A liberal Democrat's lament (Liberal professor who gets the 2nd Amendment)


July 21, 2005, 11:44 PM
Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that firearms should not be very carefully used and that definite rules of precaution should not be taught and enforced. But the right of the citizen to bear arms is just one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.

—Hubert Humphrey, 1960

My background is probably atypical for a somewhat high-profile supporter of the right to keep and bear arms. I am black and grew up in Manhattan’s East Harlem, far removed from the great American gun culture of rural, white America. Although my voting patterns have become somewhat more conservative in recent years, I remain in my heart of hearts a 1960s Humphrey Democrat concerned with the plight of those most vulnerable in American society—minorities, the poor, the elderly, and single women—groups whose day-to-day realities are often overlooked in our public policy debates, people whose lives too often go unnoticed by our intellectually timid chattering classes. This is happening in the public debate over the right to bear arms.

For the nation’s elites, the Second Amendment has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bill of Rights, constantly attacked by editorial writers, police chiefs seeking scapegoats, demagoging politicians, and most recently even by Rosie O’Donnell, no less. It is threatened by opportunistic legislative efforts, even when sponsors acknowledge their proposed legislation would have little impact on crime and violence.

Professional champions of civil rights and civil liberties have been unwilling to defend the underlying principle of the right to arms. Even the conservative defense has been timid and often inept, tied less, one suspects, to abiding principle and more to the dynamics of contemporary Republican politics. Thus a right older than the Republic, one that the drafters of two constitutional amendmentsthe Second and the Fourteenthintended to protect, and a right whose critical importance has been painfully revealed by twentieth-century history, is left undefended by the lawyers, writers, and scholars we routinely expect to defend other constitutional rights. Instead, the Second Amendment’s intellectual as well as political defense has been left in the unlikely hands of the National Rifle Association (NRA). And although the NRA deserves considerably better than the demonized reputation it has acquired, it should not be the sole or even principal voice in defense of a major constitutional provision.

This anemic defense is all the more embarrassing because it occurs as mounting evidence severely undermines the three propositions that have been central to the anti-gun movement since its appearance on the national radar screen in the 1960s. The first proposition is that the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, poses no barrier to radical gun control, even total prohibition of private firearms. The second is that ordinary citizens with firearms are unlikely to defend themselves and are more likely to harm innocent parties with their guns. The final proposition is that the case for radical gun control is buttressed by comparing the United States to nations with more restrictive firearms policies. These propositions, now conventional wisdom, simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

The proposition that the Second Amendment poses no barrier to gun prohibition–a claim largely unknown before the 1960s–has run up against stubborn, contrary historical facts. Increasingly, historians and legal scholars, including many who support stricter gun control, have examined the history of the Second Amendment, the development of the right to arms in English political thought, judicial commentaries on the right in antebellum America, and the debates over the Fourteenth Amendment. The consensus among scholars who have actually looked at the evidence is that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments were meant to protect the citizen’s right to arms. (See, for example, historian Joyce Lee Malcolm’s Harvard University Press book, To Keep and Bear Arms, or the historical documents assembled in the three Gun Control and the Constitution volumes I’ve edited.)

Similarly, the criminological premises of the anti-gun movement have collapsed in the face of serious social science. For better than three decades the American public has been solemnly assured that peaceable citizens who possess guns for self-defense are disasters in waiting. "A gun in the home is more likely to kill a member of the family than to defend against an intruder," we hear. "Allowing citizens to carry firearms outside the home for self-protection will turn our streets into Dodge City and our parking lots into the O.K. Corral," the refrain goes.

Yet the criminological literature provides little support for this caricature of gun owners. Instead, careful research has discovered an incredibly high amount of firearms’ being responsibly used in self-defense. Research by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck and others indicate between two and three million cases of self-defense per year. Overwhelmingly these incidents involve not firing the weapon at the attacker, but simply brandishing it and thereby causing the attacker’s withdrawal.

