larger point, that no one who
has lived through the greater part of the twentieth century may conscientiously
disregard, is that sometimes people in power behave like Stalin, Hitler, Pol
Pot, or Mao Zedong rather than like President Clinton. Of course public policy
must acknowledge that exceptional brutality is indeed exceptional rather than
commonplace. But it is senseless to pretend that what has happened many times
before cannot possibly happen again. Sound policy makes allowances for even
remote contingencies when they are grave enough, and denies opportunity to
predators whenever it can.
Hence, notwithstanding that it is hindsight,
one may well reproach the liberal, democratic Weimar Republic and its successors
for disarming the German people in the hope of taking back the streets from the
right- and left-wing brawlers of the 1920s and 1930s. National Socialists had
nothing to do with these firearms confiscations, but once in office, it suited
them that Germany's laws left decisions concerning gun ownership to the
administrative discretion of police or military authorities. The Nazis made only
two important changes to the Weapons Law that was in place when they came to
power. First, they forbade Jews from owning guns or any other weapon. Second,
they exempted members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) and many Nazi party officials
from the law's strictures.
GUN CONTROL AND GENOCIDE
In contrast to most other weaponry, firearms
are preeminently defensive in effect. Combat carried on barehanded or with
swords, pikes, clubs and the like, generally results in the weaker, less
numerous party surrendering whatever their adversary demands, what Spencer
called the "ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong."
However, defenders armed with guns can often repulse a numerically stronger
aggressor who possess only lesser weapons.
When all parties have guns, the defensive advantage of firearms diminishes but
does not give way altogether. Firearms, even in the hands of the weak, pose a
credible threat of death if fired. Consequently there remains a deterrent effect
against aggression which is far greater than that of manual weapons only. And
even if both aggressor and defender have guns, an attack carries a far greater
risk of death than if both were armed with weapons other than firearms. Of
course it is easy to imagine circumstances in which the prospective cost of
aggression may be very low despite the fact that the victim has a gun--for
example, attack by ambush. On the other hand, the presence of firearms on both
sides of a contest often allows weaker victims to overcome aggressors without
significant loss to themselves. For instance, marauders attacking a house or
town have often been defeated by a far outnumbered party of defenders armed with
guns, whereas hand-to-hand combat invariably favors the stronger company.
When victims have guns, the overwhelming
advantage otherwise enjoyed by physically superior or more numerous aggressors
is diminished. One (usually unintended) consequence of an effective ban on
citizen firearms ownership is to weaken the weak and strengthen the strong
relative to one another. It is not embellishment to call this effect a "cause"
of genocide, because it foreseeably expedites this outcome by lowering the costs
of predation. In practical effect, moreover, the matter is even more stark,
because gun bans are never universal. By definition they do not operate on
people whom government illegally supplies with guns such as government
To summarize: from the point of view of any
aggressor, it is desirable if not essential that intended victims not possess
weapons, especially firearms. This principle holds true whether the subject is a
gangster premeditating a crime or a government planning a genocide. This is an
inherently dangerous incentive structure. It seems to us indefensible to fail to
acknowledge its potential for mischief even if at the end of the day one decides
that "tyranny" is too remote an evil, and an armed citizenry as a means of
avoiding this evil too feeble, to repay its cost in accidental or unjustifiable
bloodshed. We discuss these questions presently, but we turn first to a
It is a controversial point whether, in the
circumstances of modern life, private persons should ever be conceded a
privilege to shed blood. As we discuss below, the common law as well as the
statutes of every state permit the private use of deadly force when necessary
for self-protection. However, it appears to be the considered view of many
reputable people that this forbearance is obsolete if not depraved. Furthermore,
many gun owners seem to support keeping firearms less as a crime-fighting tool
than as a political statement about individual sovereignty and the value of
self-rule. It is therefore necessary to elucidate the legal and moral status
both of fearful householders and proto-insurrectionists who assert the right to
SELF-DEFENSE AND BARBARISM
A preoccupation with stripping civilians of
military weaponry, including even some utterly cosmetic attributes of military
arms, is one of the dominant ideological strains in the American gun control
movement. The idea is that defensive firearms ownership by laymen is alienating
and dangerous, and therefore must be banned as part of what has been called the
"civilizing process." Garry Wills, one of the country's most
distinguished historians, has argued
Mutual protection should be the aim of citizens, not individual
self-protection. Until we are willing to outlaw the very existence or
manufacture of handguns we have no right to call ourselves citizens or
consider our behavior even minimally civil. There is something obscene about a
person's appeal to our basic social contract to justify [this] anti-social
behavior [i.e., defensive gun ownership].
It is questionable, however, whether
individual and collective defense can be divided so nicely. The idea of general
deterrence often assumes that these values are intertwined: "my safety" and "the
community's safety" overlap substantially. Vindicating the rights of individuals
by force means imposing costs on a wrongdoer; placing oneself in a position to
put wrongdoers at risk benefits private citizens by ensuring individual security
and the public by making wrongdoing more costly. Yet on the commanding heights of our popular
culture there remains an abiding reserve of disbelief in the notion that private
and public security might be connected. In fact, just the opposite principle is
widely accepted. For example, Betty Friedan has called the trend of women buying
guns "a horrifying, obscene perversion of feminism." She believes "that lethal violence even in
self-defense only engenders more lethal violence and that gun control should
override any personal need for safety."
The Board of Church and Society of the United
Methodist Church takes the point a step further, stating that women have a
Christian duty to submit to rape rather than do anything that might imperil the
rapist's life. "Is the Robber My Brother?" the Board's official publication asks
rhetorically, to which it rhetorically answers "yes": although the burglary
victim or the "woman accosted in the park by a rapist is not likely to consider
the violator to be a neighbor whose safety is of immediate concern . . . ,
[c]riminals are members of the larger community no less than are others. As such
they are our neighbors or, as Jesus put it, our brothers. . . ." (Let it be noted that the Board is the founder of
the Coalition to Stop Gun violence, formerly known as the National Coalition to
Ban Handguns, the country's premier anti-gun advocacy group, with which it still
If individual and collective security are
antithetical, if violence does in fact beget more violence, if the welfare of
wrongdoers and innocents occupy the same moral footing, then it follows that
firearms, and for that matter weapons of any kind, should not be used for self
defense. They should be used, if at all, for recreation, and security concerns
should be left in the hands of professionals. As James Brady, the White House
Press Secretary shot during John Hinckley's attempt on President Reagan's life,
told an interviewer (in response to the question whether any handguns should be
considered permissible): "For target shooting, that's okay. . . . Get a license
and go to the range. For defense of the home, that's why we have police
departments." His wife, Handgun Control, Inc., chairperson
Sarah Brady, says "the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting
purposes." One of the earliest and most active anti-gun
organizers, University of Chicago Pritzker Medical School Professor Robert
Replogle, has testified to Congress in a similar manner: "The only legitimate
use of a handgun that I can understand is for target shooting."
To lawyers steeped in the defense-privileging
traditions of common law, these accounts of right conduct seem curious, so lest
they be considered mere offhand remarks rather than a thought-out view of the
matter, we quote Professor Wills as to why "individual self protection" is in
and of itself a form of "anti-social behavior": "Every civilized society must
disarm its citizens against each other. Those who do not trust their own people
become predators upon their own people. The sick thing is that haters of fellow
Americans often think of themselves as patriots."
Professor Wills, resonating the views of a
large and influential constituency, asserts that not seeking to possess the
means of self-defense is a defining element of civilized life. Good citizens
should depend instead on the military and police for their physical safety. The
mere desire to defend hearth and home counts "among the worst instincts in the
human character." The ownership of firearms for defensive purposes
is "vigilantism," a usurpation by citizens of what should be the
exclusive prerogative of the collective power, "anarchy, not order under law--a
jungle where each relies on himself for survival." It follows, many gun control activists argue,
that there ought to be a national gun licensing program, which would assign to
whomever sought to own a gun a burden of explaining the reason. The need or
desire to defend oneself or one's neighbors would not be counted as an
acceptable reason to own a firearm.
If these views are driven by a pacifist
phenomenology (e.g., "violence only begets violence"), one hesitates to offer
criticism because they are planted more firmly in faith than in empiricism. In
the empirical world, however, what one finds is irregular and more complicated.
Defensive violence does sometimes seem to provoke an attacker to commit more
violence, but not always and not usually. Quite often violence subdues violence.
It is apparent, for example, that when intended victims resist robbers or
rapists with firearms, they are only half as likely to be injured as those who
submit, and are much less likely to be robbed or raped. There is evidence also that the mere prospect of
encountering an armed victim deters criminal attack, and that criminals who encounter armed victims
usually run away without a shot being fired. Hence it is overdrawn to say that violence is
wrong (or "obscene") without reference to whether violence is lawful or
unlawful. Even so, Professor Wills's argument denies that such a distinction is
meaningful. Because he sees defense of self and others as a literal
contradiction, the choice of "self" comes at the expense of "others," and
amounts to barbarism. However, it is far from obvious that any such
contradiction exists. When a police officer uses lawful violence to subdue
unlawful violence, one does not think of barbarism. Why should it be any
different if a civilian does the same?
A more troubling aspect of Wills's position,
however, is that it gives little weight to the dark side of the communitarian
force of radical whose temperate side Professor Wills has been among our
country's foremost champions. Time after time in recent history this dark side
has materialized to assert that the demands of community, Volk, party,
state, tribe, race, or some other collective abstraction, should be placed
before those of any individual. It does not disparage democratic government to
question whether the authentic road to a gentle life is one on which only sworn
officers of the state are entitled to arms. The counterexamples to this
proposition are too pointed to ignore. Trust of "the law . . . your
representatives . . . your fellow citizens," uplifting though it sounds, has
furnished scant consolation to tens of millions of victims of official terror.
Quite evidently some balancing principle is required. Finding this balance, far
from being the hobbyhorse of right-wing lunatics, has actually been one of the
central projects of Western political philosophy.
It is hardly a secret that lawful governments
sometimes do grotesque things, quite often to popular acclaim. One thinks, for
example, of the Kristallnacht. On November 9, 1937, German mobs
perpetrated a nationwide "spontaneous uprising" against the Jews, assaulting and
killing hundreds of people, smashing shops and homes, burning synagogues, and
inflicting losses of over one billion Reichmarks. The constitutional government of that place--what
in some theories would be called the "virtual representatives" of the Jews--immediately swung into action.
Calculating that one billion Reichsmarks of damage claims might prostrate the
German insurance industry, the government canceled the Jews' insurance coverage
by decree and then fined them one billion Reichsmarks for the nuisance that
resulted from the destruction of their property. Where were the police? "I refuse the notion that
the police are protective troops for Jewish stores," said Hermann Goering, who
was then chief of the German national police. "The police protect whoever comes
into Germany legitimately, but not Jewish usurers."
Though it may be an extreme example, the
Holocaust draws into question precisely the problem of relying exclusively and
simply on "the law . . . your representatives . . . your fellow citizens."
Professor Robert Burt put the matter poignantly:
[H]ow we can rely on our government, on our fellow citizens, on
our neighbors; how we can rely on anyone who today seems at least tolerant,
and maybe even friendly, but tomorrow might turn on us with murderous rage
just because we are Jews or African Americans or Bosnian Muslims or Irish
Protestants or mentally disabled or whatever? [One lesson of the Holocaust may
be] . . . that our government, our neighbors, our friends of today, can
quickly and easily become our assassins of tomorrow.
Professor Burt was not discussing firearms
ownership but the movie Schindler's List; however, his statement of the
problem is convincing. Here we have a feature of the abiding condition of social
human beings. What to do? What did Schindler do when he was finally able to free
"his" Jews? "[H]e handed them all semiautomatic firearms so they could fight the
Nazis"--their lawful government. Was this a
To judge from Professor Wills's appreciation
of the problem, one might suppose that the primary axis of disagreement between
the argument for popular armament versus popular disarmament is one of social
values--a dispute pitting quixotic and not altogether civilized
cowboys-postulant (or the sexually anxious or "angry white males" or some other
condescending stereotype) against the virtuous forces of orderly social life.
