J. Neil Schulman’s Stopping Power — Introduction: As American as Guns
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Stopping Power — Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns
A Book by J. Neil Schulman
Introduction: As American as Guns
“You know why there’s a second amendment? In case the government doesn’t obey the first one.”
– Rush Limbaugh, August 17, 1993
Advocates of the right to keep and bear arms in the United States usually base their arguments on the Second Amendment: “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
But what if the Second Amendment were repealed? Would the people’s right to keep and bear arms still exist?
If we do not have a basic understanding of the nature and source of rights in general, as did the Framers of the Constitution, then it is near-impossible to discuss whether the people’s right to keep and bear arms exists only as a collective right, or as an individual right; and whether it would disappear if the “well-regulated militia” mentioned in that amendment is ruled to be under state jurisdiction rather than the adult civilian population at large, as it was thought to be at the time of the amendment’s passage.
The answers to both questions must rest on prior examination of what constitutes rights and individual liberty to begin with.
In its most fundamental aspect, the concept of liberty is that of a society organized on the basis of universal individual rights – rights which are equally held by every individual in that society.
What do we mean by a “right”? Here’s a working definition: a right is the moral authority to do something without needing prior permission from another to do it.
In Biblical times, it was assumed that only God has rights, and that He grants them only to a specific chosen few. He liberated the nation of Israel from bondage to the Egyptians by a series of plagues imposed upon the Egyptians. Was God violating the Egyptians’ rights? Not according to the Biblical writers, who viewed the Egyptians as merely God’s property, to do with as He will.
Later, God ordered the Israelites, under the command of Joshua, to evict everyone from Canaan, killing every man, woman, and child among them and take the land for themselves, as His exclusively authorized tenants.
The Biblical writers assumed that God had the rights of a landlord to do so, and the Canaanites had no rights to live there: only the nation of Israel, to whom God granted an exclusive, long-term lease.
Still later in Biblical accounts, the nation of Israel petitioned God to have a king, so they could be like other nations. Reluctantly, God agreed, and thus was born the concept of the divine right of kings. The king appointed by God had an exclusive moral authority to take actions in that society, answerable only to God Himself. Everyone else was under the King’s authority and had no rights of their own – no rights to their own lives, property, or freedom of action. All these were owned by the king, who dispensed them to his favored few.
There were historical variations, of course. Often kings found that they needed to share power with military men in order to keep their turf – thus the birth of aristocracy. The ancient Greeks vested much authority in military leaders, and experimented with popular government without much success. Ancient Rome experimented with a republican form of government, in which certain classes of people had greater rights than others, ranging from the patricians, to the plebeians, to slaves – even women had certain rights. Later, when Rome became an empire, we find one of the oddest reversals of rights being that of the Roman Emperor’s right not only to rule on earth with absolute authority over all that he conquered, but to create new gods as well.
In any event, as history progresses, there is a tendency to disperse rights among larger and larger groups of people. There were a number of forces at work to produce this. One of them was the Reformation’s transfer of biblical interpretation from the Church to the individual. Another was the greater importance of trade making even kings and emperors dependent on private merchants to one extent or another. Still another was the necessity of kings requiring wide dispersal of arms to as many of their subjects as could handle them, to discourage other kings from invading.
Ideas began percolating in the English Leveller’s movement in the 1640’s which by the 18th century, largely due to John Locke’s 1690 “Two Treatises on Government,” started gaining popularity among many Englishmen, particularly those living in America: that rights are not invested by God in a single King, but exist in every single individual.
In Europe, however, the theory of rights took a different road – based on extreme egalitarianism – particularly in the French revolution. Instead of rights being seized from the king and given to the individual, it was given to new collectives of revolutionaries. Thus the idea of revolutionary communism and revolutionary socialism was born. The moral authority to act without permission was shifted from the king to the governing council or party. Because this idea granted the people a moral sense that it was proper to kill the old kings and aristocracies and grab their lands and property, it became popular – popular until it became evident to everyone that all that had happened was the transfer of power from an old aristocracy to a new one called by a different name. The new aristocracy was just as hard to overthrow as the old ones, and it is only well into the 20th century that there has been any success at it.
This history lesson has a point. No matter what the institutions are of a given society, or what names they are called, the fundamental question is whether rights in that society are universally held by all the people, or whether they are reserved to those with the political power to get their own way.
“Getting your own way” can take a number of forms.
One of them is institutional politics. This can take the form of a political party, or a political lobby, or a class of people who are well-organized enough to require those in power to take their desires into account. It can be the ability to convince politicians to grant favors – sometimes by cash payoffs, sometimes merely by a promise that you will support their next campaign for office. Sometimes it can be something as silly as being a popular actor or TV personality whom people are willing to pay attention to.
But underneath all this civilized horse-trading is the question of, when push comes to shove, who has the raw force to win the day?
Historically, the king’s rights meant nothing if his soldiers wouldn’t act on his orders, or if others could overthrow him by force of arms.
What is true for the rights of kings is just as true for the rights of the people. Rights are only as secure as the ability to wield sufficient force to defend them.