In recent years a majority of states have passed laws permitting honest citizens to carry concealed weapons, and the results tell us much about self-defense and the responsibility of the average citizen. Once it was passionately argued that such laws would turn minor altercations into bloody shoot-outs; now we know better. Over 1 million Americans have licenses to carry firearms, but firearms misuse by this group has been utterly negligible. Criminologists now debate not how much harm has been caused by concealed-carry laws, but how much good.

The most thorough research, by John Lott of the University of Chicago, reveals that concealed-carry laws have had a substantial deterrent effect on crimes of violence. His work shows that women, especially, have benefitted, as substantial drops in rapes and attacks on women have occurred where the laws have been enacted. Lott also discovered dramatic benefits for the urban poor and minorities: "Not only do urban areas tend to gain in their fight against crime, but reductions in crime rates are greatest precisely in those urban areas that have the highest crime rates, largest and most dense populations, and greatest concentrations of minorities."

The final proposition–that international comparisons prove the case for radical gun control–may be the most problematic of all. Certainly the simplistic conclusion that American homicide rates are higher than those in Western Europe and Japan because of the greater prevalence of firearms glosses over significant cultural and demographic differences between us and other advanced industrial nations.

The American population is younger and more diverse. Unlike Western Europe and Japan, the United States has always had a large number of immigrants and internal migrants. We also have a history of racial exclusion and a struggle against that exclusion as old as the Republic and without real parallel in comparable nations. All of these have contributed to crime rates higher than those in other western nations. Indeed, when a number of the cultural and demographic variables are controlled for, much of the apparent difference between American and Western European homicide rates disappearsdespite the greater presence of firearms in American society.

But international comparisons should raise deeper and more disturbing questions, questions too rarely asked in serious company. The central and usually unchallenged premise of the gun control movement is that society becomes more civilized when the citizen surrenders the means of self-defense, leaving the state a monopoly of force.

That this premise goes largely unchallenged is the most remarkable feature of our gun control debate. We are ending a century that has repeatedly witnessed the consequences of unchecked state monopolies of force. University of Hawaii political scientist Rudolph J. Rummel, one of the leading students of democide (mass murder of civilian populations by governments), has estimated that nearly 170 million people have been murdered by their own governments in our century. The familiar list of mass murderers– Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot–only scratches the surface. The mass slaughter of helpless, unarmed civilian populations continues to this very day in Sudan, Rwanda, and parts of the former Yugoslavia.

The reluctance of outside forces to intervene is well documented. And yet the obvious question is strangely absent: Would arms in the hands of average citizens have made a difference? Could the overstretched Nazi war machine have murdered 11 million armed and resisting Europeans while also taking on the Soviet and Anglo-American armies? Could 50,000-70,000 Khmer Rouge have butchered 2-3 million armed Cambodians? These questions bear repeating. The answers are by no means clear, but it is unconscionable they are not being asked.

Need Americans have such concerns? Well, we have been spared rule by dictators, but state tyranny can come in other forms. It can come when government refuses to protect unpopular groups—people who are disfavored because of their political or religious beliefs, or their ancestry, or the color of their skin. Our past has certainly not been free of this brand of state tyranny. In the Jim Crow South, for example, government failed and indeed refused to protect blacks from extra-legal violence. Given our history, it’s stunning we fail to question those who would force upon us a total reliance on the state for defense.

Nor should our discussion of freedom and the right to arms be limited to foreign or historical examples. The lives and freedoms of decent, law-abiding citizens throughout our nation, especially in our dangerous inner cities, are constantly threatened by criminal predators. This has devastated minority communities. And yet the effort to limit the right to armed self-defense has been most intense in such communities. Bans on firearms ownership in public housing, the constant effort to ban pistols poor people can afford—scornfully labeled "Saturday Night Specials" and more recently "junk guns"—are denying the means of self-defense to entire communities in a failed attempt to disarm criminal predators. In too many communities, particularly under-protected minority communities, citizens have simply been disarmed and left to the mercy of well-armed criminals.

