What good is a militia anyway?

The reason that a well-regulated militia appealed to the founding fathers was that they hoped it would eliminate the need for a standing army.

If you had the whole body of young adult men armed and trained, it was hoped you could raise an army very quickly in case of need. If that were true, Congress could insist that the standing army be run down to just a cadre of specialists and officers. Then, in the event that you needed an army—because you were invaded, or needed to invade someone else—you could mobilize (i.e. draft) the militia to fill the ranks with soldiers.

The founders knew perfectly well that a government with a standing army could not be resisted by the people, even if the people were armed. A standing army was always going to be more disciplined, more highly trained, and better equipped than a militia could possibly be.

So, the purpose of the militia was to eliminate the need for a standing army. If you could make a militia work that way—quickly go from a bare cadre to a fully mobilized army simply by calling up the militia—then you’d be in a position where Congress could insist that the the army in fact be a bare cadre, meaning that neither presidents nor generals could use the army until Congress actually raised one.

It’s an appealing idea, particularly to someone like me who is very doubtful about trusting presidents or generals. Sadly, the evidence is pretty good that it doesn’t work.

This was clear even before the sorts of modern, high-tech weapons and other equipment that take extensive training to learn how to use, and then nearly constant on-going training to preserve the capability.  It took five years to go from a 16,000-man army to a 1,000,000-man army during the civil war. The ramp up for WW I was quicker but also smaller—manpower grew by 16 times in two years rather than 62 times in five years, but that was from a much larger base—basically, a smallish standing army, not merely a cadre waiting to be filled out.

The experience of the U.S., at least as far back as the civil war, is that fielding an army by mobilizing a militia simply can’t happen fast enough to respond to an enemy with a standing army. (The experiences of Switzerland mobilizing to resist a possible Nazi invasion and Finland mobilizing against the Soviet Union at around the same time are interesting, but do not I think make the contrary case.)

Given all that, I’d have to say that a militia is pretty much obsolete, and has been for a couple of centuries at least.

Coming around on gun control

I have long opposed most sorts of gun control. The main reason is the same reason I oppose drug prohibition: There is no way to enforce a ban on a thing, except through police-state tactics (and I don’t like living in a police state).

How do you ban a thing? You can pass a law against possession, but that law is unenforceable except by house-to-house searches. You can’t even enforce a ban on carrying concealed weapons except by stopping and frisking everyone out on the street. (Please don’t suggest only stopping and frisking “suspicious” people, unless you have first-hand experience with looking like one.) Since there’s no victim to report the crime (“I was illegally possessed at!”), you only find the criminals by chance, unless you’re willing to go full war-on-drugs with undercover agents, coerced informants, wiretaps, search warrants executed by SWAT teams and so on.

You could impose a high penalty on possession of a gun, and then only enforce the law when a gun came to the attention of the police. That would probably get the guns off the street—a gun hidden under the floorboards isn’t much of a threat—except of course for the “only criminals will have guns” issue: High penalties don’t much deter people who are already committing crimes with high penalties. Plus, it leads to all the classic slippery-slope arguments. Selective enforcement (searches used to harass disfavored people) and unfair results (unlucky people spending 20 years in prison for a gun they didn’t know was in the boxes of grandfather’s personal effects) being just two of the downsides.

Besides, guns are useful tools. If we have a ban that applies as well to the police and the military, then we’ve denied them tools that they may need to do their jobs. But if the ban doesn’t apply to them, then we have to draw the line in a specific place—or a series of specific places. If police qualify, how about campus police? Transit police? Park rangers? Do bodyguards qualify? How about armored-truck guards? Stalking victims? The result is once again selective enforcement and unfair results, this time with a side order of political shenanigans.  Some people who need the tool will be denied it. Other people who thought they were allowed the tool will have their lives destroyed when a court rules that they were not.

Much more sound than laws against things is laws against behavior. It’s illegal everywhere to shoot someone or to threaten someone with a gun or even to discharge a gun in a populated area. These are the sorts of laws that gun-control opponents always point to as the right way to control guns. But they self-evidently don’t work. Even if you discount suicides and accidents, there are 12,000 homicides a year in the United States—with about 90% committed with a firearm.

So, what other behaviors could we regulate? There is often talk of regulating the sale of firearms. Being in the business of selling firearms is already extensively regulated, but currently it’s legal to sell (or give away) a firearm without being in the business—sales between friends and gifts between relatives are legal, and don’t require that you be a licensed firearms dealer. That could be changed. You could make selling firearms be like selling prescription drugs, which only a licensed pharmacist can do. Many currently legal, perfectly ordinary behaviors would be illegal, or else the laws would have to be very carefully drafted. Could a father buy his son his first .22 rifle? Could an Olympic-champion riflewoman let her aspiring-sharpshooter daughter take mom’s match-grade pistol to the shooting range to practice with? If a down-on-his luck man pawned a family heirloom firearm, would he be committing a crime if the pawn shop owner’s firearms license were not in order? What if the pawn shop clerk were a felon?

Registering guns is often proposed, although I don’t see how doing so would reduce violence. Further, I think gun-owner fears of gun registries being useful primarily as a tool for eventual confiscation is well-founded: What other use would a registry have? The parallel is less with registering cars (which are big and operate in public where people can see them) and more with registering typewriters (which are small and are generally used in private).

Illinois has long had a registry of “allowed gun buyers,” which is somewhat less pernicious than a list of guns: It would still provide a list of places to search, if things trended even further toward a police state, but it would do so without providing what amounts to a master of list of guns to be seized. In fact, I would fully support such a scheme, if it were automatic: Every adult who has not been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, nor adjudicated as dangerous or incompetent in some other fashion, should be on the list of those allowed to buy guns. The government could automatically strike people from the list upon conviction or commitment to a mental institution (with an appropriate appeals process to correct errors). Or people could file a simple form to ask to be taken off the list, if they had some personal objection. It’s basically the instant background check from the opposite direction.

