What Does “Rule of Law” Mean?

It’s begun again, and this time, with good reason: the massacre at Newtown, Connecticut is the poster event for what gun-regulation advocates have been warning the country about for years.

Loose United States gun laws, coupled with inadequate mental health support, means that it’s easy for people who want to commit maximum carnage to acquire the tools that they need. No, nobody sold Adam Lanza the semiautomatic, large capacity weapons and magazines he used in the Sandy Hook shooting – but his mother, who was a great supporter of gun rights, did allow him access and train him for shooting.

In the face of tragedies like this one, we have to ask ourselves: are the freedoms supported by the Second Amendment and expanded by the generous interpretations of the Supreme Court as absolute as supporters would have us believe? For that matter, are more guns – like more speech – the answer to abuse of those freedoms?

The first question we have to ask ourselves is: how many of these massacres are to be tolerated in order to support the free trade in and use of ballistic weaponry? If, like Jefferson believed, the tree of liberty must be refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants, where on that scale shall we place the blood of kindergarteners? Is theirs a heroic sacrifice?

Perhaps it would be unfair to say that “zero” is the number of acceptable casualties in support of certain freedoms. After all, many of our liberties come with consequences. But this year has seen a number of well-publicized public shootings, and it’s worth examining several arguments regarding how best to limit future senseless deaths.

One particularly odious argument concerns the presence of other armed persons at places likely to be targeted: often espoused by NRA advocates and other freedom to carry supporters, this argument essentially states that sportsmen armed with concealed weapons would be able to stop rogue shooters through confrontation of arms. At least, this argument states, armed citizens would be able to reduce the number of casualties by stopping shooters before they could complete their violence.

This is perhaps, on the surface, true: under certain circumstances, an armed bystander can take quick action and limit the bloodshed by stopping the shooter early in his or her assault. But consider the implications of this argument.

First, this argument assumes that evil is present, random, and unpredictable. Many pro-weapon supporters claim that maniacs will commit carnage regardless of access to guns: violence will take place using knives, baseball bats, cars, and any number of other items that are impractical or impossible to ban. Certainly, this is not completely untrue – people can use tools to kill, if they are really intent on killing.

Guns, however, are a tool used only to kill. Guns have no transformative or transportational usefulness – they are used to place deadly holes in things from long range. This can innocuously take the form of hunting or target practice, but these are simply variations on killing. Furthermore, bats, knives, and automobiles are unwieldy tools when pressed into deadly service; guns are elegant killing machines. Limiting criminal access to guns will definitely reduce the number of  fatal casualties.

Nevertheless, there’s a deeper danger in assuming that there’s nothing we can do about initial acts of violence – it takes the responsibility off of us to find a solution to these tragic shootings, and it also encourages a breakdown in the rule of law.

The first part of my statement refers to social movements and mental health availability: if we assume that there’s nothing but random evil motivating these shooters, we have no reason to believe that society can do anything about it. Things are fine, we tell ourselves, it’s merely the madness of others. And yet it’s clear that access to mental health care and lower rates of poverty contribute to lessened acts of violence. Just because one event takes place in a comfortable suburban family doesn’t mean that there weren’t things we could have collectively done to make violence less omnipresent.

Now about the rule of law: in societies that take the legal system and public redress for criminal behavior seriously, the prevention and termination of crimes is not left to the citizenry themselves. That kind of system more accurately reflects clan-based, reprisal and revenge systems practiced by ancient peoples. We are not the Wild West, nor are we tribal bands. Criminals are not “outsiders” against whom the rest of us can wage constant war. To claim that citizens should be able to turn shootings into gun battles on a regular basis is to normalize and condone certain acts of public violence – exactly what the legal system doesn’t try to do.

We have better options than to open ourselves to public violence, and we are not so willfully blind as to ignore the causes of this crisis in favor of firing wildly at its symptoms.


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