This has led to further curtailment of freedom. Consider initiatives in recent years to require tenants in public housing to allow their apartments to be searched: First, police failed for decades, for justifiable but also far too frequently unjustifiable reasons, to protect citizens in many of our most dangerous public housing projects. Next, as the situation became sufficiently desperate, tenants were prohibited from owning firearms for their own defense. Finally the demand came, "Surrender your right to privacy in your home." The message could not be clearer: A people incapable of protecting themselves will lose their rights as a free people, becoming either servile dependents of the state or of the criminal predators who are their de facto masters.

All of this should force us to reconsider our debate over arms and rights. For too long, it has been framed as a question of the rights of sportsmen. It is far more serious: The Second Amendment has something critical to say about the relationship between the citizen and the state. For most of human history, in most of the nations in the world, the individual has all too often been a helpless dependent of the state, beholden to the state’s benevolence and indeed competence for his physical survival.

The notion of a right to arms bespeaks a very different relationship. It says the individual is not simply a helpless bystander in the difficult and dangerous task of ensuring his or her safety. Instead, the citizen is an active participant, an equal partner with the state in ensuring not only his own safety but that of his community.

This is a serious right for serious people. It takes the individual from servile dependency on the state to the status of participating citizen, capable of making intelligent choices in defense of one’s life and ultimately one’s freedom. This conception of citizenship recognizes that the ultimate civil right is the right to defend one’s own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless, and that without the means of self-defense the right to self-defense is but an empty promise.

Our serious thinkers have been absent from this debate for too long. The Second Amendment is simply too important to leave to the gun nuts.

Robert J. Cottrol is professor of law and history and the Harold Paul Green Research Professor at the George Washington University. His most recent book is From African to Yankee: Narratives of Slavery and Freedom in Antebellum New England.


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Gordy Wesen
July 22, 2005, 01:24 AM
It's always nice to see an honest Democrat.
I think its hard to say the great American (Republican) gun culture of rural white America is removed from the unnoticed vulnerable classes in housing projects and the inner city if these people actively want firearms for protection too.
We are more alike than you think for we both are seeking a common right in our own way.

July 22, 2005, 01:59 AM
The anti-gun philosophy of the democrats is a symptom, not the disease.

The disease is the desire to rule over our choices, because left to our own desires we'll choose the "wrong way". If we can have guns, then we'll murder, because we cannot control ourselves. If we don't have "social security" then we won't plan for our own retirement. If we don't have an activist judiciary, then we'll have the wrong laws. If we don't have confiscatory taxation, then we'll let poor people starve on the streets. And so on.

We're just poor, ignorant, racist, brutes, and we need the "enlightened" guidence of those swell people of the democratic party, because they truly know what we need.

July 22, 2005, 03:26 AM

That speech deserves a standing ovation. You need to keep sharing your thoughts. They are well worth reading.

July 22, 2005, 03:57 AM
i second RJChapman, i will be linking to that

July 22, 2005, 08:01 AM
Reading the article reminded me of something similar I had posted over on TFL a few years back. Unfortunately, the article is no longer at it's original website.

The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms
Who does the Second Amendment protect?

By Neal Shaffer

On this much we can all agree: America has a very powerful relationship with firearms. We owe our existence as a nation to the practical application of guns, and just as surely we owe the twinge of some of our greatest tragedies to their misuse. From there the debate branches out in a hundred directions or more, polarizing the American populace along the way. Guns have become a litmus test for political orientation—a window into an entire belief system: pro-gun equals conservative; anti-gun equals liberal. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the breakdown obscures the reality, and honest debate is rendered all but impossible. There is no shortage of opinion, and every question is rhetorical.