The planted assumption is that an armed
society is a violent society, and a disarmed society is a non-violent society.
This premise is empirically shaky and philosophically incomplete. It does not in
fact pose what is genuinely a contest of norms--martial values versus the values
of peace--but a contest between different understandings of social cause and
effect. Furthermore, it makes the mistake of assuming that an armed population
exemplifies "an implicit declaration of war on one's neighbor."
There is no serious argument for
conflict-filled life as a social ideal. The argument for a widely armed
citizenry holds the opposite ideal: a social equilibrium of nonviolence.
"Individualists," "communitarians" and "none of the above" should all be able to
agree at a minimum on this much: it is an empirical question what distribution
of firearms does in fact tend to social peace. It is not in fact true that a
world without guns must be a world without violence. Nonviolence was not the
characteristic state of the world before there were guns, and it is not the characteristic state of the
world now in places where access to guns is practically or legally restricted.
The absence of firearms is not inconsistent
with orderly public life, nor is it a necessary or a sufficient condition of
social peace. It is a condition that can and sometimes does lend itself to
catastrophe. Whether one considers the matter abstractly as one of theory or
concretely as one of experience, universal disarmament in the municipal sphere
is no more an encouraging road to communal amity and concord than universal
disarmament in an international sphere is an antidote to war.
It is tendentious, moreover, to insist that
"individualist" and "communitarian" ideas are antithetical with respect to
civilian armament. The argument for an armed citizenry is not to further the
project of making of war on one's neighbor with arms but to cooperate with one's
neighbor in the use of arms. The Constitution's Second Amendment, for example,
is decidedly of this cast of mind. As the Supreme Court has recognized, the
Second Amendment contemplates that the militia--"all males physically capable of
acting in concert for the common defense"--will, when called,
"appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the
The peculiar utility of firearms is to make
the weak relatively stronger, to deter attack by raising its potential cost, and
to lower the expected cost of altruistic interventions. Curiously, these
propositions are completely uncontroversial applied to police, which is why we
allow, and often require, police officers to carry guns. The question is why the same reasoning should not
apply to the population generally. The usual answer to this question is that an
armed citizenry would mistake every bush for a bear, every stranger's
unexplained movement for a threat, and would shoot indiscriminately. The whole
world would become a shooting gallery, as in the Wild West of the
penny-dreadfuls. We now turn to considering the plausibility of this line of
AT AN ACCEPTABLE COST?
Even if an armed populace serves as a
deterrent to the most extreme abuses of state power, it would still be rational
policy to disarm the people if the benefits of doing so outweighed the costs.
Tyranny, after all, though a very great evil, is one that lies dormant in a
possible future and does not subsist today. The cost of tyranny must be
discounted by the probability of its occurrence. Accidents with firearms and
ordinary wrongdoing--murders, suicides, robberies and so on--are lesser evils
than genocide, but unlike some atrocity-prone government of the imaginable
future, they are not contingent, but with us in the here and now. Accordingly,
it is necessary to give some account the role the availability of firearms plays
in rendering America, in comparison to many other parts of the world, a wild and
In recent years this question has been the
central one in gun control debates. The subject is far too involved to allow
adequate treatment here, but a few words are necessary. The organized American medical profession in
particular has sought to establish as a fact beyond serious conversation that
guns "cause" high murder and suicide rates in much the same way that cigarettes
"cause" lung cancer. In this endeavor, they have been abetted by the
indefatigable sagecraft of most of the nation's principal newspapers, few if any
of which have ever acknowledged the legitimacy of civilian firearms possession
for other than recreational activities. Nevertheless, despite periodic outbursts
of press-release advocacy announcing that the latest science from the scientists
at such-and-such university has at last established that firearms are indeed the
proximate cause of a horrific public health crisis, the conversation continues.
The causes of crime and suicide are not
completely understood. Undeniably, the murder rate in this country (both
perpetration and victimization) increased rapidly among teenagers, especially
among minorities, from 1983 to 1992. However, firearms are not "more accessible" to
today's adolescents than they were to yesterday's. In fact, until 1968 anyone in
this country could readily mail-order Army surplus .45 automatic
pistols, German Lugers, high-powered semi-automatic rifles, or even trench
mortars and bazookas, along with ammunition for all. Munitions of all sorts
other than fully automatic weapons (which have been banned since the mid-1930s)
could be purchased anonymously by anyone who would check a box on a mailing
coupon that said "I am 21 years old or older." Despite this laisser faire
regime, in the twenty years following the end of World War II, America's crime
rates, including its murder rate, were much lower than today.
Although firearms are not more "accessible"
today than in the past, they are certainly more numerous. The increase in the
civilian stock of firearms, and handguns in particular, has been continuous for
generations. Of course a number of countries with tight legal
restrictions on civilians' access to firearms, in particular England and Japan,
enjoy very low murder rates. Yet it is also true that some other countries
with similarly exacting restrictions (for example Mexico, South Africa, and
Russia) have very high murder rates. Furthermore, some countries with civilian
firearms access comparable to or even greater than that in the United States
(such as Switzerland, Israel, and New Zealand) have very low murder rates. Some of the highest suicide rates in the world
are found in countries where firearms are hardest to come by, including Japan,
Hungary, and Romania, and some of the lowest suicide rates are found in
sub-populations that suffer from some of the highest murder rates, for example,
African-Americans males between fourteen and thirty-five years of age, which
have relatively easy, though usually unlawful, access to firearms. It weakens any argument for weapons restrictions
if such complexities are not acknowledged and probed to reveal what they might
A recent batch of state legislation, relaxing
the standards for civilians carrying concealed weapons offers yet a further
challenge to the Wild West hypothesis. The experience from the field in these
places seems to disprove the notion that armed civilians behave like movie
cowboys. Thirty-one states have relatively permissive rules regulating the
carrying of concealed handguns, and among them over two million residents
possess concealed permits. Scholars have sharply disagreed whether these laws
have a detectable crime-fighting (that is to say, general deterrent) effect.
John Lott and David Mustard, examining a set of nationwide, county-by-county
data over a period of fifteen years, found large reductions in confrontational
crimes and large increases in non-confrontational crimes associated with the
adoption of these laws. Some other scholars, such as Dan Black and Daniel
Nagin, have argued that the Lott-Mustard results are a statistical artifact: the
claimed deterrent effect operates unevenly from one place to another so that if
one removes the Florida data from the set, the regression equations depicting
the experience of the nation as a whole no longer show a convincing
crime-fighting effect, at least not an immediate one. Whatever the merits of the Black-Nagin point,
however, there is not an obvious attraction to excerpting from nationwide data
the experience of the fourth most populous state. In any case, even Black and
Nagin concede that after a lag of four or more years, there is a strong
correlation between liberalized carry-concealed laws and declining rates of
confrontational crime. Yet rehearsing the intricacies of this ongoing
debate, however, deflects attention from the main point. What is most important
for present purposes, after what must have been millions of additional
person-hours of public gun-toting, is that there has been not a single reported
instance of an "O.K. Corral" scenario involving a lawfully carried concealed
handgun. In fact, jurisdictions with more relaxed concealed-carry laws have
experienced falling murder rates.
This deluge of anomalies in the
firearms-violence causation story bears witness to the complexity of the problem
of violence, but it is safe to say that the problem with firearms in our society
is not a supply-led but rather a demand-led phenomenon. The abuse of firearms by
private citizens is rare except in certain sub-populations and, among the
American population as a whole, is actually declining.
Falling crime rates and increasingly
widespread civilian gun ownership are not only theoretically compatible, but are
currently being seen. In short, the collateral costs associated with having an
armed populace are not necessarily large, and are by no means obviously greater
than the deterrent benefits.
REVOLUTION AND RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY
Locke called tyranny "the exercise of Power
beyond Right," and thought that in some circumstances it gave
rise to a right of revolution. The rendition of this precept into policy is
fraught with difficulty, especially since the Oklahoma City bombing has drawn
public attention to the existence of a number of individuals who possess a
stunning sense of grievance toward the federal government and are content to act
out their fury by shedding the blood of innocents. When one speaks of a
generally armed population making tyranny less probable by making it more
costly, what one has in mind is a credible threat of armed resistance to agents
of the government. This lethal contingency is in fact the very substance of the
Reasoning from the deterrence of tyrants,
therefore, one inescapably encounters the norm that, at least under some
circumstances, it must be permissible to kill soldiers or police officers who
are simply following orders--something like a right of revolution. This
entailment of the argument deservedly poses the highest hurdle to dispassionate
argument about civilian weapons policy. People arming themselves in order to
rebel against the government? We have been down that road before with the
Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Army of yesteryear and the
unhinged survivalists and racial supremacists of the present day. Americans do
not need to be reminded that paramilitary shtick is no passing fad, but the
accustomed fashion statement of the profoundly alienated. There appears to be a
constant supply of people at the margins of society who consider themselves to
be soldiers and patriots who regard their country's government as tyrannical,
its residents expendable, and its institutions of democracy contemptible.
Legislators can hardly be expected to ignore the existence of these individuals
when establishing rules to govern firearms possession and use in society,
because in the contemplation of law, sturdy Jeffersonian yeomen and fey
skinheads stand essentially in the same shoes until they differentiate
themselves by behavior--by which time some life or lives will be beyond saving.
At the same time, however, the question of
what rights people have against a de facto government (even including a
right to revolution) ought not to be resolved, and in any event cannot
practically be resolved, by reference to the proclivities of
three-standard-deviation wackos. The challenge is to articulate some defensible
middle ground that makes sense of an armed population as a deterrent to tyranny
without tacitly shaking hands with domestic terrorists.
It is too much to ask that a constitutional
order be indifferent to armed rebellion. But some recognition must be given to
the possibility that the offices and power of the state are capable of being
used in ways beyond the corrupt or distasteful, ways extreme and completely at
odds with the natural rights the Constitution has always been thought to secure.
Thinking of an armed populace as a deterrent to tyranny should not lead one to
regard violent right- (or left-) wing desperados as patriots rather than
criminals. One should rather think of the problem of lawful government itself
falling to a coup or virtual coup at the hands of the same sort of extremists,
as has happened so often in other places, for example by disaffected military
officers or civilian demagogues with contempt for the substance or even the
forms of democratic conversation.
As we discuss at length below, when such
apprehensions are broached, the usual retort is, "It can't happen here." We ask, why can't it? One reason why such a risk
is low in the American context is our latticework of institutional stops, which
has always included an armed civilian population as one of its elements, that
would make it very difficult for anything like such a project to succeed. Plans
with an obviously poor chance of success are less likely to be laid in the first
place, and will be less likely to attract the collaboration of conspirators.
The essence of deterrence is not, after all,
to deal with trouble once it starts, but to keep it from starting in the first
place. Fair enough to criticize the lout on the next barstool (or for that
matter the teacher in the next classroom) for tirades--common enough in recent
years--against the President, Congress, or the entire political order. But one
cannot reason that an American tyranny is impossible simply from the fact
that overwrought judgments on this subject are commonly and casually made, often
by people who should know enough to weigh their words before speaking. The
principle that justifies armed resistance to tyranny does not equally justify
armed resistance to a government for which one feels mere or even profound
Common law recognizes the right of an innocent
to defend himself or others with force, lethal if necessary, even against
officers of the state. It goes without saying that this right is narrowly
bounded. The common law never considers an amount of force reasonable when a
defender could reasonably use less, nor does it permit the use of deadly force except
when the person seeks to protect himself or someone else from being killed or
subjected to a forcible felony such as rape, robbery or kidnapping. There is
also no privilege to resist a lawful arrest by lethal force or even by
non-violent means such as flight. If an officer possesses a warrant (even if the
warrant should later turn out to be invalid) or if he believes, though
mistakenly, that he has observed a subject committing a crime, arrest is lawful
and resistance unlawful. The officer may use deadly force if necessary to subdue
the suspect and may even shoot a suspect who runs away if there are reasonable
(though mistaken) grounds to fear that the suspect may be dangerous.