In a free society which recognizes the moral authority of individuals to act for their own good – to make decisions about their lives, lifestyles, and property without prior permission from a king, political party, or even their neighbors – individuals are the sovereign, the kings. Whatever compacts such sovereigns make with one another to keep from violating each other’s boundaries only have the moral authority which is first held by the individuals themselves.
America is a culture historically different from any other in the history of the human race, and still largely different from any other elsewhere on this world. What has distinguished American civilization from all others is the doctrine of universal individual sovereign rights. This unique difference made the American civilization superior to any previous or foreign civilization in the known universe.
I carefully said “made” in the previous sentence rather than “makes.” Reactionary forces for the last century have been working hard at eliminating those qualities that made the American civilization unique, and America is a long way on the road back into the quicksand of European and Asian barbarism from which it once freed itself.
In every previous civilization, the individual was finally the servant of the polity, whether that polity was the tribe, the religious order, or embodied in the person of a king or emperor. Even in such decentralized polities as existed in ancient Ireland or Iceland, an individual pledged fealty to a king above himself, regardless of his ability to change his mind and switch kings.
The American civilization, which was born on July 4th, 1776, utterly rejected this doctrine for the first time in human history, in its founding document, the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In an historical instant, all previous conception of the relationship between the individual and the polity was reversed. From then on, each individual held sovereignty as a birthright: not a king’s claim to rule others and sit in judgment on them, but a free man’s sovereignty to determine his own destiny, rule his own life, and dispose of his own property as he saw fit. For the first time in human history, a polity declared itself a nation – a single people – by an act of will rather than by an accident of geography or history or religion or language.
It is true that the structural implementation of this doctrine of universal individual sovereignty was decidedly flawed. At the outset, the implementation excluded women, Africans, and native tribes, and favored landed property owners. In practice, rights were held only by white Protestant male property owners. These were hangovers from the Old World way of doing things. But the rhetoric was universalist. The power of this rhetoric of universal rights acted as a moral goad, in the United States, first to rebellion against the King, then later to wider and wider dispersal of rights, until chattel slavery of Africans was abolished and full legal rights accorded to them; property qualifications for franchise were eliminated; and full citizenship rights were granted to women as well.
While the principles propelled the culture to progress toward closer and closer approximations of extending universal rights, reactionary forces were working to destroy the concept of sovereign rights entirely. In the twentieth century we have seen the doctrine of universalism triumph while the doctrine of individual powers is nearly extinguished.
The Constitution of the United States in 1787 was the first attempt in human history to forge a government of individual sovereigns, in which the exercise of individual powers was considered an essential check on governmental power. The Articles of Confederation before it was not: it was merely a confederation of states with varying degrees of individual versus state sovereignty. From the perspective allowed by 207 years of observation, it is clearly an imperfect attempt in that it provided no reliable institutional mechanism, short of revolution, to enforce punishment upon magistrates, legislators, and executives who usurped the people’s rights and powers.
But it did preserve the option of revolution as a final means of enforcement of the people’s rights and powers, and it did that in the Second Amendment to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Preamble of which declared the Bill of Rights’ purpose: “The conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added …”
The “militia” referred to in the Second Amendment – supported by debates at the time and enabling legislation – was the people as a whole. It was the expectation of the Constitution’s Framers that the people would train to arms and be available both for defense against foreign enemies and as a posse comitatus (Latin for “power of the county”) against domestic enemies. The constitutional debates now known as the Federalist Papers, largely written by Madison and Hamilton, clearly distinguished the militia from both a standing army and “select” militias. The revolutionaries had had experience with both, courtesy of the British, and wanted the people armed and ready as a protection against them.
Today, 203 years after the Second Amendment was made part of the Constitution, the right of the people to keep and bear arms is under attack as the final barrier to the triumph of statism’s conquest of America, but two centuries of that right’s existence has left us a living legacy from its authors. In spite of an extreme hostility toward civilian arms from every powerful organized institution in this country, half the homes in this country still maintain a private arsenal, and two-thirds of Americans have said to Louis Harris pollsters that they have no intent of surrendering their arms, even if they are both bribed and threatened by the law.
Gun control, so-called, is a fraud perpetrated by those who are fundamentally opposed to the doctrine of universal individual sovereignty: individual liberty. Its proponents are either philosophical pacifists or statists, or both. Its stated purpose of reducing crime and violence has never succeeded in doing either, no matter how thoroughly it has been tried; as good a case can be made that it disarms only the innocent and increases violent crime overall. While the purposes for which it is proposed are dubious, its function is clearly to deinstitutionalize, once and for all, the doctrine of universal individual sovereignty in this country by depriving the people of their final means of resisting incursions upon their lives, property, and liberty: armed force.
Arms are the power of the sovereign, whether that sovereign is one man or a billion.
If the doctrine of universal individual rights is to triumph on this planet, “the last, best hope of earth” – the United States of America – must preserve the power of its people to defend the rights of its people.
Next in Stopping Power — Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns is A Massacre We Didn’t Hear About
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