As such, gun ownership in America has become a strictly political matter. It is that, of course, but only in part. The right wing has staked that ground happily while the left has embraced the shorthand it provides. What has been lost is that the Second Amendment is also, and primarily, a civil rights issue. In failing to recognize this fact, the Democratic Party, and American liberalism, has lost touch with its roots and failed its constituents. There are two main issues inherent in the gun debate that are sorely in need of clarification: one, the issue needs to be addressed from the perspective of the good of individual citizens and not from a purely political standpoint; two, that where politics do enter the equation it is past time for the left wing of American political thought to be recognized as a natural home for pro-gun argumentation.

Make no mistake: the right to own a gun is guaranteed by the Constitution.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

There is nothing ambiguous about this, the Second Amendment. Furthermore, it is far from coincidental that it is the second amendment. The rights to free speech, assembly, and religion are the cornerstones of a free society. The architects of our government correctly foresaw that these rights would face encroachment, and the constitutional right to gun ownership provides teeth for what would otherwise be a hollow proclamation. Anti-gun activists have seized on the "well regulated militia" clause and used it to claim that an individual right to bear arms is not built into the Constitution. Their substitute interpretation is that the Second Amendment guarantees a collective right, and that it exists only to protect entities such as police and the National Guard in their mission to protect us against a standing army or occupying force. The obvious flaw in this argument is that such entities are governmental, and as such do not exactly qualify as "the people." Having said that, it’s fairly easy to see why someone predisposed to be anti-gun would believe that the rights preserved by the Second Amendment are general and not individual. There is no shortage of available quotations from the founding fathers to refute this idea, but the best is perhaps this (from Thomas Jefferson):

Laws that forbid the carrying of arms... disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes... Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.

Jefferson’s anticipation of the current state of affairs is nothing short of amazing, and he illuminates a key point: the heart of the Second Amendment is that it guarantees the right of self-defense. One obtains a firearm to guard oneself against the very real potential that he or she will be attacked. "Security" need not be construed as broadly as it usually is. A people are free when their government does not encroach on their inborn liberties and they can move without fear through their chosen environment. Personal security, which is to say the ability to protect oneself from harm, goes hand in hand with societal security, which is to say the collective knowledge that a given governmental agency will not infringe on inborn rights.

As sad as it may be, America is a crime-ridden place. Culturally speaking, we have softened greatly since the days of Jefferson. When copious quantities of food, entertainment, and information are available with little effort it’s only natural that a people will lose touch with the harder edges of existence. The appeal of the liberal argument against guns (and, whether they admit it or not, against self-defense) is an emotional one. Guns represent violence, and many people (particularly tree-huggers in the suburbs who view the purchase of organic bread as a political act) are all too ready to live as if violence is an abstraction that can be defeated with ideology. To these people it is only natural to assume that the police will protect them.

This has become the core argument of American liberalism and the Democratic Party. Doing for oneself is infinitely more difficult than having others perform the task, and difficulty does not sit well with Million Mom Marchers. They are afraid from a distance, so rather than act to allay that fear they work to find new homes for the faith that such fear will never come to fruition. They see an event such as the Columbine shootings, or the recent sniper killings, and read it as another example of why guns need to be outlawed. Their argument is that if nobody has a gun then nobody can use it to kill. Lost completely in their argument is the obvious fact that the problem is violence, and a person inclined to violence will use whatever tool is at hand to carry it out. If the police and the government were capable of protecting us against such acts, why did it take them so long (and why did it take an "ordinary" citizen) to catch the sniper suspects?

(It’s important to note, as an aside, that the Republican Party is no more inclined to represent the real interests of the people than are the Democrats. The Republican pro-gun stance is the right one constitutionally, but they fail in that they would like people to fend for themselves completely, often to the point where it borders on social Darwinism. It’s simply unrealistic. Restoring the right to self-defense will not solve the crime problem, but it certainly won’t hurt. The Republican Party is not the problem where the gun argument is concerned. They are the problem in a number of other areas where crime is concerned, but we are concerned here only with the question of an individual right to effective self-defense.)

