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OSD 237: Gun ownership is legislation
Society's org chart doesn't look like an org chart.
In the OSD Discord this week, someone linked this thread full of historical fun facts. To summarize, back in 1837-1838 two separate rebellions broke out in Canada with the goal of moving partially away from monarchy towards a mixed monarchy system similar to what Canada has today. Sympathetic Americans near the border started funding and arming the Canadian rebels, and that made things awkward for the American government. The US and the UK had a peaceful relationship, and then-president Martin Van Buren didn’t want a third war between the two countries.
So some peace-minded lads in the US Congress drafted legislation that would make it a federal crime for Americans to sell or transport arms to Canada. And as Discord user BakerEasy put it: “The prevailing opinion of Congress in 1838 was that it would violate the [Second Amendment] to prohibit Americans from smuggling arms across the border to Canadian rebels.”
Discord user Desolator found congressional minutes from the time which note, “Mr. Slade, by leave, presented a petition and remonstrance of 215 voters of the county of Washington, in the State of Vermont, against the passage of any law prohibiting the selling, transporting, or giving to the Canadians arms, ammunition, or provisions, or giving any authority to seize or detain the same, beyond what is given by existing laws; which petition and remonstrance was laid on the table.”
And it’s not just 215 people in Vermont who felt that way.
Some contemporary news clippings from the Twitter thread:
Now, nobody in these clippings was saying specifically that Americans had a right to arm Canadian insurgents. The arguments were framed in terms of the side effects the law would have on people’s ability to buy, sell, and possess guns for whatever lawful purpose they choose. But in practice the distinction doesn’t really matter. The effect of people truly having a right to buy, sell, and possess guns is that they end up free to become Canadian warlords.
Ok, quick digression: in 2011 a software engineer named Manu Cornet made this cartoon about how different tech companies are organized:
Now in your head, draw an org chart of the entire society of the United States.
Most people would draw something like Amazon or Google, with the big boss(es) at the top being the government. You see that baked into people’s thinking with:
Ideas like “the president runs the country”
Every time the current villain is hauled before some congressional subcommittee to generate video clips for the committee members’ Twitter accounts
The plenary power the federal administrative state has acquired since Wickard v. Filburn (wherein the Supreme Court held that the Constitution grants Congress the power to decide how much wheat you’re allowed to grow in your own backyard for consumption on your own land). More details on those powers in:
The underlying premise of that Amazon-org-structure view of society is that the government is the fount from which society springs. It operates society the same way a director operates a play, and everybody — every business, every individual, every family — is a player on that stage. The actors might bring their own flair and their own creativity in how they interpret the director’s vision. But ultimately everything that happens on stage is in the director’s vision, nothing is outside the vision, and nothing is against the vision.
But the US is fairly unusual in that its founding documents explicitly don’t place the government at the head of society. Instead they make the government a player to whom the real founts of society — individuals — delegate a narrow set of tasks. In that view, the societal org chart is much closer to Facebook’s in the cartoon above — government is just one node in the graph, with no greater moral standing than the local laundromat. I pay you, you dry clean my pants. The laundromat doesn’t possess the mandate of heaven, and the American view is fairly unique in saying that neither does the government.
This is of course idealized. If the laundromat ruins your pants and you refuse to pay, then unlike the government they don’t get to shoot you. But the point is that the American system says that government only has its (admittedly immense) power within the narrow scope that has been delegated to it. Outside that scope — when it comes to, say, deciding whether to arm Canadian rebels in 1837 — the government is just one node of many in society, and individuals are free to make their own law.
“Law” is a heavy word. “Privately made law” sounds absurd. But in fact most of the laws that affect you day-to-day are privately made. Contracts are private law — your employment contract, your rental contract, your marriage contract. Even enforcement is mostly private. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to sue someone, so most disputes get worked out privately and more cheaply.
Where guns come in is not as an enforcement mechanism for private law — if things have gotten to that point, then a gun might be useful for self-defense but you’re way past the point of the orderly enforcement of voluntary agreements. Guns come in as a cultural reminder that no one entity “runs” society, and that it’s instead a bunch of people each pursuing what they think is worthwhile — and they each have the means to defend that pursuit.
We’ll end on this passage from “OSD 221: Gun rights are the real Commerce Clause”:
There’s a Mark Twain quote that “The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.”
If the only check on legislative overreach is easy to predict and easy to manage, then it’s not really a check at all. Disproportionate backlash is effective as a bulwark of freedom because it’s unpredictable and can’t be reasoned with. The threat of backlash is more constructive than the reality of it. But fortunately, the threat is enough.
Gun rights are interesting because they’re not just a means of backlash (e.g. as tools of liberation in the Jim Crow era), but are also themselves a flashpoint for backlash…. “Why do you need a 30-round magazine?” The very question misunderstands the nature of freedom. Guns are also a cultural totem in a way that sports cars are not. So discussions of gun rights are like a gym where the hivemind keeps its stochastic backlash skills sharp. The more that spirit stays alive for gun rights, the more it stays alive for other things too. On the ground, that’s what keeps seemingly frivolous freedoms from being chipped away one by one.
This week’s links
“Americans’ attitudes towards legal, regulated fishing, target/sport shooting, hunting and trapping”
PDF. Mostly focused on hunting but lots of interesting survey data. For the question “Do you approve or disapprove of legal recreational shooting?”, since 2006, 12-18% of people have disapproved.
This one from a lawsuit in Maine where a detective sued Sig after his P320 allegedly went off on its own in his holster.
No clue how substantive this lawsuit is, but good to know.
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