The American Law Institute's Model Penal Code
sets out what is undoubtedly the correct rule in the vast majority of cases: a
subject arrested even wrongly by a person whom he knows to be a police officer
must simply surrender. Misunderstandings can be sorted out later with a
magistrate or supervisor. No one needs to get hurt, and unlike the case with
muggers or street criminals, it will almost always be possible for a wronged
suspect at least to identify the officer who supposedly wronged him. The common
law is parsimonious with blood. Immediate, deadly solutions to problems are
forbidden where eventual, verbal solutions might reasonably be substituted.
The rule is different where a subsequent
peaceable solution of a problem is out of the question. If a gang of police
officers mistakenly (or maliciously) surrounds a house and tries to shoot rather
than arrest a suspect, it is in theory lawful for him to defend himself.
Recognizing this proposition involves no more than acknowledging that peace
officers may exceed their own privilege to use deadly force, and that when they
act without privilege, they may be resisted. This is not all an exception to the general
principle, but merely a recognition that sometimes, albeit rarely, an innocent
who does not return fire may be killed before the mistake (or the conspiracy, as
it may be) can be corrected.
The problems that attend the use of deadly
force in this context are ultimately no different from the general legal problem
of defensive force. The privilege arises from necessity and is lawful if used
within reason. The rules of common law depend on the particular and specific
facts of each case, and the concept of due process of law is a broad commitment
to weighing particular and specific facts, in context, before passing judgment
on a person's actions.
It is an esoteric question, one that seldom
finds facts that make it real, whether it is unconditionally the case, as
the Model Penal Code holds, that a person is obliged to yield to what he knows
to be a good-faith effort to arrest him. The most extreme circumstances in which
this question can arise implicate the right of revolution. It may seem
unintelligible to speak of a "right" of revolution arising under a Constitution
meant to establish domestic tranquillity; indeed, revolution is scarcely
coherent with the idea of constitutionalism itself. The Constitution provides
for how it may be amended, and government thus transfigured. Even if Article V
is not the "exclusive" route to amendment that it pretends to be (as some
prominent legal scholars have contended), it would be hard to rationalize "non-peaceable
amendment" in the United States, a democratic concern going well into its third
century of existence. Moreover, the precedent of the Civil War--the War of the
Rebellion as it is officially called--ought to count for something. The
legalistic basis of that war was the supposed right of sovereign states to
withdraw at will from a "union" into which they had originally entered
voluntarily. The war may be argued to have put that claim to rest, so that it
might be thought that there is no right under the Constitution of states or
citizens to annul the authority of the Constitution by extra-constitutional
Yet surely this interpretation goes too far.
Our Constitution is, after all, only a second draft (the Articles of
Confederation were the first) of an organic document for American political
society. It is altogether permissible (if not necessarily wise) to think of a
third or subsequent draft more nearly suited to the conditions of third
millenium life. There is, in other words, a supraconstitutional entity in which
the Constitution is embedded and from which it draws its authority. It is
perfectly circular to think that the Constitution legitimates itself, for the
authority of a constitution, ours or any, is inevitably extra-constitutional. The Declaration of Independence supports the
principle that at a minimum legitimacy requires the "consent of the governed"
(the Constitution's "We the people"). Other constitutional orders have different
legitimating conventions, for example, the will of God, the Mandate of Heaven,
or the dictates of prudence, but all share the attribute of
extra-constitutionality. If the Constitution itself is legal, there must be some
sort of right to establish legal constitutions extra-constitutionally--in short,
a right of legal revolution.
Granted a constitutional order cannot at once
assert its own lawfulness and yet confess that it might be terminable by means
and for reasons other than, and antipathetic to, its own. But peaceable
amendment itself assumes a functioning constitutional system. What if the system
has broken down or has been destroyed? This has not happened in America, but it
is a long way from "has not" to "cannot." And in the eyes of the Founders, at
least, the right to resist tyranny ("the exercise of power beyond right")
entailed nothing like a contradiction of the premise of constitutionalism; to
the contrary, it was thought of as a principal mainstay of organized
The Declaration of Independence speaks of, and
purports to rest upon, a number of familiar substantive axioms, most of them
taken straight from Locke, about the moral nature of human beings and the
purposes of government. All men are created equal; they are endowed with
inalienable rights by a Creator; governments are instated to protect these
rights; governments that become destructive of this end may rightly be
supplanted. But there is much more to the Declaration than a manifesto about
rights, their origins, and negotiability. If we attach significance to the
Founders' effort to articulate a justification for their political actions, the
Declaration also incorporates a nucleus of adjective propositions that suggest
what might be thought of as a code of revolutionary procedure. By parsing that
argument as a series of interrelated declarative propositions, it becomes
evident that the sort of revolution that Locke described as a right--at least as
Jefferson and his compatriots seem to have understood Locke--was very remote
from anything resembling Nietzsche's will to power, but was rather meant as a
resuscitation of natural law principles that the sovereign no longer would
honor, and that had to be restored. This was revolution as a putting back rather
than as a casting down. Americans, Gordon Wood wrote of the time of the
founding, "sincerely believed they were not creating new rights or new
principles prescribed only by what ought to be, but saw themselves claiming
`only to keep their old privileges,' the traditional rights and principles of
all Englishmen, sanctioned by what they though had always been."
Five elements can be drawn from Locke's
writings that distinguish lawful revolutions from mere barbarism. It may be
useful to examine these five requirements in detail.
1. A lawful revolution involves decent respect
for the opinions of mankind. It is hard to imagine Lenin or Robespierre
admitting to any such prerequisite, and indeed it is a good question why a
revolutionary party should consider itself to be bound to any form of decency or
the need to pay respect to any opinions other than its own. Surely the reasoning
goes beyond the prudential desirability of enlisting international opinion when
striking militarily at an established sovereign. Locke argued that the
"testimony of others' experience" is one of the most important ways we have of
ascertaining truth. Hence the opinions of others matter because they
increase the certainty that causes justifying revolution are in fact present.
Steven Shapin argues that to seventeenth-century British intellectuals, "truth"
in the scientific and philosophical sense, and "decency" in the sense of "the
way in which proper gentlemen behave," were intricately connected. It is not inordinate to describe the American
Revolution as a revolution of gentlemen, displaying both the manners and
epistemology of gentlemen. 
2. Revolution is the lawful right, not of
"persons" but of "the people." This carries forward Locke's argument that self
defense as part of the law of nature is good even as against the king, but that
it is "the Privilege of the People in general, above what any private person
hath; That particular Men are allowed . . . to have no other Remedy but
Patience; but the Body of the People may with Respect resist intolerable
Tyranny[.]" For Locke, the troublesome abstract problem of
how justifiable individual grievance commutes into a right of revolution was
resolved by the practical reality that
[if tyranny] reach no farther than some private Mens cases, though
they have a right to defend themselves, and to recover by force, what by
unlawful force is taken from them; yet the Right to do so, will not easily
engage them in a Contest, wherein they are sure to perish; it being as
impossible for one or a few oppressed Men to disturb the Government,
where the Body of the People do not think themselves concerned in it, as for a
raving mad Man, or heady Male-content to overturn a well-settled State; the
People being as little apt to follow one, as the other.
3. To be lawful, a revolution must be
justified by reasoning. It is not enough simply to have good reasons; those
reasons must be declared and defended. This core norm of the common law
tradition embodies several values. Most obviously, reasoning informs and
persuades others and hence evinces a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.
Reasoning also attempts to assure that the decision possesses some sort of
regular, impersonal character, thus drawing on "rule-of-law" values such as
treating like cases in a like manner, allowing the making of plans, and so on.
Beyond those first-order qualities, the process of reasoning also evokes what
might be called the spirit of heedfulness, which embraces the perplexity of
human judgment and thus acknowledges the need for rational checks on that
4. A lawful revolution cannot be provoked by
some transient cause but must be based on "a long train of abuses, and
usurpations" by the established government. This principle is obviously based on
Locke's observation that the oppression of this person or that person might be
mere bad government and not tyranny, which would engage the interest of the
whole people. Yet, "a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and
Artifices, all tending the same way" might make the government's tyrannical
design "visible to the People," so that they "should then rouze themselves, and
endeavor to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for
which Government was at first erected[.]"
5. A lawful revolution requires that adequate
notice and opportunity for remonstrance if not reform shall have been given to
the established government, and that non-revolutionary means of redressing
grievances first shall have been exhausted. This is the notion that force can be
justified only in the last resort. With this still-vigorous common law principle
Locke strongly agreed:
[W]here the injured Party may be relieved, and his damages
repaired by Appeal to the Law, there can be no pretence for Force, which is
only to be used, where a Man is intercepted from appealing to the Law. For
nothing is to be accounted Hostile Force, but where it leaves not the remedy
for such an Appeal. And `tis such Force alone, that puts him that uses it into
a state of War, and makes it lawful to resist him.
Active and passive hostility toward
established government are not the same thing. Jeffrey Snyder has stressed the
importance of the Lockean distinction to be drawn between noncompliance (secret
or open) with unjust laws and the use of violence as a means of resistance. It is one thing to disobey the Fugitive Slave
Act, for example, by running an Underground Railway or to disobey the military
conscription laws by burning one's draft card, but violence against others may
be used only to prevent violence to oneself, never as a means of coercing a
change in the laws or the government. Coercion and consent are mutually
exclusive; it is self-contradiction to speak of "coerced consent," and
unintelligible to speak of a government deriving just powers by means of consent
coerced from the governed.
The Declaration's procedural criteria for
legitimate revolution are arguably more noteworthy than its substantive account
of legitimate government and fundamental rights. If the Oklahoma City bombing or
the acts of other latter-day revolutionists compels a rethinking of the right of
revolution in modern context, it is apropos to consider whether the actions of
contemporary domestic insurgent movements could pass the Lockean test of
political obligation, by which Jefferson and the others evidently considered
themselves bound. The American Revolution involved few acts of what we should
call terrorism, and indeed involved nothing like an ordinary civil war. Loyalists, for the most part, simply fled, to
"Hell, Hull or Halifax." Those who remained voluntarily abandoned one
sovereignty and embraced another. If ever there was meaning to the notion that
"the people" could be author of a sovereign transformation, the American
revolution illustrates it.
We can hardly compare the behavior of our
Founders to that of modern radical insurgents, whose idea of political dialogue
consists of bombing government buildings and indiscriminately taking and
jeopardizing innocents' lives without warning or remorse. To paraphrase
Professor Elaine Scarry, it is as misguided to try to understand the right of
revolution by reflecting on the Oklahoma City bombing as to try to come to know
the freedom of speech by reflecting on pornography.
IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE
To many Americans, genocide seems so remote a
contingency that the relevance of policies meant to constrain it can simply be
dismissed out of hand. This is one aspect of the theory of American
exceptionalism--the idea that we Americans are different from and perhaps better
than the other members of the human race. One is entitled to be skeptical
whether this self-conceit is sound, especially given that one of the more
terrifying aspects of genocide has been its prevalence among civilized,
educated, cultured people. A reality check is in order for Americans who
reflexively dismiss the relevance of genocide to their lives.
Consider a thought experiment suggested by
Professor Robert Cottrol. Let us travel by some means back in time to the year
1900, and there convene a committee of the most exalted thinkers from all over
the world. We inform them that within fifty years a great and cultured nation
will try to exterminate, with near success, one of its most important ethnic,
racial, or religious minorities. We now ask them to forecast who the victim
group and the perpetrator nation will be. Would any predict the Holocaust?