The Second Amendment, like much of the Bill of Rights, has been weakened by the courts. The most commonly cited defense of the liberal position is a 1939 decision in the case of US v. Miller. In it, the Supreme Court held that because of the militia language, the "obvious purpose" of the Second Amendment was to guarantee a collective and not an individual right. Other courts have held similar positions over the years. However, case law is a matter of interpretation, and all one has to do is take a look at relevant Fourth Amendment cases to see that the courts are not always the best custodians of liberty. Furthermore, the 1930’s were a troubled time in American history. The Great Depression had given rise to political activism, and with that activism often came violence. Without attempting to speak for the Court, it’s logical to speculate that such violence entered into their thought.

Even if it didn’t, the truth does not change. Regardless of the opinions of individual politicians or judges the Second Amendment still exists, and exists for a reason. If we give up our right to self-defense we place ourselves at the mercy of criminals, corrupt officials, and chaos. Do we really want to place that kind of trust in a governmental system that spawned the cops who beat Rodney King and a President who wants to wage illegal war with Iraq? Perhaps, if we are fools.

To see what might happen were we to plunge completely into this way of thinking, we need only look at other nations. In both England and Australia (countries not dissimilar to our own) private gun ownership is illegal. We needn’t indulge in questions of cause and effect, since the causes of crime are varied and complex. Instead, what we can see is that there has been absolutely no decrease in crime as a result of the abolition of personal gun ownership. None. (Source: "Average Annual Percentage Change in Recorded Crime, 1987-1997," International Comparisons, Criminal Statistics, England and Wales, 1997, The Stationery Office; and Violent Deaths and Firearms in Australia: Data and Trends, Australian Institute of Criminology, 1996).

The examples are equally potent at home. States (such as Maryland) with strong gun control laws have likewise seen no decrease in crime. In fact, Baltimore, Maryland is one of the more crime-ridden cities in the country. Conversely, in states where right-to-carry laws have been liberalized, FBI statistics show that violent crime has gone down. In addition, states with "shall issue" (as opposed to "may issue") concealed carry laws have homicide rates 3% lower, robbery rates 26% lower, and total violent crime rates 13% lower than their gun-free counterparts (Source: Crime in the United States 1996, FBI Uniform Crime Reports). Gun control may very well be a nice idea, but it does not work.

What remains is this: how does the gun issue affect the average citizen? This is where the civil rights aspect of this issue should be most clear. Whatever chance one has to be victimized by a violent criminal will exist regardless of any governmental policy. If you have been chosen as a target then a target you are. Whether the criminal who has chosen to target you is carrying a gun or not is a matter of simple chance. What is clear is that if you have the right to own a gun to protect yourself, and you choose to exercise it, your chances of surviving the attack and, furthermore, of preventing the same attack from happening to someone else are infinitely (ridiculously) higher than they would be if you were forced into passivity by your desire to obey a gun control law. John Lott, Olin Law and Economics Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, demonstrated conclusively that states could dramatically reduce violent crime rates by adopting concealed carry policies. Perhaps this is because though less than 1% of eligible citizens obtain concealed weapons, criminals don’t know who those 1% are.

This doesn’t mean that, if you are philosophically opposed to owning a gun, that you should own one. Nor does it mean that preventing convicted criminals or diagnosed misfits from owning a gun is a bad thing. What it means is that the choice should be left up to the individual, not to a government whose intentions may or may not be good.

Our model should come from the Black Panther party. When the civil rights movement was truly a struggle of individuals against tyranny, the Panthers made a regular habit of conducting armed patrols of their neighborhoods. The police and the government were not only failing to protect; they were in a mode of active attack. We are not, as a culture, currently facing any situation of that gravity. But who is to say we won’t? The Black Panthers were not right-wing good old boys. They were not NRA zealots. They were people who cared about themselves and their community and who chose to act on that concern. The left wing in America needs to remember its roots. Furthermore, we all need to rethink our trust, and start recognizing certain fundamental realities. It would certainly be nice if there were no violence, no threats, in America. Until that day comes, why are we so willing to give in, and to demonize those who choose not to?


