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Balance of power:  The Second Amendment and self-defense

By Charles Bloomer
web posted January 14, 2008

Remarks delivered to the Prince William County (VA) Republican Women's Club, January 7, 2008.

"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."

The debate surrounding the Second Amendment generally falls into one of three categories – esoteric and philosophical, emotional, or practical.  The esoteric, philosophical approach tries to discern the amendment's meaning by parsing and deconstructing the language of the amendment, by arguing the definitions of various words such as militia, "the people", or the meaning of "bear arms".  Even the grammar of the amendment is analyzed – dependent clauses, independent clauses, even the placement of the commas.  The case currently before the Supreme Court, Heller vs District of Columbia, hinges on the meaning of "the people", and whether the meaning of "the people" in the Second Amendment is the same as the meaning of "the people" in other places in the Bill of Rights.  The Court's ruling will be interesting in light of a recent poll that shows that two-thirds of Americans believe that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right.

The second view, the emotional view of the Second Amendment is generally based on fear or lack of knowledge.  This view of the amendment is filled with errors of fact, misinterpretations and some plain falsehood.  This emotional view is held by Sarah Brady and Handgun Control, Inc. and Rosie O'Donnell, among others, and exploited by anti-gun politicians.

What I want to discuss this evening is the third, practical approach to the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, specifically how guns affect the balance of power in self-defense applications.

Before I do that, let me give you my "esoteric, philosophical" view of the Second Amendment.  Thomas Jefferson stated in the Declaration of Independence that we have the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and that those rights were endowed by our Creator.  I believe that inherent in the exercise of those rights is the right to self-defense, by whatever means necessary.  In other words, my inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are meaningless without an inalienable right to defend myself, my family, and my property from all enemies, foreign or domestic.  John Adams wrote, "Arms in the hands of the citizens may be used at individual discretion for the defense of the country, the overthrow of tyranny, or private self defense."

To consider the practical aspects of gun ownership, I propose we conduct a mental or intellectual exercise.  In this exercise, we will look at three cases and consider the impact on the balance of power in potentially violent physical confrontations.  These three cases are, first, where the relationship between assailant and victim is one-to-one; second, where the relationship is one assailant to many victims; and, third, where the relationship is many to many.

For this first case, I need a volunteer.  Ruth has agreed to be my volunteer "victim".  First, we will establish a baseline.  Neither of us is armed, and Ruth does not have a black belt in some martial art.  This is a potentially violent physical encounter.

Now consider:  I am 6'3" and weigh about 200 lbs.  Ruth is 5'5" (it really doesn't matter what she weighs).  In this physical encounter, who has the balance of power?  It is obvious that the balance of power is on my side of the scale.  I am physically bigger and stronger than she is, and the likelihood that I would overpower her and prevail is very high.  Even if we were the same height and weight, I would likely prevail.  Despite what feminists tell us, men and women are different.  The vast majority of men are physically stronger than women.

Now let's change a variable and see if we can impact the balance of power.  Suppose I am now Ruth's abusive, hot-headed ex-boyfriend.  Last night, I threatened to kill her.  Ruth took the threat seriously.  This morning Ruth took out a restraining order against me.

Does the restraining order affect the balance of power?  Not appreciably.  True, Ruth theoretically has the power of the police behind her.  But the value of that police assistance will depend greatly on the response time of the police, and assumes Ruth can call 911 to notify the police.  In the crucial minutes between the time she dials 911 and when the police arrive, her restraining order offers her no protection.  The piece of paper offers zero protection, and does little to shift the balance of power to the victim.

Let's change another variable.  Now we give Ruth a gun.  What now happens to the balance of power?  The balance of power shifts significantly in Ruth's favor.  In fact, even if she does not know how to use the gun, merely showing the gun is enough to terminate the encounter.  Research by John Lott, Gary Kleck and others shows that this type of encounter happens as many as 2 million times a year in the United States, and in the vast majority of those cases the encounter is terminated by simply brandishing the gun.  In the vast majority of cases, a shot is never fired.  We can improve the balance of power by having the gun readily available, having it loaded, having the knowledge of how to use the gun, and having the wherewithal to use it.

