Max Weber described the state as the entity which has a monopoly on the use of physical force in a given territory. Police forces and armies exercise this force, and other entities can only do so if granted that ability by the state. The state’s legitimacy, in Weber’s analysis, derives from its ability to maintain that monopoly.
The Founders, including the Anti-Federalists who supported a constitutional amendment specifying a civilian right to bear arms, and the Federalists who believed in a pre-legal right to bear arms but thought it would be sullied by its enumeration in a bill of rights, nearly unanimously rejected this sort of legitimacy for the United States. While the government had a right to defend itself from “enemies domestic”, the people ultimately had the inherent right to dismiss that government, by force if need be. In acknowledging a civilian right to bear arms, the Founders guaranteed that the Second Continental Congress and its successors had the right to govern the territory of the United States not because they had wrested control from the British Empire and maintained it by force of arms, but because the people granted it to them.
In the wake of senseless tragedies like the shootings in Aurora and Newtown, it makes sense that policy makers are discussing, among other things, the role of guns in our society. Though I have argued before that many factors play a greater role in causing these tragedies than the accessibility of guns, there are certainly ways that access to guns can make tragedies-in-the-making more severe. Even some lawmakers on the right are beginning to accept this, and it seems fairly likely that some sort of firearms legislation will emerge from this debate. As this conversation evolves, it is the hope of many conservative and libertarian-leaning citizens that any proposed bill properly balances both the safety of our nation’s people and the fundamental right of the people to keep and bear arms suitable for militia use and other purposes.
In order to be heard above zealous voices like Governor Cuomo of New York, those of us on the pro-gun rights side need a responsible partner to make their case on the public stage. That partner would need to be a person or group that is willing to accept that a compromise position exists that can protect both our safety and our rights. That partner would participate meaningfully in activities like Vice President Joe Biden’s task force. When the NRA announced its now infamous press conference response to the Sandy Hook massacre, I naively hoped it could act as such a partner. Once the conference began and the instant reactions started to come in from Twitter, however, I realized that my faith had been misplaced.
I do not wish to judge the merits of the NRA’s proposal to arm teachers, but it is clear the call for more guns when everyone else was looking for ways to reduce gun access robbed the organization of an opportunity to be taken seriously in the debate to come. With the NRA supporting reform in good faith, perhaps gun critics could have been satisfied with modest but effective changes like streamlining background checks and closing the gun show loophole. A more competent NRA might have proposed more creative ideas to reduce violence without robbing civilians of the right to own weapons of war for militia purposes: like limiting assault weapon ownership to members of state militias or licensed private gun clubs that provided safety training, gun storage alternatives, and mental health evaluation.
As the NRA’s antagonistic rhetoric following its meeting with Vice President Biden’s task force implies, the administration has no interest in heeding its warnings or listening to its suggestions. The NRA’s unreasonable, unprincipled early demands cost it credibility, and even if it comes up with better ideas now, it will likely be ignored. Instead, the nation may now likely get harsher measures—like a more general ban on certain types of armaments—out of this ordeal, and the second amendment will suffer as a result.