Wednesday, January 02, 2002

Libertarian Samizdata is getting a lot of praise. Yet, every time I read it, I keep tripping over stuff. Take the recent spate of gun control articles. (Yes, please. But it's a topic they've addressed at length, so at least it gives a good view of their thinking).

The argument that they're consistently making is that, the civilian population needs unfettered access to guns in order to have them as, I guess, the ultima ratio plebes or something --- as a final check against the imposition of government "tyranny". Quoth Perry de Havilland:

I support private ownership of arms because I do not actually think the state can ever be a reliable guarantor of my intrinsic rights.

But in the world I'm living in, they don't even seem to be much good with rogue cops.

Take, for example, Waco and Ruby Ridge. Both of them show American law enforcement at its absolute bloody worst, actually killing civilians; I would have liked to see some of the officers involved in these fiascoes go up on manslaughter charges at least. The victims in these cases had significant arsenals which proved, in the end, to do them no good at all. The reverse, if anything, at Waco at least; the Feds were at least nominally there to arrest the folks they wound up killing on weapons charges --- if not for the guns, the Feds would never have showed up in the first place.

Or, let's look at local law enforcement --- say the Rampart scandal at the LAPD. The community they were operating in was heavily armed --- more heavily, in fact, than a lot of the residents would have liked. But even if there had been people standing on the streetcorners in Santa suits, giving out firearms to all and sundry to make sure that everyone had a gun, it wouldn't have improved the behavior of the police. What eventually brought at least this crowd of badged goons in check, and freed about a hundred people who had been convicted on bogus evidence, was publicity and prosecution, not necessarily in that order.

Of course, I'm not arguing here that the answer to homicidal loons in the ATF is unilateral civilian disarmament. There are plenty of good reasons for responsible civilians to have access to firearms --- self-defense, hunting for food, just plain sport. What I'm arguing against is the Samizdata crowd's faith in gun ownership as a way for people to defend their other civil rights. When used for that purpose, the damn things just don't seem to work.

What makes the Samizdata claims here even harder to swallow is that they're talking about loosely organized civilian irregulars repelling not just squads of rogue cops, but the combined United States military forces --- the most fearsome military machine that has ever existed on the planet --- on its own home ground. That may have made sense 200 years ago, when it's how we kicked out the British. (Oh wait, it's not. Never mind). But that was then; this is now.

So here's the deal. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have gone nuts, thrown some Operation Northwoods style party, and declared martial law. (Tyranny ain't just a tweak to the capital gains tax). Samizdata stands for the proposition that civilian irregulars with souped-up hunting rifles, and maybe Jacques Littlefield's collection of museum quality armored vehicles, could hold them off for long enough to make a real difference.

Forget the guns. Where are these guys getting the bullets? Sustained combat operations of any kind chew up ammo at a ferocious pace, and current American combat doctrine seems to begin with the interdiction of supply lines, disruption of communication channels, and destruction of stores. Camouflage can delay this a bit, but the activity around these sites is more than likely to give them away eventually. Any industrial-scale production is likely to glow like a beacon on IR. And it's difficult to deny the United States Air Force air superiority over East Texas.

Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden paid serious money for answers to questions like these. It doesn't seem to have done them much good. Iraq's formerly well-respected army was a laughingstock after the Gulf War; American forces blew past his Republican Guard like they weren't even there.

So, when it comes to armed civilian irregulars holding off the US Army, I'm skeptical enough that I'd like to see a little evidence. Here's what they've got. In response to Brian Linse's demurral that:

Somehow I don't think that 30 round magazines and SP-89's illegally converted to full-auto would be much use against laser guided bunker busters and smart bombs.

Perry replies

I suspect the US Rangers who died in Somalia might have disagreed. You seem to think that some future tyranny in the US would find dealing with armed resistance by sections of US society rather like fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. I think Somalia and Vietnam and Northern Ireland and Algeria would be better analogies.

The best of these examples is Vietnam --- a war fought thirty years ago, before widespread use of the weapons Brian mentioned, against an enemy with superpower sponsorship. American problems there weren't all military in any case; those problems were compounded by sloppy political thinking, and thoughtlessly chosen goals. Since Vietnam, American military strategy, weapons, and tactics have all changed immensely, and the lessons learned from the failure there largely underlie the more recent success in Afghanistan.