Suppose both the assailant and the potential victim have guns?  A reasonable assumption is that the balance of power is equal.  But that is still an improvement over a situation where the victim is not armed.

Why don't we hear of these cases?  Most of them are not reported.  Even if they are, they do not make the news.  If the incident does make the news, it will be of local interest only and the story will not make the national news.  The NRA does report on a few cases each month in its magazines and on its website.

Let's move now to the second case – the relationship of one assailant and many potential victims.  Again, we'll establish the baseline.  I will play the assailant and you, the audience are the potential victims.  Assume none of us is armed.

There are about 20 of you and only one of me.  Where is the balance of power?  It is reasonable to assume that the 20 of you could overpower me if you perceived me as a credible threat.  The group of you have the balance of power.

Again, we change a variable.  Assume I have a gun, and none of you do.  The balance of power now shifts significantly to my side of the scale.  This scenario is important.  Consider the following list:

  • Omaha, NE - Eight killed in Westroads Mall
  • San Diego, CA - Gunman injured two teachers and three students with a shotgun and a handgun
  • Littleton, CO - 13 people shot and killed at Columbine High School
  • Golita, CA - Seven people shot and killed in a post office
  • Salt Lake City, Utah - Five people shot and killed at the Trolley Street Mall
  • Blacksburg, VA - Gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech

What each of these have in common is that they were gun-free zones.  The victims had been effectively disarmed by either the law or by policy.  As we saw earlier with the paper restraining order, the laws or the "no gun" signs provided no defense.  An armed gunman intent on committing murder is not going to obey a law or a sign.  Murder is already against the law.  Malls or other establishments, instead of posting "no guns allowed", would do just as well by posting a "no murder allowed" sign.

Now consider this list:

  • Salt Lake City, Utah - Five dead at the Trolley Street Mall
  • New Life Church, Colorado Springs, CO – Two dead, four wounded.
  • Appalachian School of Law, Grundy, VA --  Three killed, three wounded.

New Life Church and Appalachian School of Law are not gun-free zones, and armed citizens stopped the killings.  At New Life Church, a volunteer security guard shot the assailant 3 times – an assailant with multiple guns and thousands of rounds.  At ASL, two armed citizens (both with concealed carry permits) confronted the shooter, who then surrendered without the citizens firing a shot.  At the Trolley Street Mall, a gun-free zone, the shooter was stopped by an off-duty policeman carrying a concealed weapon, in violation of the mall's policy.

With that in mind, let's change another variable.  Of your group, one or more of you is armed.  What now happens to the balance of power?  At worst, the balance of power is even.  With every additional gun among your group, the balance shifts more toward your side of the scale.

Let's move now to the third case, that of a many-to-many relationship between multiple assailants and multiple victims.  First we establish our baseline.  I will divide you into two groups – those on the left are group A, those on the right are group B.  Group A is armed and represents government, foreign invaders, or agents of chaos and violence  This scenario represents most accurately the Second Amendment.

If Group A, the group on the left, is armed and the group on the right is not, the balance of power is resides in group A.  Group B, the unarmed group, will find it very hard to defend itself against the other group.

We see this scenario played out in several places in the world today.  In Darfur, Sudan, the population in the south do not have guns, while the tyrannical government and its henchmen do.  The result is genocide – murder on a grand scale.

Less extreme examples exist.  Great Britain and Australia have undertaken some very restrictive gun laws.  The result in both countries has been to disarm law-abiding citizens, leaving them at the mercy of armed criminals.  Both countries have seen significant increases in violent crime.

Just across the Potomac we have Washington, DC with its near-total ban on handguns – the ban that has sparked the Supreme Court case I mentioned earlier, Heller vs District of Columbia.  In the District, the law-abiding public is at the mercy of the criminals (who, being criminals, do not obey the law).  As a result, Washington, DC consistently ranks among the worst cities in America for murder and violent crime.

