Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (2): Aurora, Ice T, and the “Right to Bear Arms”

A confession: this second post of my new series about contemporary libertarian ideology is absolutely personally motivated, inspired by several good college buddies, each of whom posted, with little to no comment, a link to this clip of rapper and tv-star Ice T recently defending personal gun ownership on Second Amendment grounds. What upset me about the sharing of this clip (from several friends who I personally respect, who happen to have new-style “libertarian” tendencies) was not the basic view Ice T espouses — that the Second Amendment gives the general population a good and necessary means by which they can legally defend themselves against state oppression — but the much more wide-ranging conclusions about our present context apparently drawn from his constitutional interpretation. It’s the fact that, right now, in the cold light of another act of extraordinary gun violence, his message strikes a chord with those who are primed and ready to react against, or even preempt, any serious conversation about the need for more, and better, regulation of the US’s readily available stock of lethal weapons — that resonance is what frightens and saddens me. Because in this context, Ice T’s comment obviously isn’t just about his reading of the Constitution as providing a right for personal self-defense against state oppression. That’s the pretense of his message; but the practical implications, at this moment, say much more. It’s this “more,” and how it relates to another problematic aspect  of contemporary libertarian ideology, that I want to briefly explore here. I’ve decided to talk about this issue in two parts. In this post, I want to offer my general comments on what’s going on in the libertarian attraction to Ice T’s comments; my next post will offer some more detailed analysis and critique of the ideological problems and possibilities of this viewpoint.

First, let me brush aside, with minimal remark, the issue of the “constitutionality” of the right of every citizen to personally bear arms for self-defense. Simply put, no compelling argument about what the Second Amendment should mean for us can ever be finally settled by appeal to the Amendment itself. The real question is about how we should “read” the text — about its meaning, which always already implies a concern and what significance we think it has, or should have, for us. Hermeneutics aside, I’m willing to grant, for the sake of this series and this post, Ice T’s reading of the Amendment, which sees in it a constitutional right for personal gun ownership, for the purposes of self-defense. (Again, much more could be said, here, especially about what we rightfully defend ourselves against — is it simply in the context of revolution against tyrannical political authorities, or does it greatly expand to include robbers, and any other person or group we might fear? But again, for the sake of discussion, I’m assuming legitimacy for the generic view that the right to armed self-defense applies across the board.) Personally, I have deep-seated doubts about the actual safety personal handguns provide against perceived social threats — I don’t think facts, history or logic bears out the point that they actually “make us safer”; rather the opposite. And, if you want a glance at a recent statement of the key alternative “reading” of the Second Amendment, see Jason Alexander’s heartfelt rant here. Yet, I digress… Onto the issue at hand….

We should actually begin by noting a discrepancy between the view espoused by Ice T and the ideological reasons his blunt defense of the right to personally own guns appeals to conservative-libertarian sensibilities today. If you pay attention to his language, Ice T himself seems to link the idea that the population has a right and need to arm itself for self-defense with a deep sensitivity to the history of systemic racial violence and police brutality. Notice his language: the right exists to protect yourselves from the police. The implication here, which I find well-worth pondering, is that the real social need the right to bear arms is addressing is the need of oppressed communities to have access to legally viable means of self-defense. In my online spats over the past couple of days, the conservative/libertarian argument I’ve encountered has attempted to make a similar point in different ways: namely, that the right to personally bear arms is indeed about self-defense against political tyranny. Specifically, I’ve heard the argument that owning guns is the “only way” to give the general population a fighting chance when government turns corrupt, or when the threat of overt state-sponsored violence and martial law against “us” looms large. I even heard the idea seriously advanced that it was because the US leads the way in gun-related violence that we have less “government initiated violence” here than elsewhere. (“So, the more effectively we kill one another in the streets, the freer we, as a political society, will be?” Wow… ) Now, I’m actually sympathetic with what I see as some of the intent behind this rationale — the notion that citizens and communities should have the freedom and right to viable self-defense against political tyranny and social oppression. But one only need pause and reflect to realize just how ludicrous it is to think that the “right to bear arms”, interpreted as freedom for personal weaponry, does, or could, adequately address that need.