As for the current examples, Perry seems to place great stock in the Somali fiasco. But even though they were facing a Ranger force with no support from aerial bombardment or armor (which the Rangers had requested and been denied), the Somalis managed 18 Ranger deaths at the cost of 500 of their own --- hardly a sustainable ratio. If the Rangers had full equipment and different rules of engagement, ones which didn't embody the peculiar American fetish of avoiding civilian deaths (something tyrants don't much care about), the Somalis would have been wiped out. The only conclusion you can really draw from the result in Somalia is that the United States didn't think it was worth committing serious resources to a fight in which it had nothing tangible at stake --- which itself may have been a mistake, but it says nothing about what happens when the American military actually wants to fight.

And from there, the comparisons get even sillier. Take Algeria, where Islamic fundamentalists are trying to mount a rebellion against a secular government (perhaps tacitly backed by the awesome might of its ally and patron, the French). It's difficult for an outsider to assess this situation precisely, due in part to persistent rumors that the government has the bad habit of massacring civilians itself and blaming the militants. Regardless, the rebels haven't come close to displacing the government, and by most accounts, they've been beaten to a bloody pulp trying.

Which leaves Northern Ireland. I'm not sure which collection of homicidal maniacs Perry has cast as the freedom fighters here, or what he thinks they've achieved, but I don't think the upshot there was fully protective of anybody's civil rights.

It doesn't get any better when they're discussing the oppressive realities of gun control. I was struck by this riff from Walter Uhlmann:

Should the state be involved when you sell the neighbor your old car? Should you have to call up the DMV and obtain his driving record, then verify he has valid auto insurance and get him to take a breathalyzer before you trade keys for cash?

But the state is involved in sales of private cars in the United States; individual states maintain registries of who owns what vehicle. That's what the funny metal plates with the numbers on them are all about. They also generally demand annual inspections, and will deny the use of a car even to that car's lawful owner if they don't like the smell of burning oil coming out of the tailpipe.

As to the breathalyzers, that's not tied to purchases, but the sad facts there are even worse. Even if you've already purchased a vehicle, the state will deny you the use of that vehicle --- your own lawfully acquired property --- for trifles like a few drunk driving arrests. And, as Walter seemed to acknowledge, most of them won't let you drive unless you buy insurance, interfering with another private choice. Imagine.

And even that doesn't plumb the full depth of the horror that is life in modern America. Because a lot of us here think this is all a good idea. That it reasonably balances the rights and interests of everyone involved, including the victims of the next smashup by some habitual drunk. That it doesn't unduly inconvenience anyone who hasn't done a lot to deserve it. And given all that, some of us don't see the problem with dealing with guns the same way.

(By the way, I agree with the Samizdata folks that that's not fundamentally a legal question. Regarding guns at any rate, I'll leave the law to the courts, which, for the moment at least, have smiled upon gun control regimes a great deal more restrictive than the one I've outlined here. If that confuses anyone, transplant the question to Britain, where Constitutional questions, in the American sense, don't arise. If they allowed free ownership of registered guns, and allowed carry permits contingent on safety training and a clean criminal record, that would be a substantial loosening of current British law --- but for some folks on the net, it wouldn't go nearly far enough. Why not? Why would that scheme be a bad idea for them?)

I hope it's obvious to anyone who read this far that I don't have a limitless faith in any part of the American legal system --- not the Congress, not the courts, not the lawyers, and certainly not law enforcement. These are hardly foolproof tools for guarding anyone's civil rights. Neither is civil disobedience, public protest, or lobbying. Over the past hundred years, they've all had conspicuous failures. But they've had numerous successes as well, in America, in getting laws overturned and grievances redressed. Jim Crow is gone. Lynching is a thing of the past. Women and blacks can vote. Free speech protections are much stronger than at the turn of the last century. All of that came through civil disobedience, protest, lawsuits, and petitions to Congress. How much has been achieved in America, over the same stretch of time, by armed resistance?

Of course, the tools only work if you use them. Sometimes, not even then. If you're an American cheesed off at the state of our truly deplorable civil forfeiture laws, a letter to Congress or a check to the ACLU won't get rid of them --- but they're more likely to do something towards that end than burying a gun on public grassland.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home