So in our scenario, group B is at the mercy of group A.  Only two options exist to regain some balance in the balance of power.  One is to disarm group A.  If group A represents the government, this option will never occur.  No government will ever agree to give up its weapons.  If group A represents the criminal element of our society, the option is also off the table.

The second option is to arm group B, by providing group B with the means to defend itself individually and as a group.  By arming Group B, that group now has a deterrent effect on abuse considered by Group A.  In fact, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a former Soviet high-ranking minister was asked why the Soviet Union never contemplated invading the US.  His answer?  There were too many guns in private hands.

In this scenario, Group B is the "militia" mentioned in the Second Amendment.  The intent of the Founding Fathers was to have an armed population that would ensure the "security of a free state".  The armed population would be able to defend itself from abuses of a tyrannical government or foreign invaders, and would have the means of self-defense against the criminal element.  I am not implying that our government is tyrannical now or likely to be in the near future, nor am I calling for an armed revolution.  I am saying that the probability of our government becoming abusive and tyrannical is greatly reduced in the face of an estimated 250 million guns in private hands.

Are any of our cases discussed here absolute?  Of course not.  I am not trying to imply that having a gun is the "magic bullet" that will protect you individually, or us as a group from all threats.  Every encounter will be different.  No armed population is likely to effectively compete with the overwhelming firepower of government.  Having a gun will not protect you 100% of the time against violent criminals.

What can you individually and as a group take away from all this?

As I explained in the beginning, self-defense is inherent in our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  In order to enjoy and exercise those rights, we have the right to defend ourselves, our families and our property by any means available.

The thought experiments we talked through show that gun possession, in the majority of cases, shifts the balance of power in favor of potential victims.  Guns are a very effective means of self-defense.

I have tried to provide you with information that you, as individuals, can use in your personal decisions about gun ownership.

As a political group, you recruit, vet, and endorse candidates and, as I understand, you comment on pending legislation and changes to current legislation.  I propose that you insist on a "political Hippocratic Oath" – that is "First, Do No Harm".

All legislation, and particularly gun-related legislation, should meet two basic criteria.  Laws should be based on logic, including any available empirical data.  Laws should not be based on emotion and wishful thinking.  Ask yourself the question, "will the legislation actually achieve its stated goal?"  Since the rationale for gun laws is usually public safety, ask yourself, "Will this law actually make the country/state/county/city a safer place?"  If the answer is no, the legislation should not pass.

Second, what are the unintended consequences of this legislation?  This requires you to step back and look at the legislation objectively, exploring the possible consequences that have not been articulated by the sponsors.  This is similar to a cost-benefit analysis.  Whatever benefits of a piece of legislation must be weighed against the unintended costs.  For example, gun control laws that disarm law-abiding citizens, turning those citizens into victims, demand an unacceptable cost for some nebulous concept of public safety.

Here's an example of proposed laws here in Virginia that fail both criteria.  Hampton Sen. Mamie Locke is introducing legislation that will ban guns from libraries and festivals.  Of course, the excuse is public safety.  In reality, Sen. Locke's bills expand gun-free zones.  Empirical data show that gun-free zones do not improve public safety.  Libraries and festivals will not be safer places.  Her laws have failed the first criteria.

What are the unintended consequences?  These laws disarm law-abiding citizens in libraries and at festivals, leaving them at the mercy of armed criminals or others whose intent is to do harm.  Remember that armed criminals or armed assailants do not obey laws regarding gun-free zones or signs that prohibit guns.  What Sen. Locke's proposed legislation does is expand the free-murder zone, shifting the balance of power back to the assailants and away from the potential victims.  Remember, too, that Virginia Tech, Columbine, and Westroads Mall in Omaha were gun-free zones.