It is hard to see why anyone would. Jews as a
likely victim group might have been foreseen, though other candidates would
surely have ranked higher. As for potential perpetrators, surely the United
States would have been high on the list, what with that proverbial culture of
guns and violence that Europeans find so quaint, to say nothing of our many
minorities--immigrant, indigenous and racial. Germany, the homeland of music,
philosophy, mathematics, public sanitation, environmentalism, physical culture,
social security, and the rule of law could hardly have figured at all.
We Americans have had, arguably, some close
encounters with genocide-like outrages. In the last century, various Indian
massacres, such as the "battles" of Washita and Sand Creek, were publicly celebrated as glorious feats of
arms. Only in very recent times have official ceremonial markers on these sites
been emended to reflect what really happened, a concession not to political
correctness but to ordinary devotion to the truths of the past. One hopes the
old plaques have been kept in a museum somewhere as a testament to the
purblindness of which public opinion is capable.
A more recent example furnishes at least as
ominous an example. On May 15, 1942, a proclamation was issued on the orders of
Lieutenant General J.L. DeWitt of the Northern California Sector of the Western
Defense Command that required one hundred thousand American citizens of Japanese
descent to report to depots for transfer to detention camps. As a result of
doing so, they lost, along with their freedom, property with a value in the
billions of dollars-- all their businesses, virtually all their personal
property of any importance, and much of their realty. American policy was based
on wartime fear of a poorly-understood minority group that was deemed disloyal.
Fearing sabotage, espionage, and other "Fifth Column" activities elsewhere in
the hemisphere, the United States even urged Central and South American
governments to round up their own Japanese nationals and ship them to the United
States for internment here.
Genocide was neither the intent nor the result
of this policy. But what if the terrible defeats suffered by American forces at
Pearl Harbor and for half a year thereafter had continued beyond the Battle of
Midway was meant to be, and in fact was the
decisive battle of the Pacific war. There, in June of 1942, thirteen hundred
miles northwest of Hawaii, the Imperial Navy marshaled a powerful aircraft
carrier task force with the intention of inflicting a terminal calamity on what
was left of the United States Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor. As it turned
out, it was the Japanese who suffered the calamity, from which they never
recovered. It could easily have been otherwise and nearly was. If the Japanese
had won that battle, Hawaii would certainly have fallen. Admiral Yamamoto, the
commander-in-chief of the Imperial Fleet, had already ordered plans to this
effect to be prepared as early as 1942, according to the historian Gerhard
Weinberg. The entire West Coast, with thousands of miles of
undefended beaches and dozens of coastal cities, would have been laid open to
raids and shelling, if not invasion by Japanese soldiers, who had regularly
shown themselves to be capable of the most outrageous brutality toward every
civilian population that came under their control. The War Ministry in Tokyo in
fact had ambitions even greater than Yamamoto's. It wanted to take over all of
Alaska and Western Canada as well as Washington State, Central America,
Colombia, and the major islands of the Caribbean, along with Australia, New
Zealand, and most of the littoral lands of the western Pacific and eastern
One should consider the effect had the war
unfolded thus instead of the steady diet of success enjoyed by American forces
at Midway and after that placated Americans' fury over the Pearl Harbor sneak
attack. Situations of this imagined kind are the media in which demagogues
thrive. Surely demagogues would not seek to explain Allied reverses by the
inadequacies of American manhood or machinery. Surely the onus would have been
placed elsewhere, on the friends and relatives of the Emperor, including (one
can hardly doubt) Japanese-Americans in Hawaii (who were not interned because
they were too numerous), and God alone knows what else. It should not be too
hard to imagine what the drift of public opinion would have been the day the
Japanese Army descended on Seattle, or the day that Havana capitulated to the
Imperial Fleet, or the day of the shelling of Santa Cruz or Oxnard. Demagogues
would say: the Japanese all look alike, do they not? Are they not furtive and
treacherous by nature? Why not then deal wisely with them, lest they join
themselves to our enemies and fight against us?
It is hardly far-fetched to imagine this line
of reasoning emerging in a foundering, beleaguered America. Things were bad
enough while the war was going well. In 1944, when America's eventual victory in
the war seemed assured, a Gallup Poll asked Americans what should be done with
the Emperor's subjects after the war. Thirteen percent of the respondents
answered: kill them all. Popular support in Germany for the extermination
of the Jews may never have been as great.
Thirteen percent is an alarming statistic, but
perhaps one should not dwell on it without also considering the possibility that
American institutions do provide some significant insulation from the genocides
to which other societies have capitulated. Consider the history of the Second Ku
Klux Klan, which initially was much more successful in America than was the Nazi
Party in Germany. At its high point in the 1920s, KKK membership exceeded four
million, and even outside the deep South the KKK "came to exercise great
political power, dominating for a time the states of Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas,
Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, and California," as well as wielding substantial power
in New Jersey and Illinois. One element in this success was the severe
economic downturn of the immediate post-war years, which persisted throughout
the 1920s in the nation's agricultural areas. Another was that a "younger generation of
blacks--led by soldiers returning from World War I, familiar with guns and
willing to fight for the equal treatment they had received in other lands--had
to be painfully reintroduced to the forces of social control."
Those forces of social control included
restrictive gun laws directed against African-Americans. Over a period of two
centuries gun control laws played an indispensable part in Southern control of
slaves and--after the Civil War--of freedmen. This legacy to the Second KKK from the triumph of
the First Klan was enlarged when in 1911 New York followed Southern states by
conditioning handgun ownership on obtaining a police license. The purpose of
this requirement was to disarm Italians, Jews, and other supposedly criminous
Even so, the American tradition of armed
self-defense was difficult to eradicate. When attacked by the Klan or other
racist groups in the 1910s and 1920s, armed victims defended themselves
vigorously; mob members and other attackers were killed or wounded and the Klan
defeated by "mass, armed counterattacks so determined that the National Guard
was called out on at least one occasion." Klan literature abounded with distracted warnings
"that Catholics were stockpiling weapons to take over the country"; that "white
people must ready themselves for an imminent race war with people of color"; that America was being inundated with radical
alien immigrants like Sacco and Vanzetti (arrested under a Massachusetts gun
control law), whom many Americans associated with the bloody revolutions staged
by radicals first in Russia and then in Hungary and Germany; and that the danger of radical uprising was
magnified enormously by the machinations of the Catholic Church, an institution
allegedly so committed to the violent overthrow of free American government that
it was willing to make common cause even with leftists to accomplish that
Concomitantly 1917-27 were watershed years for
states to enact firearms licensing requirements which, like those of Weimar
Germany, allowed police to grant or deny firearms in their administrative
discretion. In both the North and South, states adopting such laws were
Klan-influenced if not Klan-controlled. This is not to say that the Klan was the sole, or
even the most important, factor in enacting such laws. Many post-Civil War
Southern gun laws were enacted after the formal dissolution of the First KKK and
before the creation of the Second. It was not the Klan as such, but the outlook
for which it spoke, that was the problem. A full six years before the Second
Klan was chartered, a Comment in the predecessor to the University of Virginia
Law Review argued thus for disarming "the son of Ham":
It is a matter of common knowledge that in this state and in
several others, the more especially in the Southern states where the negro
population is so large, that this cowardly practice of `toting' guns has
always been one of the most fruitful sources of crime. . . . Let a negro board
a railroad train with a quart of mean whiskey and a pistol in his grip and the
chances are that there will be a murder, or at least a row, before he
In the same spirit, a Congressional ban on
cheap handguns, what we refer to today as "Saturday Night Specials," was
proposed by a Tennessee senator for the express purpose of allowing "the
dominant race" to prevent "the carrying by colored people of a concealed deadly
weapon, most often a pistol."
By the end of the 1930s the Klan was in
decline, unable to take any advantage of the same Great Depression that had
brought the Nazis to power in Germany. One factor in the KKK's downfall may have
been that its victims' continued to have access to the means of self-defense.
(Credit the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Revolver Association, whose
efforts caused laws restricting such access to be defeated, repealed, or held
unconstitutional across the nation.) It would be incorrect to claim that America's
rejection of the Second Klan was primarily attributable to the tradition of
firearms ownership and armed self-defense. Nevertheless, the American tradition
of armed self-defense conferred at least three important benefits on Klan
victims and targets.
First, armed self-defense brought police
intervention which martyrdom would not have done. African-Americans, Catholics,
Jews, immigrants, and radicals were neither popular nor powerful in the areas in
which the KKK thrived. Public authorities and influential private citizens might
well have been content to see unarmed victims brutalized or slain, if the
violence could have been so confined. When victims arm themselves, however, authorities
are compelled to act lest incidents lead to widespread bloodshed and disorder. Florida's Governor Martin "spoke out forcefully,"
stating that such a situation in which "mobs formed at night to terrorize the
community and citizens had to carry concealed weapons" for their own protection
could not continue. In the words of the author of the law in another
state, which broke the thitherto-increasing power of the Klan, "We don't want
conditions in North Dakota to become such that a man must carry a pistol to be
Second, gun ownership gave victim groups both
the courage and the means to sustain themselves in the face of the KKK threat
and police indifference or hostility. In fact, victim perseverance was essential to
eventually discrediting the KKK. By defeating its initial attacks, maintaining
themselves, and asserting their rights, victims encouraged decent citizens in
the majority community to come to their aid.
Third, because decent citizens were themselves
armed, they were able to speak out, thereby engendering, nurturing, and
enlarging overall community support that eventually ostracized the Second KKK
and consigned it to oblivion. These advantages were not enjoyed during the
1920s and 1930s by decent people in Germany. There can be little doubt that
these institutional differences insulate Americans from at least some of the
horrors through which others have passed.
It is not some sort of human instinct for
bloodthirstiness but rather an indwelling desire for peace that is the true
parent of the "natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the
sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of
oppression." The American Constitution, founded on the
desire to promote domestic tranquility, has as its most basic structure the
diffusion of power, a concept to which federalism, "checks and balances," and
indeed the whole Bill of Rights are corollary. An armed population which denies
the state a monopoly of effective force is a part of that project. "Arms like laws," said Thomas Paine,
"discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe and preserve order in the
world . . . . Horrid mischief would ensue were [victims] deprived of the use of
them . . . the weak will become a prey to the strong." When victims are disarmed and weak it "allures
the ruffian"; conversely, when they are armed and defend
themselves from oppression, they are less likely to become victims in the first
place, and less likely to be isolated by tyranny. The English liberal Francis
Place explained how hatred and violence against Jews were eradicated in 18th
Dogs could not be used in the streets in the manner many Jews were
treated. One circumstance among others put an end to the ill-usage of the
Jews. . . . About the year 1787 Daniel Mendoza, a Jew, became a celebrated
boxer and set up a school to teach the art of boxing as a science, the art
soon spread among the young Jews and they became generally expert at it. The
consequence was in a very few years seen and felt too. It was no longer safe
to insult a Jew unless he was an old man and alone. . . . But even if the Jews
were unable to defend themselves, the few who would now be disposed to insult
them merely because they are Jews, would be in danger of chastisement from the
passers-by and of punishment from the police.
WHETHER SELF-DEFENSE AGAINST GENOCIDE IS PRACTICAL
Governments have exterminated or cooperated in
the extermination of something like one hundred and seventy million of their own
people in the twentieth century. This stark fact makes it reasonable to distrust
the state and to fear the terrible crimes it may occasionally commit. However,
this is only half an argument for an armed populace. The other half of the
argument must meet the question whether, arrayed against the order of battle of
a modern military, armed civilians could possibly do any good. What can a man
with a gun do against a formation of tanks? How could irregulars, even if armed
with modern repeating rifles, confront the rockets and Gatling guns of
helicopter gunships? Does anyone seriously believe that had the German Jews only
been armed, they might have successfully resisted the troops who crushed the
largest armies in Europe between 1939 and 1941?