First of all, sticking with our gun-owning interpretation of the Second Amendment, we must not forget that this reading is premised on the distinction between the state’s need for a “well-regulated militia,” and the people’s right to protect themselves against said militia when its authority and force is turned against them. It is obvious, then, that for this to be an actually viable means of self-defense, there would need to be some measure of “proportionality” between the kinds of arms the “well-regulated militia” has, and the arms available to the general population. Which means either: (1) a serious regulation of the national militia’s arms by the population, such that the militia will not have access to a kind of weaponry the general population does not, or (2) that the population should have legal recourse to “keep and bear” whatever form of weaponry (it feels) it needs to level the playing field against the potentially tyrannical state. I’m not sure how bog-standard libertarianism addresses this problem, in principle, but it’s clear that (1) would require heavy regulation of the military and police force, and (2) would in principle have no reason to impede citizens from legally procuring and keeping nuclear weapons and tanks. Now, I’m open to having a serious conversation about (1), but it’s obvious that’s not what your average middle-class white person “liking” Ice T’s comments on Facebook is advocating. They probably don’t want, for example, to have to slow-down the US military’s R&D into outrageously advanced weapons technology (e.g., for purposes of “counterterrorism”); nor would they probably want to think too long about what it would have meant in the 1960’s (or before), for the African-American popluation to have exercised its constitutional right to armed self-defense against police brutality and state-sponsored violence. So, I think we can safely assume (1) is not what the libertarians I’m talking about are calling for. (They may not have caught the KRS-One reference by Ice T at the end; he’s a politically active hip-hop artist who certainly does understand systemic racial violence in the US as government-backed “terrorism,” or state-sponsored “tyranny”. For one example of the palpable gulf separating Ice T’s perspective from what’s behind white-conservative ideology about the need for “limited government”, see this guy’s awkward endorsement of his Second Amendment defense. And notice the first comment!)

But, if we’re not going to actively regulate, at the popular level, what forms of weaponry our military has, for the sake of some ideal of giving the would-be-oppressed population a “fighting chance,” that means we’re left with (2) — the right to legally procure whatever weaponry will give us equal or greater firepower when the militia turns on us. And, again, if we’re paying attention to our national and global context, to actually achieve some measure of “balance” between the firepower of the state and that of the population, would mean we have the right to become, as a pal of mine put it, the 21st century “Wild Wild West” — each person armed to the T, whatever they feel they need to protect themselves from Big Bad Brother. The point is, if we read this right in such a way that we think it should provide some means of proportional firepower — the right to have the amount and kind of weapons we’ll need to beat our own military force — we’re automatically forced into a world of ridiculous conclusions. Anyone who knows anything about the actual power of the Pentagon, in terms of weapons or the capital it takes to procure them, will tell you there’s no way to actually “level the playing field.” If the right to bear arms is about the need to defend ourselves against the state’s “milita,” it is not a realistic means of realizing that need. It’s a simple fact that those with the most money have the biggest weapons; and history bears out the truth that when it’s the state versus the population, the latter is always  left throwing rocks at tanks.

If, then, the libertarian recourse to the Second Amendment — represented by the appeal to Ice T, at this moment of our national and cultural history– isn’t really about achieving a practical, viable means of self-defense against political tyranny, what is about? It’s about the perception of safety through increased personal firepower. It’s not about having a practical means of resisting government oppression; it’s about protecting myself and my own from the “others” I fear — the lunatic lone goneman, the robber, the drug-laden poor and other dangerous mobs. That’s why Ice T, whose actual wording should lead to a much more interesting discussion about the nature of political oppression and defense against tyranny, is appealed to now. Because not only do the new libertarians want us to have all the firepower we need to personally take out any crazed criminal who might walk into our house, or movie theater; they actually believe our government has become the lone gunman, the lawless criminal; the agent of repression and tyranny; the one breaking into our collective house, with all their liberty-denying rules and regulations, and holding us at gunpoint. How often does one hear some version of the view that, when *he* gets elected; when *they* win the culture war; when we lose “our country” to the other guys, we better be armed, because our ability to kill the madman is, to quote Ice T, the “last defense against tyranny”?