I will say this, though—gun control advocates are finally on the right track, in attempting to mobilize public opinion. For the past thirty years, members of a small, mostly liberal elite have been trying to use their influence over government officials to pass gun control. But with public opinion so divided, legislative sausage-making has produced laws that are pointless and ineffective, full of easily ridiculed loopholes, but still with traps for the unwary gun-owner to commit a technical violation that leads to harsh sentences, without reducing the number of guns or making them less dangerous. (I am thinking in particular of the so-called assault rifle ban that ended up merely banning a handful of cosmetic details.)

And yet, I am nearly brought around. I am ready to support gun control legislation, if something can be found that would actually reduce violence (or at least its severity), doesn’t require police-state tactics to enforce, and doesn’t send people to prison simply because their papers are not in order.

That last is non-negotiable for me, an attitude puts closer than I’d like to be to unsavory company on other issues, such as immigration, where I agree with many Republicans that I think we should control our borders better. It’s because the other tactics of keeping our population density low are ineffective, unless we empower the police to check people’s papers. If we want the higher standard of living that comes from living well below carrying capacity—and I do—we can’t let just everybody live here. But having a category of “illegal” people forces immigrants to live outside the rules that promote the health, safety and prosperity of everybody, for fear of deportation. That risks the health, safety, and prosperity of all of us.

I’m no happier with letting police demand my firearm paperwork, and send me to prison if it’s not in order, than I am with letting police demand my citizenship papers against similar consequences.

I also think playing with guns is fun, and would be sad if they were banned. But I would give up playing with guns, if I thought it would prevent a large fraction of 11,000 murders a year. I don’t see a clear path from here to there, but I have joined the mass of people trying to find one.

Gun control in a democracy

I think I know why it has been so difficult to pass any sort of significant gun control legislation in the United States.

Most democracies in the world have gun control laws, which serves as an existence proof that it is possible, and yet in the US gun control has been very much a matter of x steps forward, y steps back (with what you see as the values for x and y very much depending on your political position).

You can point to “historical reasons” or “cultural reasons” for our unique situation, and you’d certainly be right, but I don’t think that serves as much of a guide to anyone who wants change (in either direction). Instead, whether you advocate or oppose gun control, think for a minute what it means to have gun control—or any kind of government control—in a democracy.

In a democracy, you’re going to end up with laws that are (to a first approximation) supported by a majority of the people. In fact, in the sort of representative democracy we have in the US, it’s very hard to get any substantive change in the law unless it’s supported by substantially more than a bare majority, because it’s so easy for a determined minority to delay or block changes.

What that says to me is that, in a democracy, changing the law has to begin with changing people’s opinions.

Trying to do things the other way around—by pushing for legislation in advance of majority support—leads to exactly what we’ve seen these past few decades:

  1. Laws that are ineffectual, because they are loaded up with compromises needed to cobble together a majority in the legislature.
  2. A stiffening of opposition to the legislation, because opponents feel their viewpoint has been ignored.

If you want to get something like this done, your best bet is to follow the model provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They wanted stiffer penalties and lower blood-alcohol limits, but their efforts in the legislator were initially quite ineffective. Where they were first influential was in changing public opinion.

In the early 1960s, drunk driving was something to be laughed at. Many a comedy bit was created around taking some guy so drunk he couldn’t stand up, pouring him into his car, and sending him off weaving down the road. They were funny. Watch those same sketches now and they’re appalling.

Once public opinion was changed, changing the laws was easy—because we live in a democracy.

There’s a second reason public opinion needs to change first: The police are  unable to enforce laws that aren’t broadly supported, except through police-state tactics.

If you have broad support—not just a majority, but a general consensus across society—then it’s easy to enforce laws. Few people break them. When they are broken, witness come forward to report the crimes. When people are prosecuted, juries convict and judges impose sentences as prescribed by law.

How would you enforce a gun law that was opposed by half the population?

It would be easy enough to enforce a law against open carry of a firearm, but enforcing a law against concealed carry would require the police to stop and frisk people on the street. (Of course, this happens already in certain neighborhoods. People who live in those neighborhoods are properly outraged, as are those who believe in freedom. But let it start happening in neighborhoods full of middle-class people—neighborhoods full of voters—and the laws would get changed back very quickly indeed. At least, I hope they would.)

It would be even harder to enforce a law against owning a firearm in your home. Even in the sorts of neighborhoods where people are routinely stopped and frisked, the police are not yet so bold as to enter and search people’s homes. But without that step, illegal guns would linger for decades. Indeed, for generations. And with that step, I suspect we’d see the law changed back very quickly: Many of the same people who support gun control would still object to the police-state tactics that would be necessary to impose a ban on guns.

And, lest I be accused of arguing against a straw man, on the grounds that “no one” is arguing for a ban (just reasonable regulation), I’d like to point out that the enforcement problem is the same.

I suppose the intermediate step that gun control advocates anticipate would be laws that regulate gun ownership, but with enforcement happening only when guns are discovered incidentally: If your house is searched for some other reason, then your illegal guns will be found and their presence will be used to pile on additional penalties. I most particularly object to that scenario, just as I object to all scenarios where ordinary people are required to keep their papers in order or face harsh penalties.

My main point here, though, is that seeking changes in the laws should always be a second step. First, seek a consensus in society that things should be different. Do that and it’s easy to change the law and easy to enforce it.

Guns versus cars

I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.