The claim of futility is of course well-taken
if what one has in mind is a showdown on Front Street between a man with a
revolver and a crew with a tank. But depicting the problem in this way
trivializes an important point and is seriously misleading. An armed citizenry
is not an insuperable bar to genocide any more than an armed policeman is an
insuperable bar to crime or a strong army an insuperable bar to aggression. The
real question is whether a generally armed citizenry is capable of raising the
expected cost of genocide (or for that matter ordinary crime) to a potential
predator enough to make such disasters less likely to occur than would otherwise
be the case, or if the disaster should befall, to make possible the escape of
some victims and the resistance of others.
In grappling with these questions, one
probably should not consider the Holocaust as the prototype, for it is probably
best thought of as an aberrant example in which it might not have made much
difference had the victim population been armed. The Holocaust is atypical
because Jews were only one half percent or so of an indifferent and sometimes
actively hostile continental population. Rounding them up and killing them was
relatively easy. Had they been armed, no doubt they would have imposed rankling
losses on their tormenters, but without changing the strategic situation
appreciably or, in the end, saving themselves.
Nevertheless, virtually all the other recent
examples point quite in the other direction. For example, had the Cambodian
civilians of the 1970s been as well-armed as American civilians are, it is far
from obvious that the Khmer Rouges, whose army numbered less than one hundred
thousand troops, could have murdered as many of them as they did. Indeed, the
Khmer Rouges behaved as though they agreed with this assessment. The Cambodian
people were already largely disarmed because guns had been prohibited from the
time of the French occupation. Even so, the Khmer Rouge leadership wanted to
make sure and took the extraordinary precaution of a nationwide house-to-house,
hut-to-hut search to confirm that the country was indeed defenseless. Once it
was sure, the army clubbed and bayoneted to death two or more million people,
which amounted to almost a third of the country's population.
The Khmer Rouge search parties did not
advertise their objectives beforehand (supposing that they even knew them). They
placed a good communitarian face on their actions, which might almost have been
conned from Garry Wills. One witness reported they would
knock on the doors and ask the people who answered if they had any
weapons. "We are here now to protect you," the soldiers said,
"andno onehas a need for a weapon anymore." People who
said that they kept no weapons were forced to stand aside and allow the
soldiers to look for themselves . . . . [This all] took nine or ten days, and
once the soldiers had concluded the villagers were no longer armed they
dropped their pretense of friendliness.
In contrast consider the story that some
Armenians lived to tell about the Turkish genocide of the early 1900s. Having
systematically disarmed Armenians through a series of decrees over a twenty-five
year period, the Turkish army and police were able to round up and kill over one
million Armenians by a combination of overt murders and forced marches over
hundreds of miles without food or water. However, thousands of Armenians from
Aleppo province (modern Syria), who had secreted guns, took to the hills. Having
defeated the first Turkish army units sent against them, they retreated from
stronger forces in good order, until they reached the sea where the British, who
were at war with the Turks, evacuated them.
In some cases, civilians have to contend not
with well-trained armed forces, but a uniformed rabble. In Uganda in the
mid-1970s, for example, five hundred thousand victims were slain by Idi Amin's
army which numbered only about twenty-five thousand and secret police force (the
"State Research Bureau"--a nice Orwellian touch) only three thousand strong. The
army, as it turned out, was hardly worthy of the name; undisciplined and
ill-equipped, it collapsed not long after Amin declared war on Tanzania in late
1978. It is not hard to believe that an armed
population could have held its own against such forces.
Or consider Indonesia, where a half-million
suspected Communists were slaughtered in the mid-1960s by fellow civilians
armed, among other ways, with firearms lent to them for the express purpose by
the Indonesian government. The entire undertaking would have been
complicated beyond calculation, and perhaps would have been if not abandoned at
least carried out on a more modest scale, had the population been more heavily
The cases of Uganda and Indonesia also show
that the alternative to genocide may be civil war if a genocide target is
sufficiently well-armed to fight back. One might well consider such an outcome
equally as unappealing as genocide (although probably not if one were a member
of the victim group). But civil war is not necessarily the result. The first
Turkish atrocities against the Armenians occurred in the 1890s and largely
involved civilian proxies specially armed by the government to kill Armenians,
who were slaughtered by the tens of thousands. Where Armenians were armed they
fought back, and in fact were quite successful not only against civilian
irregulars but against regular army troops as well. Perhaps out of fear that
civil war or prolonged disorders might provoke foreign intervention, the army
recalled the arms from its proxies and ended the attacks (though the government
also confiscated the Armenians' arms, facilitating the second genocide twenty
years later). Something similar seems to have occurred in the
American South during the early 1960s. Southern police officers were in many
cases content to see blacks and civil rights workers brutalized, and in a few
cases even killed, so long as the violence was one-sided. However, when blacks
displayed arms for self-defense, the police intervened to halt KKK outrages lest
they lead to gun battles in the streets and other disorders.
Nor is the choice always one between genocide
and civil war. There is a third option: peace. An illustration can be drawn from
the Balkans, where there is a tense lull in an ancient civil war. Josip Broz
Tito, who ruled that part of the world for thirty five years until his death in
1980, was an enthusiastic practitioner of Max Weber's idea of the state as a
"community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of
physical force within a given territory." Disarming the Yugoslavians lowered the cost of
maintaining himself in power, which Tito did by having tens of thousands of his
countrymen shot during his reign. When old Yugoslavia came unstuck in the late
1980s, its armies and equipment--the most formidable in the region--devolved to
the former nation's ethnic constituents. Because the Yugoslavian army had been
mostly Serbian, the Serbians inherited enough munitions to face down the United
States, NATO, the United Nations, and finally even ex-President Jimmy Carter's
freelance diplomacy, and to continue the conquest of Bosnia. Muslims (Bosnians)
had never figured much in the Yugoslavian army, and thanks to a very
well-intentioned international arms embargo whose purpose was to assure that
gasoline not be splashed on an already raging fire, they remained largely disarmed. Such ethnic
cleansing has largely ceased today, thanks to both United Nations intervention
and to the surreptitious arming of the Muslim population with the tacit
approval, welcome though many years late, of the United States.
It was a different story entirely in Croatia.
There was substantial Croatian representation in the old Yugoslavian army--Tito
himself was a Croat. Though not nearly as formidable as the Serbs, the Croats
did have arms. Not strong enough to conquer territory, they were nevertheless
strong enough to concentrate the minds of Serbian diplomatists on the advantages
of peace as compared to the rewards to be had from even an ultimately successful
war of conquest. After some initial fighting, the Serbs and Croats split the
difference and made peace--the stablest, if this says much, in the region.
It is often pointed out how different the
contemporary world is from the one in which Madison and Jefferson lived. In
those days what passed for tyranny was "send[ing] hither swarms of Officers to
harass our people and eat out their substance," "cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the
World," and calling "together Legislative bodies at
places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant," and other such complaints. Even with the
example of the French Revolution before them, Madison and Jefferson could hardly
have imagined in detail the characteristic perils of the twentieth century. But
they certainly understood the crux of the problem. After all, more than two
thousand years earlier, in 416 B.C., the Athenians put the population of Melos
to the sword, exempting only those deemed suitable for sale as slaves. The lesson Thucydides drew from this incident
remains persuasive today: "The strong do what they will, the weak endure what
they must." The Founders of American democracy saw the
persistence of this Thucydidean reality. They rejected the concept of a state
monopoly of armed power--"the most dangerous of all monopolies," according to
Madison--in favor of "the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess
over the people of almost every other nation."
& Ellis Professor of Law, Northwestern University; attorney and
criminologist, Novato, California. Thanks for constructive comments on earlier
drafts to Robert Cottrol, Rutgers University School of Law; Ted Robert Gurr,
University of Maryland Political Science Department; Barbara Harff, U.S. Naval
Academy Political Science Department; C.B. Kates, F.A.C.S., Novato, CA; Marilyn
King, Novato, CA; Gary Lawson, Northwestern University School of Law; Rudolf J.
Rummel, University of Hawaii Political Science Department. Grateful
acknowledgement is also due to the Julius Rosenthal Fund and the Kirkland &
Ellis Research Fund of Northwestern University for subsidizing this essay. The
usual disclaimers apply.
"genocide" we mean attempts to exterminate not only gene pools but also masses
of political opponents. The complexities of defining genocide and distinguishing
it from other varieties of murder and oppression are addressed in Barbara Harff,
Recognizing Genocides and Politicides, in GENOCIDE WATCH 27 (Helen
Fein ed., 1992) [hereinafter Harff, Recognizing Genocides]; see also
Barbara Harff & Ted Robert Gurr, Victims of the State: Genocides,
Politicides and Group Repression Since 1945, 1 INT'L REV. VICTIMOLOGY 23
It would probably be more accurate to adopt
the term "geno/politicide," defined as follows: the promotion and execution
of policies by a state or its agents that result in the deaths of a substantial
portion of a group. In genocides the victimized groups are defined primarily in
terms of their communal characteristics. In politicides, by contrast, groups are
defined primarily in terms of their political opposition to the regime and
Harff, Recognizing Genocides,
supra, at 27-38. For stylistic reasons, we prefer "genocide" to describe
both phenomena. In addition, we follow Harff's distinction between genocides and
"pogroms," which she describes as "short-lived outbursts by mobs, which,
although often condoned by authorities, rarely persist." Id. at 38. If
the violence persists for long enough, however, Harff argues, the distinction
between condonation and complicity collapses. See id. at 37; see also
Harff & Gurr, supra, at 24 (defining genocide to include
instances in which state agents "assist or knowingly acquiesce in the killing of
undesirable groups by vigilantes, `death squads,' or private militia," and also
instances in which "governments simply ignore their obligations to protect
vulnerable minorities attacked by murderous mobs or profiteers"); see
generally examples discussed infra notes 111, 113-14, and 118 and
Wittenberg, Fanaticism to be Top Threat in 21st Century, HOUSTON POST,
Feb. 24, 1995, at A-24 (quoting Elie Wiesel).
B. Bruce-Briggs, The Great American Gun War, 45 PUB. INTEREST 37, 37
(1976) ("the gun-control debate has been conducted at a level of propaganda more
appropriate to social warfare than to democratic discourse").
demographic attributes of firearms owners are discussed in JAMES D. WRIGHT ET
AL., UNDER THE GUN: WEAPONS, CRIME, AND VIOLENCE IN AMERICA 107 (1983).
According to a Metro Chicago Information Center Study, residents of suburban
low-crime communities are more likely to own handguns than those living in the
city. SeeA Summary of neighborhood Crime Perceptions from the
1991-1995 MCIC Metro Survey 6 fig. 9 (1995). As the Survey makes clear,
handgun ownership and income are strongly correlated. See id. fig. 10.
A National Institute of Justice-funded review of all available
national and local data concludes that [while] the "typical" private weapons
owner is often depicted as a virtual psychopath--unstable, violent,
dangerous[,t]he empirical research reviewed in this chapter leads to a sharply
different portrait. . . .
Most private weaponry is possessed for
reasons of sport and recreation. . . . Relative to nonowners, gun owners are
disproportionally [sic] rural, Southern, male, Protestant, affluent, and
middle class. . . . There is no evidence suggesting them to be an especially
unstable or violent or maladapted lot; their "personality profiles" are
largely indistinct from those of the rest of the population.
