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Drawing the line on privately-owned weapons

Posted by Richard on August 8, 2005

Saturday, I spent about six hours shooting with Jed and Nick. That was the first time I’d thrown any lead at paper in about a year, and I had a great time, despite the case head separation that rendered my Daewoo DH40 inoperable (any recommendations for gunsmithing in the metro Denver area?).

Jed and Nick persuaded me to join them at a gunbloggers’ meet-up Sunday at the Tanner Gun Show, and that was fun, too. Lots of lively discussion on a wide range of topics.

One of the topics of conversation is the topic of this post. Human beings have an inherent right of self-defense and a right to acquire and own property, and thus they have a right to be armed. But is there a limit to what kinds of weapons a person may properly own, and if so, where do you draw the line?

One point of view is that the 2nd Amendment was intended to cover the kinds of weapons that a single person could carry and deploy in service to the militia. I find this argument unpersuasive for three reasons:

  • The 2nd doesn’t grant the right to be armed, it merely recognizes it; it’s possible that the language of the 2nd ought to be broader to fully cover our inherent right.
  • It’s doubtful that the founders intended to cover only rifles, muskets, and pistols, since the patriots who fought at Concord Bridge and Lexington did so to protect an arsenal that included small cannon. Furthermore, the Constitution authorized Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal, which commissioned privately-owned warships ("privateers") to take action against a hostile foreign party. Privateers played a significant role in the War of 1812, and were used by the Confederacy during the War Between the States.
  • If you have an inherent right to deploy arms in self-defense and I have the same right, then don’t we have the right to cooperate in order to deploy squad-based weapons (M2 machine gun, SMAW, field artillery, etc.)?

Someone suggested that explosives should be off-limits because they’re too indiscriminate. I think that gets us closer, because it considers the risk to innocent bystanders, but it’s too broad a restriction. I’m comfortable with you owning some kinds of explosives in some circumstances. For instance, if you live on a farm or ranch, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to have explosives for non-defense purposes such as breaking up rock and removing stumps. And I’d have no objection to you having a means of delivering an explosive charge against attackers — a mortar or grenade launcher, for instance. I may judge you overly cautious — even paranoid — but you’re not endangering me by merely possessing them.

On the other hand,  I live in the city. My house sits less than 10 feet from the houses on either side. I’d really rather not have one of my neighbors storing hundreds of pounds of high explosives in the basement and assembling bombs. I think that would present an unreasonable risk to me, making my neighbor guilty of reckless endangerment. Therefore, some restrictions are justified.

What restrictions, exactly? I’m not sure. I don’t mind my neighbor doing hand-loading or working with model rockets — up to a point. I suspect this is kind of like choosing the age at which we presume adulthood (for contracts, marriage, etc.) — setting a limit is reasonable, but the precise one chosen is necessarily rather arbitrary. So, perhaps up to X pounds of black powder is OK, Y pounds of smokeless powder, etc. The limits would be stricter for more dangerous substances.

In trying to formulate a principle, it helps to ask why limits on explosives have a broad appeal: I think it’s because it’s harder to avoid "collateral damage" with explosives than with rifles or swords. You have a right to defend yourself, even if doing so exposes innocent bystanders to some risk. If that weren’t true, you’d essentially have no right to use a weapon beyond your bare hands. But you don’t have an unlimited right to put innocents at risk.

So, how much risk to innocents is appropriate and how much force may you use?  I think it depends on the scale of the aggression you’re facing. If someone picks your pocket on a city sidewalk, you wouldn’t be justified in pulling out a machine pistol and firing away. On the other hand, if a band of twenty outlaws is laying siege to your cabin in the mountains, and you have some mortars or RPGs, more power to you. Could you be endangering an innocent hiker or fisherman? Perhaps, but given the attack you face, the response seems appropriate and the risk justifiable.

Do you ever have a right to drop a 1000-pound bomb or launch a tactical nuke that will kill everyone within a mile? Well, if your adversary is an entire nation, with a vast army, tanks, airplanes, etc., perhaps. But nations don’t normally attack individuals or small groups (except when Janet Reno is Attorney General). They go after an entire nation, so now we’re talking about a war.

