Disarming America

Donald Trump is catching some heat for saying that Hillary Clinton’s bodyguards should set aside their weapons, after which we’d “see what happens.” Was he inciting violence against Clinton? If so, I sure don’t see it, but leave that worry aside. Regardless of what else he might have meant, he surely meant to criticize Clinton for holding that “…we have got to help our young people understand, guns are never an answer…” while being surrounded by heavily armed guards—the presence of whom says loudly and clearly that, in our fallen world, guns sometimes really are an answer.

And it’s worth taking a moment to think about the upshot of this “guns are never an answer” attitude. Clinton’s backers will say that she is not in favor of confiscating guns, that she does not want to try to destroy the 2nd Amendment, that she is simply in favor of common sense gun safety laws. But in fact, Hillary Clinton has suggested that confiscatory laws are “worth looking into.” Has she called for confiscation? No. Admittedly. But it’s hardly wild paranoia to suppose that the main reason for this is that’s not politically viable. Yet. And an American politician even admitting any openness to the idea is fairly striking.

This piece is not about Clinton, however. Or about Trump. I tend to side with the “a pox on both their houses” camp. I’m with the American Solidarity Party. Their gun policy is a bit … well, absent. They’re a fairly new party, and they’re still working some things out. As they develop, they will no doubt put together more specific policy statements, including statements on guns. As a party strongly influenced by Catholic social teaching (though not confessionally Catholic), they will no doubt look to that source for wisdom on the gun issue.

What will they find?

I expect they will discover the famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) call from the American hierarchy to eliminate handguns from our society. As the bishops put it: “However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society.”

Now, the text I just quoted is from footnote 36. The text to which that note is appended reads:

All of us must do more to end violence in the home and to find ways to help victims break out of the pattern of abuse. As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns…

So in the main text, the bishops “reiterate” their call for the “sensible regulation” of handguns. But then they add, in their footnote, that “however,” in the long run, we shouldn’t merely regulate them, we should eliminate them. So while we perhaps can’t say for sure that Hillary Clinton aims to see handguns confiscated, we can say for sure that the American hierarchy has backed such a proposal.

But not quite. In fact, just as Hillary Clinton seems perfectly comfortable being surrounded by officers armed with handguns (and, for that matter, with high capacity magazines filled with ammunition sporting hollow point bullets), the American hierarchy wants to see some exceptions to its confiscatory policy. Let’s look in a little more detail.

As we saw, the document I’ve been quoting “reiterates” the bishops’ call for regulations—when did the bishops first proclaim that call? As far as I can tell, the seminal document was a 1978 publication from the USCCB Committee on Social Development and World Peace. Here’s the meat of that document’s treatment of guns.

In 1976, crime statistics indicated that 64 percent of all murders were committed with a firearm and 49 percent were committed with handguns. Twenty-four percent of all aggravated assaults and 43 percent of all robberies were committed with firearms. Eighty-five percent of the police officers killed were killed with firearms. Other studies have shown that most homicides are committed against friends and relatives, not strangers. Since such a significant number of violent offenses are committed with handguns and within families, we believe that handguns need to be effectively controlled and eventually eliminated from our society. We acknowledge that controlling the possession of handguns will not eliminate gun violence, but we believe it is an indispensable element of any serious or rational approach to the problem.

Pay attention to that last line. Controlling the possession of handguns is an indispensable element of any serious or rational approach to the problem of gun violence. In other words, we’re told, if you object to controlling the possession of handguns, you are not serious. You are not rational.

Granted, it would be irrational and/or unserious to say that there ought to be no controls whatsoever on the sale or possession of handguns, such that an 11-year-old convicted murderer out on parole could walk into any gun shop and legally buy a gun. But I take it that the bishops recognize that there are already rules in place against such things, and are claiming that there need to be many more controls. They take the trouble to tell us what these additional controls ought to be, and I take it that it is these additional controls that are meant to be indispensable to any rational or serious approach to the problem. The proposed additional controls are as follows:

We support the development of a coherent national handgun control policy that includes: a several day cooling-off period between the sale and possession; a ban on “Saturday Night Specials”; the registration of handguns; the licensing of handgun owners; and more effective controls regulating the manufacture, sale and importation of handguns. We recognize, however, that these individual steps will not completely eliminate the abuse of handguns. We believe that only prohibition of the importation, manufacture, sale, possession and use of handguns (with reasonable exceptions made for the police, military, security guards and pistol clubs where guns would be kept on the premises under secure conditions) will provide a comprehensive response to handgun violence.

So here is the introduction of the call for confiscation, together with the exception for “police, military, [and] security guards.” (An exception allowing citizens to own handguns, but forcing them to store them in pistol clubs does not allow citizens to be armed.)

As a Catholic, I wish to be docile to the local bishops. The fact that this document bears no magisterial authority is irrelevant: it is teaching from not only my bishop—the head of my church (or, the person who was the head of it at the time the document was released, anyway—but from his brother bishops from my country. Treating this teaching defiantly or flippantly isn’t an option. I must treat it respectfully. But one can respectfully disagree, and I believe in this case, I must. For purposes of the present article, I limit my comments to the issue of confiscation of handguns, and the proposed exception to that rule. (I hope to write a couple of additional pieces that will address the other proposed controls, and perhaps a few more contemporary issues such as high capacity magazines or so-called “assault weapons.”)

If handguns are such a problem that they really need to be eliminated from society, why make an exception for police? (I’ll roll security guards into the category of police for simplicity. The military doesn’t put handguns to especially great use—I myself, as a photojournalist in the National Guard, had a pistol as my duty weapon, but that was highly unusual. Military Police—hence, police—carry sidearms, and some other soldiers do, as well, but the main fighting weapon of the military is the carbine.) I think there is no good rationale on offer for allowing cops to have pistols, if pistols are denied to citizens.