WRIGHT ET AL., supra, at 122 (emphasis
added). In a subsequent study, also funded by the National Institute of Justice,
the same sociologists emphasized the difference between the great majority of
gun owners and the small, highly aberrant minority of criminal misusers: "It is
. . . clear that only a very small fraction of . . . privately owned firearms
are ever involved in crime or [interpersonal] violence, the vast bulk of them
being owned and used more or less exclusively for sport and recreational
purposes, or for self-protection." JAMES D. WRIGHT & PETER H. ROSSI, ARMED
AND CONSIDERED DANGEROUS: A SURVEY OF FELONS AND THEIR FIREARMS 4 (1986).
Gun owners do differ from non-owners in some
respects. For instance, a study of citizens who rescued crime victims or
arrested violent criminals found that 81% of these Good Samaritans were gun
owners. See Ted L. Huston et al., The Angry Samaritans, PSYCHOL.
TODAY, June 1976, at 61, 64. Gun owners are also more likely to condone
"defensive" force, i.e. force used to repel attackers; while in contrast those
exhibiting "violent attitudes" (approval of violence against social deviants or
dissenters) are no more likely to own guns than others. In a comprehensive
study, Gary Kleck concluded:
Gun ownership is higher among
middle-aged people than in other age groups, presumably reflecting higher
income levels and the sheer accumulation of property over time. . . . Middle
and upper income people are significantly more likely to own than lower income
people. . . . Gun owners are not, as a group, psychologically abnormal, nor
[do attitude surveys show them to be] . . . more racist, sexist, or
violence-prone than nonowners. . . . Probably fewer than 2% of handguns and
well under 1% of all guns will ever be involved in even a single violent
crime. Thus, the problem of criminal gun violence is concentrated within a
very small subset of gun owners. These criminal gun owners most commonly get
their guns by buying them from friends and other nonretail sources, or by
GARY KLECK, POINT BLANK: GUNS AND VIOLENCE IN AMERICA 22, 47-48 (1991).
Law SSSS 12, 18 & 19 (Mar. 18, 1938) exempting "[m]embers of the SS-Reserves
and the SS Deathshead Units"; numerous Nazi Party officials; officers in the
Hitler Youth movement, the S.A., and the SS; and Nazi Party Departments
authorized by the Führer's Deputy to carry arms. See JAY SIMKIN ET AL.,
LETHAL LAWS 165, 167 (1995).
SPENCER, FIRST PRINCIPLES (6th ed., Appleton & Co. 1900).
even fairly recent instances of genocide, the killings were substantially or
primarily committed against unarmed victims by the use of such weapons as clubs,
edged weapons, and agricultural implements. These genocides occurred in Burundi,
Rwanda, India, and even Cambodia, where Khmer Rouge cadres were generally
equipped with firearms but often preferred to save ammunition and therefore
bayonetted or clubbed victims to death. Private communications with Professors
Ted Gurr (Sept. 6, 1994) and Barbara Harff (Sept. 11, 1994).
example, in the mid-1960s 500,000 or more Indonesians who were suspected of
being Communists were slaughtered, many of them by civilian death squads armed
with guns specially provided them for this purpose by the Indonesian government.
Other killings by private militias have occurred in the Philippines and El
Salvador. See Harff, Recognizing Genocides, supra note 1,
at 37. For similar instances in the Ottoman Empire of the 1890s and Bosnia in
the 1990s, see discussion infra at notes 108 and 112 and
Guns and the Civilizing Process, WASH. POST, Sept. 26, 1972, at A16.
Wils, John Lennon's War, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, Dec. 12, 1980, at 56
[hereinafter John Lennon's War].
[11.]See Daniel D. Polsby, Firearms Costs, Firearms
Benefits and the Limits of Knowledge, 86 J. CRIM. L. & CRIMINOLOGY 207,
Brockway, But the Bible Doesn't Mention Pistols, ENGAGE-SOCIAL ACTION
FORUM, May 1977, at 39-40. The language quoted is from pages 39-40 of this
issue, which has been published as a separate pamphlet by the Methodist Board of
Church and Society under the title HANDGUNS IN THE UNITED STATES. For purely
secular arguments to the same effect, see citations given infra notes
18-19 and accompanying text, particularly discussion of the views of Garry
Brady, quoted in James Brady, PARADE MAG., June 26, 1994, at 18.
Jackson, Keeping the Battle Alive, TAMPA TRIBUNE, Oct 21, 1993, at 6
(interview with Handgun Control chairperson Sarah Brady).
Crime Control Hearings, 191-6 Senate Judiciary Committee [Subcommittee on
Juvenile Crime] Oversight of the 1968 Gun Control Act, v. II at 1974. See also
the testimony on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a member of the
National Coalition to Ban Handguns, emphasizing that it does not seek to ban
rifles and shotguns, which are used for sport, but only handguns, which are
illegitimate because their purpose is personal defense. See Legislation to
Modify the 1968 Gun Control Act: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Crime of the
House Comm. on the Judiciary, 99th Cong. 127-28 (1987) [hereinafter
Legislation to Modify the 1968 Gun Control Act].
Wills, Worldwide Gun Control, PHILA. INQUIRER, Mar. 12, 1981, at 8E.
and the Civilizing Process, supra note 9, at A16; see also
Marilyn Geewax, The Decline of Civilization in America, BALTIMORE
SUN, Aug. 25, 1993, at 17A, available in 1993 WL 7382733 ("[T]he crazy
gun lobbyists . . . say guns don't kill people. No, guns are doing something
even worse--they are killing civilization."); Wills, supra note 18 and
accompanying text; Richard Hofstradter, America As a Gun Culture,
AM. HERITAGE, Oct. 1970, at 4, 82 (discussing the application of D.H. Lawrence's
denunciation of the American soul as "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer"
against gun owners); cf. Jeanne Shields, Why Nick?, NEWSWEEK, May
8, 1978, at 23 (National council to Control Handguns volunteer Jeanne Shields
characterizing NRA members as "macho men who don't understand the definition of
a civilized society"); Gun Toting: A Fashion Needing Change, 93 SCI. NEWS
613, 614 (1968) (quoting Dr. Humphrey Osmond, who describes defensive gun
ownership as "simply beastly behavior").
e.g., June 19, 1975 Press Statement of the Young Christian Women's
Association of the United States; Legislation to Modify the 1968 Gun Control
Act, supra note 17, at 141 (testimony of Harold Massey, Program
Coordinator for the General Board of Church and Society, the United Methodist
Church, warning of "the vigilante mentality where citizens are encouraged to
take into their own hands solutions of conflicts that they have with people,
whether they are real or imagined conflicts").
CLARK, CRIME IN AMERICA: OBSERVATIONS ON ITS NATURE, CAUSES, PREVENTION AND
CONTROL 107 (1970) (also decrying defensive gun ownership as a virtual insult to
government). "A state in which a citizen needs a gun to protect himself from
crime has failed to perform its first purpose." Id.
[22.]See Erik Eckholm, A Little Gun Control, A Lot of
Guns, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 15, 1993, at E1, E4 (quoting Sarah Brady, chairwoman
of Handgun Control Inc., who would allow handgun licensing to hunters, target
shooters, and security guards); see alsoTaming the Monster: The Guns
Among Us, L.A. TIMES, Dec. 10, 1993, at 6, available in 1993 WL
2243875 ("Under our plan, individuals could own sporting weapons only if they
had submitted to a background check and passed a firearm safety course. Other
special, closely monitored exceptions could be made, such as for serious
collectors."); Taming the Gun Monster: How Far to Go?, L.A. TIMES, Oct.
22, 1993, at 6, available in 1993 WL 2260805 (recommending that federal
law limit ordinary citizens to "ownership [only] of sporting and hunting
sources cited in Randy E. Barnett & Don B. Kates, Under Fire: The New
Consensus on the Second Amendment, 45 EMORY L.J. 1139, 1243-44
[24.]See John R. Lott, Jr. & David B. Mustard,
Crime, Deterrence and the Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns, 26 J. LEGAL
STUD. 1 (1997); Gary Kleck & Marc Gertz, Armed Resistance to Crime: The
Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun, 86 J. CRIM. L &
CRIMINOLOGY 150 (1995); Marvin E. Wolfgang, A Tribute to a View I Have
Opposed, 86 J. CRIM. L. & CRIMINOLOGY 188 (1995).
[25.]See JAMES D. WRIGHT & PETER H. ROSSI, THE ARMED
CRIMINAL IN AMERICA: A SURVEY OF INCARCERATED FELONS 27-29 (1985).
e.g., Wills's celebrated study of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of
Independence in GARY WILLIS, INVENTING AMERICA: JEFFERSON'S DECLARATION
OF INDEPENDENCE (1978).
The Politics of Restoration, ECONOMIST, Dec. 24, 1994, at 33.
standard account, see ANN TUSA & JOHN TUSA, THE NUREMBERG TRIAL 151 (1983).
Burke, Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, in 4 WORKS OF EDMUND
BURKE 241, 293 (Little, Brown, & Company 1884). For discussion, see
HANNA FENICHEL PITKIN, THE CONCEPT OF REPRESENTATION ch. 8 (1967).
Salter, Jr. & Don B. Kates, Jr., The Necessity of Access to Firearms by
Dissenters and Minorities Whom Government is Unwilling or Unable to Protect,
in RESTRICTING HANDGUNS: THE LIBERAL SKEPTICS SPEAK OUT 185, 188 (Don B.
Kates, Jr. ed., 1979) [hereinafter RESTRICTING HANDGUNS].
[32.]Confronting Holocausts: Remarks on Spielberg's Schindler's
List, 40 YALE L. REP. 13, 14 (1994).
R. Tonso and David B. Kopel, Gun Bans and "Schindler's List,"
Independence Institute release, Golden Co., Aug. 24, 1994.
e.g., Ted Robert Gurr, Historical Trends in Violent Crime: Europe and the
United States, in 1 VIOLENCE IN AMERICA 21, 28 (1989):
The first systematic records of English homicide appear in the
thirteenth century [based on court and coroners' records] . . . [M]urderous
brawls and violent deaths at the hands of robbers were everyday occurrences in
medieval England. The average annual homicide rates for five rural counties,
studied at scattered intervals between 1202 and 1276, [have been calculated as
having] ranged from 9 per 100,000 in Norfolk population to 23 in Kent . . . .
Knives, axes, cudgels, and other implements found in every agricultural
community were the typical instruments of death.
By way of comparison, current U.S. homicide
rates vary between 7.5 and 10 per hundred thousand population.
Though we are not necessarily suggesting
causality, two interesting observations arise that challenge notions that
defensive firearms cause violence and prohibiting them reduces it. First,
current European homicide rates are the product of a long-term decline that
roughly corresponds with the development and widespread distribution of
multi-shot handguns during a period in which Europe had virtually no gun
control. Second, the current European trend of increasing homicides and other
crime, both political and apolitical, coincides with the post-World War I era
in which most European nations adopted firearm controls for the purpose of
curbing not ordinary crime, but political violence.
See Barnett & Kates, supra note 23, at 1236-42;
see generally Gurr, supra, especially fig. 1.1; COLIN GREENWOOD,
FIREARMS CONTROL: A STUDY OF ARMED CRIME AND FIREARMS CONTROL IN ENGLAND AND
WALES 7-26 (1972).
States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 179 (1939) (emphasis added).
the ablest academic students of firearms policy fall prey to the illusion that
the "equalizing" effects that guns possess point largely in the direction of
their potential for abuse. For example, Professors Zimring and Hawkins have
written that possessing a gun facilitates crime because it makes feasible
"attacks by persons physically or psychologically unable to overpower their
victim through violent physical contact." FRANKLIN ZIMRING & GORDON HAWKINS,
THE CITIZEN'S GUIDE TO GUN CONTROL 15 (1987). Yet when they later devote a
chapter to self-defense, this equalizing property, which makes it feasible for
the weak to defend themselves from the strong, receives no correlative mention.