Nevertheless, rights belong to individuals. The leadership of a group, such as a government, can’t have any rights beyond those delegated to it by the individuals in the group. That means either there must be an individual right to possess and use nuclear weapons, or no government may rightfully have them, even for purely defensive purposes.

I’m inclined to resolve this quandary by acknowledging an individual right to nukes, but insisting that you may only exercise that right in a way that reasonably limits the risk to innocents: 

  • They must be stored with an extremely high degree of security, such as in a highly-secure facility controlled at all times by a highly-trained military unit with a functioning command structure that’s accountable to the people being put at risk.
  • They must be used only against an aggressor army/nation in such a way that it’s reasonable to conclude that their use will lead to a better outcome in terms of casualties and consequences. "Better outcome" may include "prevent us from being conquered and oppressed."

I realize that I’ve defined an individual right in such a way that no individual can exercise it alone (except maybe Superman), but I think such severe restrictions are appropriate, given the principle that you don’t have an unlimited right to put innocents at risk and the fact that nukes (or 1000-pound HE bombs, for that matter) represent one hell of a risk to those around them!

In other words, the consequences of mishandling, misusing, or losing control over a nuke are so grave that it’s just not possible for you to possess one all by yourself without recklessly endangering others. IMHO, of course.

But is there such a thing as an individual right that you can only exercise in cooperation with others? Or is this all sophistry on my part?

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6 Responses to “Drawing the line on privately-owned weapons”

  1. Anonymous said

    Clearly, it is as extraordinarily difficult to limit rights as it is to acknowledge their God-given existence. Once discussed and revealed, where do the rights of individuals begin and the rights of groups, neighbors, communities, states, begin?

    There’s no clear answers. I become almost as uncomfortable higlighting the rights of groups as I am discussing the rights of the individual citizen.

    Nice gun show, BTW. Caught myself a nice Com-Bloc handgun for cheap – you shoulda stuck around. 🙂

  2. Shotgun Shells Dude said

    What people often forget is that a primary reason for the 2nd amendment was to keep the government in fear of the people and prevent people from fearing the government. Do I seem crazy or extreme? Well, consider this… one of the 1st thing that Castro did when he first got power over Cuba was go door to door collecting guns… and I’m sure he did this in the name of “protecting the people”.

  3. Karl said

    Yes, I agree. I am sorry If I came across as rude in another one of my replies. It was really just an attempt to bring certain issues up front for discussion. Anyways, with this particular article, I happen to be in full agreement. One thing that irritates me about the modern ACLU is that they are very weak in recognizing the second amendment. They make the bogus claim that it is only the right of the militia to arm — meaning the national gaurd.

    This is completely illogical. Why would the founding fathers have gone out of their way to write an amendment, just to say that it is okay to arm the army. Virtually every army in the world has weapons, without any need for a second amendment. Besides, the language of the second amendment is extremely clear to all those except to those with an axe to grind.

  4. rgcombs said

    ”One thing that irritates me about the modern ACLU is that they are very weak in recognizing the second amendment.”

    Heck, the modern ACLU isn’t even all that solid on the ”’First”’ Amendment, frequently embracing campus speech codes and similar PC BS.

    Remember, the ACLU was started by communists and socialists, and their strong defense of the Bill of Rights (or parts thereof) didn’t stem from a principled commitment to individual liberty and limited government. It stemmed from a desire to protect the speech — and other activities — of leftists dedicated to undermining traditional American values.

    Now that the left owns academia, they’re only too happy to silence the dissenting voices of the libertarians and conservatives.

  5. Winged Hussar 1683 said

    In Cordwainer Smith’s “Norstrilia,” the citizens of Old North Australia (a planet colonized by Australians) keep one-kiloton nuclear grenades in their homes. Removing it for use alerts the authorities, presumably because one would normally use such a weapon only against invaders or space pirates (of whom there were plenty, because the planet was the only one that could produce a longevity drug).

  6. rgcombs said

    Nuclear grenades?? I hope they had a real powerful grenade launcher — that’s clearly not a grenade you’d want to pull the pin on and toss overhanded. 🙂

    I vaguely recall reading some Cordwainer Smith many years ago, but not that one. Thanks for the tip, and thanks for stopping by!

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