April 22, 2018

BENITEZ | Justifying the Second Amendment

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In my first-ever article for The Sun two years ago, I wrote that “U.S. legislators have failed to account for the thousands of victims of gun violence and have written off their deaths as an acceptable cost for the preservation of a 200-year-old constitutional amendment.”

I grew up in a Western nation often cited by advocates of gun control as a possible model for the United States. However, while I came to Cornell naïvely believing that defenders of the Second Amendment are of the irrational type who cling to their Bibles as tightly as they do to their weapons, living in this country has since moderated my liberal haughtiness. I now think that the typical theist is perhaps more justified in their religious beliefs than the most militant atheist and I also now think that there are some compelling justifications for the Second Amendment.

The foremost case for the Second Amendment’s existence is that it insures against the possibility of government tyranny. While the principles of self-defense and tradition are also invoked to rationalize the Amendment, they are neither what the founders intended nor persuasive. Instead, in pursuit of the greatest truth, we ought to consider the strongest argument in, which, I admit, is a powerful one.

The founding of this country emphasized the importance of an armed citizenry, acknowledging the pervasive, inescapable possibility that even democratic governments can devolve. One of my Australian friends said that to him, the Second Amendment is a sign of how little faith Americans have in their democracy. However, I think history offers compelling cases of governments diverging from the interests of their people. A frequently-cited example is how one of the most liberal democracies of its time, the Weimar Republic, within a single decade devolved into the Third Reich. (Say what you will about the histrionics of Ben Shapiro, but he is eloquent in arguing, “the fact that [his] grandparents and great grandparents in Europe didn’t fear that is why they’re now ashes in Europe.”) The late political scientist R. J. Rummel estimated the death toll caused by democide, the murder of people by their own government, over the 20th Century to outnumber 169 million people, (This is a conservative estimate, relative to his later revisions that raised the figure even further) making it one of the largest causes of unnatural death in history.

However, those making this argument need not look any further than even the most recent headlines for support of their claim. While it may seem preposterous to suppose this possibility in the United States is imminent, there is no telling how the world might progress, or regress, within a broader time frame of, say, half a century, especially considering the possibility of “Black Swan” improbabilities. Staving off unforeseen events may have been a concern of the the Constitution’s original authors as they set about establishing the laws of what was literally a developing country.

The Second Amendment should therefore be framed as something of a legislated insurance policy against this distant, but still conceivable, possibility. Even if stricter gun control or the revocation of the Second Amendment reduces the statistical significance of gun violence, these lives lost, to the Second Amendment apologist, are an acceptable cost to preserve against the possibility of government tyranny. In other words, this social cost is an acceptable insurance premium safeguarding against every conceivable, and currently inconceivable, regression in the institutions governing society. While gun control advocates may at this point argue that this is a perverse trade-off, consider the many ways that we accept the loss of human life for the supposedly-greater benefits that accrue. For example, last year in the United States, it is estimated that more than 40,000 people died from car accidents. (This is more than the estimated 15,549 people, excluding cases of suicide, killed by guns in the U.S. the last year.) If we were to impose a 15-mile-per-hour national speed limit, it is highly likely that this figure would drastically decline, if not disappear entirely. However, the cost of this is would be severely-reduced economic output and constrictive limitations on peoples’ physical, geographic freedom. The fact that most of society appears to implicitly accept this trade-off is a promising sign for defenders of the Second Amendment. While the benefits from allowing deaths from car accidents accrue instantaneously, a defender of the Second Amendment could argue that what makes it harder to understand is that it defends against a possibility rather than an actuality.

Before concluding, I stress this argument isn’t a complete reflection of my personal views. I’m just presenting this conservative thought because I believe the greatest possible truth emerges from the clash of the strongest reasons for and against a motion. Besides, I also argue that to successfully resist a tyrannical government depends on a citizenry that stands a chance of overthrowing it. To my mind, such a resistance against the most powerful military that has ever existed would require a significant amount of the population to be successful. The Second Amendment, to get originalist, was written in the 18th Century, when citizen and state would’ve been evenly-matched. Some originalists might hold that Americans should only be allowed to own muskets, considering the Amendment’s original literal implications, while different legalists could argue that the spirit of the Amendment should be upheld, and so a citizen should be entitled to every weapon at the disposal of the state. Not only would either interpretation today be practically absurd, but the Second Amendment is possibly redundant in that this same mass mobilization required to violently overthrow a government could peacefully materialize at the ballot box beforehand. However, this argument is admittedly more tenuous than the opposing claim — after all, it didn’t happen in the aforementioned historical cases. Therefore, while many might be inclined to write off the Second Amendment as a 200-year-old piece of paper, we shouldn’t be so quick to discount it without interpreting its applied implications. The next question for us to consider becomes: do we think it’s an insurance policy worth “paying” for?

Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.