Similarly, Professor Cook, who has supported more stringent gun regulation, has
stressed that having a gun is not necessary to attack a "victim who is unarmed,
alone, small, frail . . . . [But] in the hands of a weak and unskilled assailant
a gun can be used . . . without much risk of effective counterattack . . . [and]
because everyone knows that a gun has these attributes, the mere display of a
gun communicates a highly effective threat." Philip J. Cook, The Role of
Firearms in Violent Crime: An Interpretive Review of the Literature,
in CRIMINAL VIOLENCE 236, 247-48 (Marvin E. Wolfgang & Neil Alan
Weiner eds., 1982). However, Professor Cook says nothing about defenders in the
same situation. This asymmetrical view is odd, to say the least, because in the
real world it is unusual for women, the elderly, or other relatively
unformidable actors to engage in acts of predation against men, though it is not
at all uncommon for them to be the victims of such acts. See, e.g.,
Margaret Howard, Husband-Wife Homicide: An Essay from a Family Law
Perspective, 49LAW & CONTEMP. PROBS. 63, 82-83 (1986)
(dismissing the value of gun prohibitions in reducing domestic homicide because
"[h]usbands, due to size and strength advantages, do not need weapons to kill");
James D. Wright, Second Thoughts About Gun Control, 91 PUB. INTEREST 23,
32 (1988) ("Analysis of the family homicide data reveals [that when] women kill
men, they often use a gun. When men kill women, they usually do it in some more
degrading or brutalizing way--such as strangulation or knifing.").
is extensive criminology literature dealing with the relationship between
firearms and criminal violence. A very abbreviated sampling includes: KLECK,
supra note 4; DAVID B. KOPEL, THE SAMURAI, THE MOUNTIE, AND THE COWBOY
(1992); ZIMRING & HAWKINS, supra note 37; WRIGHT ET AL., supra
note 4; GEORGE D. NEWTON, JR. & FRANKLIN E. ZIMRING, FIREARMS AND VIOLENCE
IN AMERICAN LIFE: A STAFF REPORT SUBMITTED TO THE NATIONAL COMMISSION ON THE
CAUSES AND PREVENTION OF VIOLENCE 69 (1969); Alfred Blumstein, Youth
Violence, Guns, and the Illicit-Drug Industry, 86 J. CRIM. L. &
CRIMINOLOGY 10, 11-12 (1995); Philip J. Cook, The Influence of Gun
Availability on Violent Crime Patterns, in 4 CRIME AND JUSTICE: AN
ANNUAL REVIEW OF RESEARCH 49 (Norval Morris & Michael H. Tonry eds., 1983);
Cook, supra note 37; David J. Bordua & Alan J. Lizotte, Patterns
of Legal Firearms Ownership: A Cultural and Situational Analysis of Illinois
Counties, 1 LAW & POL'Y Q. 147 (1979); Franklin Zimring, Is Gun
Control Likely to Reduce Violent Killings?, 35 U. CHI. L. REV. 721 (1968).
medical profession has tried to establish this "causation" through the
publication of numerous articles and editorial comments in the profession's
leading organs, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New
England Journal of Medicine. Many of these are discussed in DANIEL D. POLSBY,
FIREARMS AND CRIME (Independent Institute, 1997); Don B. Kates et al., Guns
and Public Health: Epidemic of Violence or Pandemic of Propaganda?, 62 TENN.
L. REV. 513 (1995).
OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, U.S. DEP'T OF JUSTICE, SOURCEBOOK OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
STATISTICS-1995, 360 tbls. 3.133 & 3.134 (1996).
id. at 324 tbl. 3.109; BUREAU OF THE CENSUS, U.S. DEP'T OF COMMERCE,
STATISTICAL ABSTRACT OF THE UNITED STATES, 1966, at 148 tbl. 206 (1966) (showing
crime rates from 1959-1964).
detecting that I'm eating a lot of crow on this issue," Harris County, Texas,
District Attorney John Holmes recently told Texas Lawyer.See
Richard Connelly, Handgun Law's First Year Belies Fears of "Blood in the
Streets", TEX. LAW., Dec. 9, 1996, at 2, 2, available in LEXIS, Legal
News Library. Harris County includes Houston and is the third most populous
county in the United States. Holmes was one of many who feared that if Texas
legalized the carrying of concealed handguns, there would be "blood in the
streets." Id. The state now has issued 111,408 new concealed carry
permits, but in 14 months following enactment recorded only 57 irregular
"incidents," all minor, with legally carried handguns. See id. at 2-3.
Eating crow is "not something I necessarily like to do," Holmes told Texas
Lawyer, "but I'm doing it on this."
& Kates, supra note 23, at 1203 & 1247-52.
LOCKE, TWO TREATISES OF GOVERNMENT 416 (Peter Laslett ed., Cambridge Univ. Press
everyone is so sanguine. Air Force Col. Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., a Judge Advocate
in the United States Central Command, wrote a provocative scenario of how such a
thing could unfold in the not-too-distant future. See Charles J. Dunlap,
Jr., The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012, 22 PARAMETERS 2
(1992-93); see also Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., Welcome to the Junta: The
Erosion of Civilian Control of the U.S. Military, 29 WAKE FOREST L. REV. 341
(1994); Richard H. Kohn, Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military
Relations, 35 NAT'L INTEREST 3 (1994) (discussing erosion of civilian
control of the military); Russell F. Weigley, The American Military and the
Principle of Civilian Control from McClellan to Powell, 57 J. MIL. HIST. 27,
58 (1993) ("[t]he principle of civil control in the military faces an uncertain
future"). Dunlap's cautionary thesis, which oddly has received little popular
attention, does not look for a takeover by a "man on a horse," but through the
gradual erosion of the once-stark line between military and civilian activities
as the armed forces are increasingly diverted from their traditional functions
and tasked with new burdens such as the "War on Drugs," "nationbuilding" in
Somalia, or otherwise fulfilling America's "global responsibilities."
Holmes' maxim, however, applies: "Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the
presence of an uplifted knife." Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335, 343
Code states: "The use of force is not justifiable . . . to resist an arrest that
the actor knows is being made by a peace officer, although the arrest is
unlawful[.]" MODEL PENAL CODE SS 3.04(2)(a)(i) (Official Draft and Revised
e.g., People v. Olguin, 173 Cal. Rptr. 663 (Cal. Ct. App. 1981) (victim used
reasonable force to protect himself against officer's excessive force in making
[59.]See Akhil Reed Amar, The Consent of the Governed:
Constitutional Amendment Outside Article V, 94 COLUM. L. REV. 457 (1994); 1
BRUCE ACKERMAN, WE THE PEOPLE (1991); but see John M. Rogers & Robert
E. Molzon, Some Lessons About the Law From Self-Referential Problems in
Mathematics, 90 MICH. L. REV. 992, 1005 (1992); Gary Lawson, The Rise and
Rise of the Administrative State, 107 HARV. L. REV. 1231 (1994).
[60.]See Laurence H. Tribe, Taking Text and Structure
Seriously: Reflections on Free-Form Method in Constitutional Interpretation,
108 HARV. L. REV. 1221, 1290-91 (1995).
[61.]See FORREST MCDONALD, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM: THE
INTELLECTUAL ORIGINS OF THE CONSTITUTION 144-45 (1985).
S. WOOD, THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC, 1776-1787 13 (1969).
[63.]See JOHN LOCKE, AN ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN
UNDERSTANDING (Book IV, chapter 15) 429 (Hayes & Zell, 1860).
generally STEVEN SHAPIN, A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TRUTH: CIVILITY AND SCIENCE IN
SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND (1994).
generally JOHN MARSHALL, JOHN LOCKE: RESISTANCE, RELIGION AND RESPONSIBILITY
LOCKE, TWO TREATISES OF GOVERNMENT 469 (Peter Laslett ed., Cambridge Univ. Press
[75.]See Elaine Scarry, War and the Social Contract:
Nuclear Policy, Distribution, and the Right to Bear Arms, 139 U. PA. L. REV.
1257, 1268 (1991).
and Kates (Private Communication Sept. 15, 1994) guessed that, standing in the
shoes of the circa-1900 savant, the odds would favor (in descending order of
1) Perpetrator: Ottoman Empire
Victim Group: Armenians
2) Perpetrator: United States
Victim Group: Blacks
3) Perpetrator: United States
Victim Group: Indians
4) Perpetrator: Russia
Victim Group: Jews
5) Perpetrator: France
Victim Group: Jews
Out of curiosity, inquiry was made of several
leading authorities on genocide. Professor Ted Robert Gurr (Private
Communication Sept. 6, 1994), a political scientist at the University of
Maryland, agreed with the above choices, emphasizing particularly the United
States as perpetrator and American Indians as the victim group. The response of
Prof. Rudolf J. Rummel (Private Communication Oct. 24, 1994), a political
scientist at the University of Hawaii, differed significantly, in part due to
his view that democracies do not commit genocide against their own citizens.
Rummel's list was as follows:
1) Perpetrator: Ottoman Empire
Victim Group: Armenians
2) Perpetrator: China
Victim Group: Moslems
3) Perpetrator: Russia
Victim Group: Jews
2) Perpetrator: Mexico
Victim Group: Indians
Rummel notes that his list is based on an
expectation of only hundreds of thousands of victim deaths in Russia and Mexico,
respectively, not millions. He also notes that in their African colonies
Belgium, France, Portugal, and particularly Germany could have been expected to
continue killing natives by the tens of thousands through forced labor under
unendurable conditions and, in the case of the Germans, savage suppression of
history of these massacres, see Honey Springs and Stones River National
Battlefields: Hearings on H.R. 4821 and H.R. 4266 Before the Subcomm. on
National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, 103rd Cong. (1994).
#335, Dec. 20, 1994, in GEORGE H. GALLUP, THE GALLUP POLL: PUBLIC OPINION
1935-1971, at 477 (1972).
[82.]FREDERICK LEWIS ALLEN, ONLY YESTERDAY: AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF
THE NINETEEN-TWENTIES 66 (1931); see also JAMES WEST DAVIDSON & MARK
HAMILTON LYTLE, AFTER THE FACT: THE ART OF HISTORICAL DETECTION 275 (1982)
(noting the Klan's large chapters in major cities, Oregon, and states of the
upper middle west); DAVID M. CHALMERS, HOODED AMERICANISM: THE HISTORY OF THE KU
KLUX KLAN (1965) (devoting separate chapters to the 1920s Klan in Georgia,
Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Oregon, North and
South Carolina, California, Colorado, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, Indiana,
Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New
Jersey, and New York).
generally NANCY MACLEAN, BEHIND THE MASK OF CHIVALRY: THE MAKING OF THE
SECOND KU KLUX KLAN (1994).
[84.]See Don B. Kates, Jr., Toward a History of Handgun
Prohibition in the United States, in RESTRICTING HANDGUNS,
supra note 31, at 7, 19 [hereinafter Kates, Handgun Prohibition];
see also MACLEAN, supra note 83, at 28-29 (describing
assertiveness of African-American veterans after experiencing alternative to
Florida Supreme Court justice frankly avowed in denying the application of such
a law against a white appellant: "[T]he Act was passed for the purpose of
disarming the negro laborers[.] . . . [It was] never intended to be applied to
the white population[.]" Watson v. Stone, 4 So.2d 700, 703 (1941) (Buford, J.,
concurring). Southern gun laws from the eighteenth through the early twentieth
century are discussed in Robert J. Cottrol & Raymond T. Diamond, The
Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration, 80 GEO. L.J.
309 (1991); Robert J. Cottrol & Raymond T. Diamond, "Never Intended to Be
Applied to the White Population": Firearms Regulation and Racial Disparity--The
Redeemed South's Legacy to a National Jurisprudence?, 70 CHI. -KENT L. REV.