Another example of a useless gun-control law was the "assault weapons" ban, enacted in 1994.  This law banned the manufacture, importation and sale of certain, specific rifles and handguns based on cosmetic features and magazine capacity.  The supporters of the ban claimed that these cosmetic features made the guns more dangerous.  What was claimed to make these guns more dangerous?  Features such as pistol grips on rifles, adjustable stocks, flash suppressors, and bayonet mounting lugs.  None of these features actually affects the operation of the weapon.  The justification for the ban was to reduce gun violence.  Did the ban accomplish its goal?  No.  First of all, researcher Gary Kleck found that only 0.25 % of violent crimes involved these types of weapons – that is a quarter of one percent.  In June of 2004, the National Institute of Justice, the research and development branch of the US Department of Justice, concluded "…we cannot clearly credit the [assault weapons] ban with any of the nation's drop in gun violence."  All the assault weapons ban did was to ban ugly weapons.  Congress wisely allowed the ban to sunset in 2004 rather than renew it.

What about the "gun-show loophole"?  The push to close the gun-show loophole is loaded with emotional hyperbole and outright dishonesty.  This so-called loophole is actually a non-problem.  The problem refers to the fact that a private citizen can take his guns to a gun show and sell them, without having to do all the paperwork and the instant check requirement that gun dealers must perform.  The over-excited supporters of closing the loophole will tell you that gun shows are the favored venue for criminals to buy guns, and that terrorists buy their guns at these shows and ship them off to be used against our troops.  The claims are false.  A study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an office of the US Department of Justice, reports that only two percent of guns used in crimes are obtained at gun shows.  Most guns used by criminals, 80%, are obtained either from family or friends (usually stolen), a street buy, or an illegal source.  Twelve percent are obtained from a retail store or pawnshop (usually through a straw purchase).

Laws aimed at closing the loophole will not reduce crime, nor will they keep criminals from buying or getting guns.  The unintended consequence will be to move private sellers into the parking lot instead of at a table inside the gun show.

As an aside, the gun show loophole hyperbole shows just how dishonest the gun grabbers are.  The commission appointed by Governor Kaine to study the Virginia Tech shootings recently came out with a recommendation to pass legislation closing the loophole, despite that fact that the Virginia Tech shooter had not bought his guns at a gun show, and had never been to a gun show.  There exists absolutely no relationship between gun shows and the shooting.  But the anti-gun zealots shamelessly used their position to push their agenda.

Are there gun laws that actually work?  Yes.  The most successful laws are those that allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons.  John Lott conducted comprehensive research into the relationship between concealed carry laws and violent crime rates.  In his research, published in his book More Guns, Less Crime, Lott looked at violent crime rates in every US county and compared those crime rates before and after a state passed a law allowing concealed carry.  In every case, violent crime rates were reduced when a state allowed concealed carry.

Concealed carry laws have been so successful, states could not ignore the evidence.  In the past 20 years, 38 states have enacted "shall issue" concealed carry laws – meaning that the burden is on the state to determine why an applicant would be denied.  Without disqualifying information, the state shall issue the permit.  Seven other states have adopted "may issue" laws, meaning that the applicant must provide sufficient reason to carry a concealed weapon.  The state then may issue a permit at its discretion.  Only three states and the District of Columbia do not allow any form of concealed carry.  Virginia is a "shall issue" state.  Vermont and Alaska do not require permits to carry concealed weapons.

It is interesting to note that, when Pennsylvania was working on passing its concealed carry law, Philadelphia lobbied to be exempt.  Philadelphia is now the violent crime capital of Pennsylvania.

Another example of successful guns laws comes from Kennesaw, GA.  Kennesaw passed a town ordinance that required all heads of households to have a gun, with exceptions for religious reasons.  Crime in Kennesaw dropped to essentially zero.

We should not allow laws that limit our ability to defend ourselves – that is, laws that disarm potential victims.  Real sensible gun laws allow law-abiding citizens the option to own guns to maintain the balance of power on their side of the scale.

Thomas Jefferson understood the importance of gun ownership in the balance of power.  Jefferson wrote:  "Laws that forbid the carrying of arms . . . disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes . . . Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man."

The Second Amendment guarantees our right to self-defense by prohibiting the government from infringing on our right to the tools of self-defense.  It is our responsibility to remain vigilant and protect that right. ESR

Charles Bloomer is a Contributing Editor for Enter Stage Right.  His website is Liberty Call U.S. © 2008 by Charles Bloomer






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