This sort of deep-seated cultural belief, the utter “distrust of government” among the right-wing. is the actual ideological underpinning of Ice T’s appeal, at this moment. He may have a bit more historical nuance lying behind his understanding of how a tyrannical “police state” oppresses a segment of population opposed to its interests, but the message — our “last defense against tyranny” — it resonates. Why? Because we not only want to protect ourselves from madmen and robbers, and we not only (mistakenly) believe that the only way to do so is with better and more firepower. (“If the moviegoers had all been armed…”) More importantly, it resonates because the new libertarians — along with others on the right — have given up on governmental structures (Law-making and Law-enforcement) as a viable means of “defense against tyranny.” One need only stop and ask: if libertarians are nodding when Ice T says the Second Amendment protects the “last form of defense against tyranny”, what “other forms” of defense exist, before or apart from the need to personally“keep and bear” arms in contexts of oppression, which have in their estimation utterly failed?

Well, surely forms of social defense against tyranny: those forms of “law and order” secured through (ideally) democratic, social processes. The new libertarians are confident that it is not the government’s job to make new, more or better social Law; its only role is to enforce the individually possessed rights already established by the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. The government just is the court-house and the police department. It has no say on how society should be organized (that’s the job of the free market!), its realm is restricted to safeguarding the property rights of individuals…even if these are “inalienable,” “God-given” rights each individual, in theory, possesses. And so, when we find ourselves in situations where existing structures of law and order break down, or are ignored by the “lawless criminals”, we cannot and should not look to our political representatives for help or guidance; we cannot and should not have any serious national discussion about ways to collectively augment, expand or transform existing legal and punitive structures. “Government” is not the means by which we should seek to better establish and secure our collective freedoms and rights. When fear of “the other” reigns, social processes can’t be trusted — so it becomes every man for himself.

en. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., center, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 24, 2012, to criticize the sale of high-capacity magazines for assault rifles that are sold to the public.

Perhaps we should pause here, and raise a question about the juxtaposition between the skepticism of government and of any social means of securing law and order, and a concomitant “every man for himself” mindset, coming from a gangsta rapper (Ice T), and these same sentiments now being expressed by a host of lower-middle class white males, who are, for many legitimate reasons (as I discussed here and here) disenfranchised with our given political establishment. It makes sense to become jaded about “the government” when the one you have isn’t working for you and your community — whether you’re in the Ghetto, or a member of the “new poor” and a newly-disenfranchised member of the quickly disappearing American middle class. As I stated above, Ice T is coming from a community with intensely personal  knowledge about  profound systemic oppression and state-sponsored violence. And perhaps it is the case that many erstwhile conservatives are newly attracted to the anti-government rhetoric, because we live a moment at which many more Americans now see a bit more clearly, and feel a bit more personally, how their needs and interests too, are being swept aside by a political system that caters to an elite class of citizens. But if this observation is on target, we might want to take the next logical step, and think about how the proliferation of unregulated, deregulated, or simply illegal guns has played itself out in the community Ice T is coming out of. We might want to draw some connections between the poverty and social alienation of those in America’s ghetto, and the role guns serve in that context of acute social and political oppression as a means of enforcing extra- or il-legal systems of “self defense”, and of securing of one’s own possession there. In short: if those who resonate with Ice T’s comments in the wake of the Aurora shooting do so because they feel profoundly threatened and abandoned, and because they see the “right to bear arms” as the only means of absolving that fear and securing themselves and their loved ones against those threats, we might want to ask ourselves: do we have here anything other than the logic of gang violence — a social context in which one’s only perceived means of “security” is violent defense of oneself and one’s own, by any means necessary — disguised as “personal liberty”?

And what of those who do think that government is, or should be, a means by which we can legitimately enforce newer, better law, a means of moving toward a more decent, humane social order? What of those who might think the ubiquity of heavy assault weaponry in US streets has something to do with thousands of senseless murders every year, and who believe  “government” — for all its obvious corruption — might yet, if we can find the political and social will, still be a means by which we can and should do something to augment the ridiculous “freedom” to “keep and bear” machines that allow madmen to act upon their psychotic tendenices with more precise and effective violence?  Well, they are the enemy, too — the puppets of Big Bad Brother; the mouthpieces of political tyranny. And so, with 12 more civilians dead and many more permanently scarred, the defenders of the individual right to legally “keep and bear” whatever will assuage our fear of the Big Bad Other can hear them coming ’round the bend, murder stats and law-books in hand, to take away our freedom.