1307 (1995); Kates, Handgun Prohibition, supra note 84.
history of New York's Sullivan Law, and its purposes, see Kates,
Handgun Prohibition, supra note 84; see generally also Don
B. Kates, Jr., The Battle Over Gun Control, 84 PUB. INTEREST 42, 43-44
(1986); LEE KENNETT & JAMES LAVERNE ANDERSON, THE GUN IN AMERICA: THE
ORIGINS OF A NATIONAL DILEMMA 165-86 (1975).
[87.]MACLEAN, supra note 83, at 13-14. For other incidents
of armed resistance by individuals or groups, and of bearing arms for protection
against potential KKK attacks, see CHALMERS, supra note 82, at 66, 67,
179, 239, 248, 249, 273, 338, 348.
[88.]MACLEAN, supra note 83, at xi. See also
CHALMERS, supra note 82, at 67 (discussing KKK claims that "[a]rms were
being stored in [Catholic] church basements as the Pope got ready to seize the
government"). Among Klansmen "[o]ne popular story was that every time a boy was
born to a Roman Catholic family, the father added a rifle and ammunition to his
local church's arsenal." Id. at 111. Significantly, the oath which every
Klansman took omitted any mention of the Second Amendment right to arms, though
it committed him to upholding "the sacred constitutional rights and privileges
of free public schools, free speech, free press, separation of church and state,
liberty, white supremacy, just laws, and the pursuit of happiness against any
encroachment." Id. at 115-16.
[89.]MACLEAN, supra note 83, at 70, 83, 91, 93, 96. Acute
fear of imminent, sanguinary revolutionary activity was not confined to the KKK.
Southern employers and union leaders alike denounced the "flooding of the South
and Georgia with . . . the scum of Europe, a people in nowise in sympathy with
the spirit of our institutions and form of government." Id. at 70. Such
fears were entertained throughout the nation. See ALLEN, supra
note 82, at 19-20, 45-75; DAVIDSON & LYTLE, supra note 82, at
273-77 (describing nativism).
Nor were such fears entirely groundless. Prior
to World War I anarchist assassins had taken the lives not only of a Russian
czar, an Austrian empress, a king of Italy, and a Spanish premier, but of
President William McKinley. See BARBARA TUCHMAN, THE PROUD TOWER: A
PORTRAIT OF THE WORLD BEFORE THE WAR, 1890-1914, at 63-113, 167 (1962). In the
immediate aftermath of the War, anarchists (or communists or syndicalists with
whom they were often confused) exploded a bomb in Wall Street, killing 30 and
wounding over a hundred. They also attempted to assassinate Oliver Wendell
Holmes, the Attorney General, the Postmaster General, the Secretary of Labor,
the Commissioner of Immigration, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and a number
of other magnates. See ALLEN, supra note 82, at 49-50, 71-74.
[90.]See MACLEAN, supra note 83, at 96; Kates,
Handgun Prohibition,supra note 84, at 17-18. There is ample
precedent for the current fringe belief that President Kennedy was killed by a
secret cabal. Comparable nineteenth-century literature alleged that the Catholic
Church assassinated Lincoln and secretly sponsored secession out of its
hostility to the United States. Then, as now, such views were buttressed by a
plethora of falsehoods for example, that all the Lincoln assassination
conspirators were Catholics. An excellent account is WILLIAM HANCHETT, THE
LINCOLN MURDER CONSPIRACIES (1983).
states adopting these laws were North Carolina (1917), Missouri (1919), Arkansas
(1923), Virginia (1923), New Jersey (1924), and Oregon (1924). See Kates,
Handgun Prohibition, supra note 84, at 15, 19-20.
REC. 3945, 3946 (daily ed. Mar. 11, 1924) (statement of Sen. Shields). The
proposal mirrored a law Tennessee had adopted as soon as whites regained control
of its legislature in 1870. Similar laws designed to raise price barriers to
handgun ownership and thereby exclude the impecunious African-American
population were a common feature in the late nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century South. See Kates, Handgun Prohibition,
supra note 84, at 14-15. Such laws are commonly denominated "Saturday
Night Special" laws, the derivation, evidently, being from "nigger-town Saturday
night." See Bruce-Briggs, supra note 3, at 50.
[94.]See KENNETT & ANDERSON, supra note 86, at
165-215; Kates, Handgun Prohibition, supra note 84, at 24-25. The
Uniform Revolver Act, which was drafted and promoted by gun owner organizations
as a more moderate alternative to licensing and prohibitory legislation, was
adopted in virtually every state. See Don B. Kates, Jr., Handgun
Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment, 82 MICH. L.
REV. 204, 209-10 (1993). Arkansas and Oregon adopted the Uniform Revolver Act
and repealed their handgun license requirements.
central aim of the KKK was to infiltrate government and the police because "the
backing of politicians [could] protect it from hostile legislation or
prosecution." MACLEAN, supra note 83, at 16. Chalmers emphasizes the
Klan's success in infiltrating and controlling police agencies in every state or
locality in which the KKK operated; in several instances in which shoot-outs
resulted in the death of masked Klan attackers, the deceased turned out to be
(off-duty?) policemen. See CHALMERS, supra note 82, at 41, 144,
196, 311, and 336.
e.g., CHALMERS, supra note 82, at 59-65 (describing the defeat of the
KKK in Louisiana).
[98.]Id. at 141 (quoting senator's statement in support of
law against appearing in public masked).
[99.]Compare id. at 66-69 (armed self-defense by family of
Mississippi U.S. Senator opposed to the KKK) with KLECK, supra
note 4, at 29 (reporting "results from a number of national surveys have all
indicated that most protection gun owners feel safer because they have a gun in
their home."); id. at 119-20 (saying that many persons who own guns do so
for other reasons).
[100.]Eighty-one percent of "Good Samaritans" who rescued crime
victims or arrested criminals "own guns, and some carry them in their cars. They
are familiar with violence, feel competent to handle it, and don't believe they
will be hurt if they get involved." Huston et al., supra note 4, at 64
(internal quotations omitted).
WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES *4. Compare MONTESQUIEU, 2 SPIRIT OF THE
LAWS 60 ("Who does not see that self-protection is a duty superior to every
precept?"); THOMAS HOBBES, LEVIATHAN 199 (C.B. MacPherson ed., Penguin Books
1981) (1651) ("A Covenant not to defend my self from force, by force, is always
void."); ALGERNON SIDNEY, DISCOURSES CONCERNING GOVERNMENT 340 (1698). (Nay, all
Laws must fall, human societies that subsist by them be dissolved, and all
innocent persons be exposed to the violence of the most wicked, if men might not
justly defend themselves against injustice. . . .); id. at 343 ("[H]e is
a fool who knows not that swords were given to men, that none might be slaves,
but such as know not how to use them.").
[102.]See Akhil Reed Amar, The Bill of Rights as a
Constitution, 100 YALE L.J. 1131 (1991).
Founders "believed that the perpetuation of a republican spirit and character
within their society depended upon the freeman's possession of arms as well as
his ability and willingness to defend both himself and his society." Robert E.
Shalhope, The Armed Citizen in the Early Republic, 49 LAW & CONTEMP.
PROBS. 125, 138 (1986). See also Don B. Kates, Jr., The Second
Amendment and the Ideology of Self-Protection, 9 CONST. COMMENTARY 87, 94
(1992): "Arms possession for protection of self, family and polity was both the
hallmark of the individual's freedom and one of the two primary factors in his
developing the independent, self-reliant, responsible character which classical
political philosophers deemed necessary to the citizenry of a free state."
WRITINGS OF THOMAS PAINE 56 (M. Conway ed., 1894). In a much earlier criticism
of pacifism, Paine wrote: "I am thus far a Quaker, that I would gladly argue
with all the world to lay aside the use of arms, and settle matters by
negotiation, but unless the whole will, the matter ends, and I take up my musket
and thank heaven he has put it in my power." A.J. AYER, THOMAS PAINE 8 (1988)
(internal quotations omitted). Note that Paine's point is not that one needs
guns because others have guns. Rather he is saying that one needs guns because
others will not give up violence in favor of peaceful resolution of disputes.
[105.]See WRITINGS OF THOMAS PAINE, supra note 104,
WEBB, MODERN ENGLAND: FROM THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY TO THE PRESENT 115 n.14 (1968)
(quoting FRANCIS PLACE, IMPROVEMENT OF THE WORKING CLASSES (1834)).
[107.]Professor Rummel estimates the total at 169,198,000.
See R.J. RUMMEL, DEATH BY GOVERNMENT 1-28 (1994).
[108.]David Caplan notes that the initial Nazi attempt to
liquidate the Warsaw ghetto was repelled by resisters armed "with only `ten
pistols.' Nevertheless, the shock of encountering even this relatively small
resistance forced the German war machine to retreat and `discontinue their work
in order to make more thorough preparations.' For three months thereafter, the
German Nazi soldiers did not dare to venture into the ghetto." David I. Caplan,
Weapons Control Laws: Gateways to Victim Oppression and Genocide,
in TO BE A VICTIM: ENCOUNTERS WITH CRIME AND INJUSTICE 295, 310 (1991)
(citations omitted). "This just shows what you can expect from Jews if they lay
hands on weapons," commented the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels,
according to Elliot C. Rothenberg, Jewish History Refutes Gun Control
Activists, AM. RIFLEMAN, Feb. 1988, at 30, 30. For the whole story of the
Warsaw ghetto battle, see YITZHAK ZUCKERMAN, A SURPLUS OF MEMORY:
CHRONICLE OF THE WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING (1993).
KEEGAN, THE SECOND WORLD WAR 483-85 (1989) (attributing resistance movement's
failure to Hitler's ruthlessness).
Wilkinson, A Changed Vision of God, NEW YORKER, Jan. 24, 1994, at 52,
54-55 (emphasis added).
[112.]See Barbara Harff, The Etiology of Genocides,in GENOCIDE AND THE MODERN AGE: ETIOLOGY AND CASE STUDIES OF MASS DEATH
41, 55 (Isidor Wallimann & Michael N. Dobkowski eds., 1987). Compare
SIMKIN ET AL., supra note 5, at 280, describing Amin's army and
estimating the Ugandan genocide toll at the more conservative figure of 300,000.
in most genocides, the precise number of victims will never be known. The
estimates run from 500,000 to 1.2 million. The perpetrators include elements of
the army and individual and ad hoc groups of civilians armed by the military or
with their own knives and agricultural implements. Victims include not only
"Communists" (i.e., leftist oppositionals), but those suspected of being such,
including vast numbers who were suspected just because they were ethnic Chinese.
Predictably, using mass murder against the targeted groups resulted in many
cases in which the perpetrators took the opportunity to indiscriminately
massacre people on the basis of feud, ancient enmity, or personal dislike,
without any connection to the overall program of political or ethnic murder.
Personal Communications with Professors Barbara Harff (Sept. 11, 1994) and
Rudolf J. Rummel (Oct. 24, 1994).
[115.]See Don B. Kates, Jr., Why a Civil Libertarian
Opposes Gun Control, 3 CIV. LIBERTIES REV. 24, 25-26 (1976). See also the
discussion of armed resistance to the KKK in the 1920s supra notes 87 and
95-99 and accompanying text.
GERTH & C. WRIGHT MILLS, FROM MAX WEBER: ESSAYS IN SOCIOLOGY 78 (1946).
[117.]See, e.g., MILOVAN DJILAS, TITO: THE STORY FROM
INSIDE (1980); Nikolai Tolstoy, Bare Bones: The Massacres at Kocevje, NEW
REPUBLIC, Dec. 24, 1990, at 16; Chuck Sudetic, Piles of Bones in Yugoslavia
Point to Partisan Massacres, N.Y. TIMES, July 9, 1990, at A-6.
[118.]Comment of David Clark, MP (UK Labor Party Shadow Defense
Minister), April 14, 1993 MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE para. 12 (U.S. 1776).