Why is it being taken for granted that police should have handguns? We want the police to be able to respond to armed criminals—yes. But must they have handguns in order to do so? They almost universally carry AR-15’s and shotguns in their patrol cars already. What do they need with pistols? Police in Great Britain (apart from Northern Ireland) generally do not carry guns. There are special firearms officers, yes—but if only certain cops carry guns, and only bring them to the scene when violence appears to be an imminent threat, then there’s no reason at all to prefer handguns to carbines or shotguns.

So why do the American bishops seem to take altogether for granted that police need to carry handguns? In other words, why the simple acceptance of present American policing practice, as though that were a given?

A natural response to what I’ve just said is that we wish police (all of them) to be armed because they sometimes find themselves in unexpectedly dangerous situations where they are forced to defend themselves against murderous attackers. We want them to be able to protect themselves in such situations. And because it’s not convenient to always carry a carbine everywhere, the handgun offers the best way for cops to be habitually armed.

This is an important point. But why should the police get a category all their own here? That is, why do police get the opportunity to defend themselves from murderous attackers, while mere citizens are denied that opportunity? After all, citizens sometimes find themselves in unexpectedly dangerous situations where they are forced to protect themselves, or others, against murderous attackers. We want the police to be able to protect themselves in such circumstances. Shouldn’t we also want citizens to be able to defend themselves?

There are ways for the confiscator to reply to this, but none of these replies really supports handgun confiscation. For example, you might say the police have more training than civilians do, and so can be better trusted with guns. This may be true to some degree (though of course it’s not true across the board—think of a retired Special Operations warrior, whose training and experience far outstrips anything our police encounter), but it does not support confiscation. At most, it supports establishing some mandatory gun training for citizens before they carry a gun in public. (The fact that many gun rights advocates are against such rules is beside the point here: I’m not saying what I think we could get the NRA to go along with. I’m making a logical point about what follows, if anything, from the fact that many cops have more firearms training than many civilians.)

Or again, you might say that cops are more likely to find themselves facing a murderous attack than other citizens are. And I think that’s probably true, but I don’t see the relevance. To the citizen undergoing a murderous attack, it’s no real consolation that the event was highly unlikely to occur.

Or you might say that because we the people deputize police to deal with our unpleasant situations for us, they deserve special privileges regarding their capacities for self-defense. But in response to this, we should ask how the people are able to convey the right to use force in defense of themselves and in defense of citizens, if they do not themselves have such a right? If the citizens lack that right, then how can they convey it to another to exercise on their behalf? One cannot give what one does not have. But if they do have it, then … how can we take from them the best reasonable means by which they can exercise it? And more importantly, as above, it’s no consolation to the citizen undergoing a murderous attack that at least he’s not being attacked on someone else’s behalf.

There’s a flip side to this argument, as well. We are obviously concerned about putting police in dangerous situations, and the potential harms they face as a result. But 10 percent of the cops who are killed on duty are shot with their own guns. If you take their guns away, those cops wouldn’t have been shot. And 43 percent of the cops killed on the job, apparently, are victims of ambush attacks, meaning armed or otherwise they had no opportunity to defend themselves.

Third, we’ve been talking about whether—given the existence of a professional police force—the police ought to have a special status regarding handguns. But there’s a deeper question. Why take for granted that the police ought to exist at all as a separate group with special rules and status, and nifty uniforms? In other words, why take for granted the existence of a modern police force, such as never really existed anywhere until less than two centuries ago. Why not return to a system where every adult male is a member of the militia, and where the militia performs many or most of the duties that are currently performed by our paid police? Why think that eliminating handguns is a better reaction to the problems we face than would be changing around our whole orientation to policing? Look, really, either suggestion is quite radical: confiscate all handguns from mere citizens, or eliminate the professional police force and re-establish the militia. You might think the former is less radical. But I doubt it. At least the latter has precedent here in the US. The former doesn’t, and is also (not for nothing) clearly unconstitutional. The bishops are pretty hasty in their acceptance of the former. At any rate, there’s no doubt that we’ve got some pretty massive problems, from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching, and it seems to me we need to be thinking about some fairly radical solutions to those problems. Returning to a richer notion of citizenship than we currently have should, in my view, be central to any such proposals. Continuing the trend of infantilization—continuing the advance of the omnicompetent servile state—does not strike me as praiseworthy. And taking handguns from citizens while keeping them in the hands of the agents of the state strikes me as a clear case of exactly that.

If that last paragraph is a bridge to far for you, forget it. My main case against a police exception to handgun confiscation is made in what preceded it. The upshot is that I can’t see how handgun exceptions for the police make sense. If we want to endorse a confiscatory policy towards handguns, I think we really ought to go all the way and just try to get rid of them all. (We couldn’t hope to succeed in doing this, since of course the bad guys, and many of the good guys, would refuse to comply with any such laws. But that’s a worry for another day.) The kind of weird, un-thought-out halfway house proposed by the American hierarchy doesn’t make sense. Partial handgun confiscation is not only not an indispensable element in any serious or rational approach to the problem—it’s not serious or rational at all.

So I say, strike the exception or strike the notion of confiscation.

And since it seems like a good idea for police to be armed (if we’re going to have them at all), we ought to strike the notion of handgun confiscation. And as the American Solidarity Party works to put together its own coherent policies on guns, I hope they won’t uncritically take up this confused approach.

Patrick Toner


Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas ... and Norman Rockwell. He earned his Masters in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.