El Tejon
July 22, 2005, 08:58 AM
Purchasing organic bread is a political act! LOL! :D

Professor Cottrol has written many times upon the RKBA. I recently finished his latest book, From African to Yankee, interesting to those with an interest in the Civil War.

Standing Wolf
July 22, 2005, 11:36 PM
The Second Amendment is simply too important to leave to the gun nuts.

Oh, yeah? Is that why the leftist big talkers have done nothing for the Second Amendment? It's still alive today because the gun nuts have done the actual doing day in and day out.

If you want theory, see a leftist big talker. If you want results, see a gun nut.

July 23, 2005, 11:51 AM
If you would like to thank that gentleman for his essay, here is his email address. bcottrol@law.gwu.edu

July 23, 2005, 09:24 PM
Wow! where the hell did he come from? A thinking liberal.
I am very glad he understands the truth about gun control but unfortunately for all of us I don't think he will be able to convince his cohorts of the truth of his argument.
Very happy to see he gets it but doubt he will be able to make much of a difference for now.

July 23, 2005, 09:40 PM
Well, I'm also a "thinking liberal." Some of you really need to stop turning us into stereotypes and caricatures. I take different stands on different issues but I am admittedly far to the left of some of you and as much to the left of center as some of you are right of center. We so-called "liberals" (I don't really call myself that) aren't individual pieces of coal, indistinguishable from one other. Fortunately, life is far more complex than that.

Oh, and thank you Dr. Cottrel! Two thumbs up!

SiG Lady
July 23, 2005, 09:49 PM
Excellent and valuable posts! Thank you immensely for providing them!

Black Gas
July 24, 2005, 01:47 PM
Good Read!

July 24, 2005, 03:56 PM
Frandy, oops, I guess I did over react a bit but in my experience liberal does mean antigun about 99% of the time. I too have a bit of liberal bent to me. I consider myself a slightly wayward libertarian.
However, a "liberal" college proffessor stating this point of view is definitely an abberation. That is what I was reacting too.
BTW, We do need more pro-gun liberals out there. I truly believe if the democratic party would drop the whole damned gun control issue they would start winning back power overnight.

July 24, 2005, 05:13 PM
Being a Liberal means more than just differeing on gun control, and 2nd Ammendment rights. There are broad social, legal, cultural and philosophical differences between Conservatives and Liberals.
Many brighter guys and gals than I, have postulated on this subject. I don't pretend to know all the answers. I do know a Liberal when I hear one though, and most of the time, I just don't like what they say, how they think, or where the want us all to go.

July 24, 2005, 09:58 PM
Here is an essay on the leftist ideology that is mainly based on an FBI agent who tracked the communist movement in the USA during the 1960's. Communism is TOTAL government control and ownership. In my opinion, the left is in a "Fabian" relationship with Communism. Comunist governments have killed over 200 Million of their citizens in the last century due to political differences. Is it surprising that the left does not want the people to have the ability to defend them selves?

Link to history of USA Communism:


I think that "thinking" Democrats only have a more cerebral method of robbing me of my liberty.

July 24, 2005, 10:25 PM
But the right of the citizen to bear arms is just one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.

—Hubert Humphrey, 1960

The left believes in the second amendment as ardently as the right. It's just that they typically see it as being restricted to themselves. Not all of them, of course, but for an example of lefties exercising second amendment rights in opposition to a political tyranny, go dig up a picture of Patty Hearst and the SLA sticking up a bank, or H.Rap Brown "lobbying" for legislation in Sacremento with an M2 .30 carbine.

July 27, 2005, 10:44 AM
Why is John Lott still being cited as a credible source? He has just been caught fibbing again (http://timlambert.org/2005/07/lott-libels/) .

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