Christopher Tollefsen is a wonderful voice of sanity

Christopher Tollefsen is a wonderful voice of sanity March 24, 2018

He works in a different part of the Vineyard from me. The soil he tills is richer and has people of good will like David French in it, willing to really try to work for the common good.

The soil I till is full of rocks and deals with far more elementary moral divides in the Church, such as this:

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I’m addressing super-basic moral choices such as “When seventeen kids have their guts and brains splashed across their lockers, and this is the umpteenth time this has happened, the Holy Spirit says that our first response must be ‘Dear God in heaven, what can we do to prevent this from happening again?’ not ‘Screw you!  Don’t touch my gun!’

I address Kindergarten stuff like “JOY=Jesus first, Others second, You last.” That this remains a controversial opinion among people who call themselves Christian is the heartbreak and anguish that drives my writing on this subject.  For it points to a fundamental breakdown in Christian faith and trust in God among those who routinely boast themselves the Greatest Christians of All Time. That this same demographic routinely judges the Holy Father and spends its day and night excommunicating most of the Church as “liberal” while holding themselves out as the model Christians is simply embarrassing.

(Of course, when I say this, the same demographic naturally assumes that I am excommunicating them since they tend to project their demons on their enemies.  By a related psychological mechanism, they tend to declare that I am accusing them, personally, when I seldom go beyond the description of the behavior without attaching that description to specific persons.  They accuse themselves and blame me for it–an odd phenomenon.)

As any rate, because I am stuck simply trying to get unbelievably narcissistic people to think for five seconds about something besides themselves when children are butchered, I feel a bit of envy for Dr. Tollefsen, who gets to write a piece addressed to people who are thinking beyond themselves and trying to take some steps toward the common good. But I am also hopeful that the conversation is, thanks to the Parkland kids, finally starting to shift away from the torrent of lies that has dominated our discourse thanks to the death grip of the NRA on the GOP. In the past month, the NRA has taken a splendid and much-needed pounding at  the hands of the Parkland kids and the volcanic revulsion normal Americans have finally dealt this sick cult of death. (Most delightful development so far: Gun zealots have been kicked off Youtube and are now forced to put their stuff on PornHub.)  Most substantively, the GOP has finally cracked and said the CDC should be allowed to do the study of gun violence it has sought to do for 20 twenty years.  That is a colossal blow to the Gun Cult and the finding will be damning indeed for the Cult and its wholly-owned subsidiary, the Party of Trump.  And it’s just the beginning because the Gun Cult has made an implacable enemy of an entire generation of voters, four million of whom will be eligible to pound them into the dust at the polls this fall.

As their power continues to be smashed and broken (and, with luck, ground into the dirt), the discussion is finally turning away from the kind of kindergarten moral education I’ve been forced to give sullen and truculent grownups here.  We will not, God willing have to hear much more whinging like, “But what about innocent gun owners whose first, last, and only thought after every massacre is ‘But what about me me ME ME ME?'” Instead, we will be able to move toward actually discussing reducing our gun slaughter rate. And that is where people of good will like Tollefsen come in:

Are Assault Weapons Necessary to Prevent Tyranny?

French’s two arguments are, we could say, the traditional arguments for gun rights, resting on a natural right to self-defense, and a natural right to resist tyrannical government. If both these are granted as natural and inalienable rights, then the right to bear arms follows.

But French thinks that the right that follows is not simply the right to bear any arms; that right would still be protected by laws forbidding or restricting semi-automatic weaponry. Rather, for both self-defense and resistance to tyranny, semi-automatic firearms must be permitted if those rights are to be secure. Regarding the former, French writes,

Limit the size of the magazine to, say, ten rounds, and you’ve placed the law-abiding homeowner at a disadvantage. Prohibit them from obtaining a compact, easy-to-use, highly accurate carbine, and you’ve ensured that homeowners will be defending themselves with less accurate weapons. The best weapons “in common use” would be reserved for criminals.

And regarding the latter,

Moreover, an assault-weapon ban (along with a ban on high-capacity magazines) would gut the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against tyranny.

I will follow French in restricting the argument to assault weapons understood in the following way: “a semi-automatic rifle with cosmetic features similar to military weapons. They’re typically paired with high-capacity magazines.” So understood, French concludes that “to properly defend life and liberty, access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.”

This seems highly implausible to me. Let’s first address the claim that assault weapons are necessary for the defense of liberty against tyranny. French recognizes that many citizens do not believe that armed citizens should “try to deter tyranny,” and, in the context of the United States, I am one of those citizens. Consider an argument made (by me and others over the last twenty years) against the use of armed force against abortionists: although the intentional killing of hundreds of thousands of unborn babies every year constitutes, if anything does, a just cause for the use of force, nevertheless, to take up arms in the face of laws permitting abortion and protecting abortionists is to set oneself on the path of civil rebellion.

But such rebellion could only be justified were there some plausible hope of success, and there is no hope for success in the struggle against abortion by the use of force against the government. Any group of people large and strong enough to prevail in such a conflict would be powerful enough to change the laws by peaceful means. Any weaker group would be wiped out. The loss of life (on both sides) would be catastrophic and futile, and thus any effort to resist abortion with lethal force is immoral.

That argument can be extended. Given the size and power of our military, no armed resistance that did not already have the military’s backing could succeed. Resistance under such circumstances would be futile, and the ensuing loss of life would be unjustified. But civilian assistance in a justified military resistance to a tyrannical government here in the United States—a barely imaginable contingency—could scarcely be expected to be essential to success.

So the idea that gun rights are, here and now, essential to the defense of citizens against tyranny seems to me fantastic. It is a pleasing myth, but only that, and should play no role in the argument for assault weapons.

Are Assault Weapons Necessary for Self-Defense?

What about French’s argument concerning the use of assault weapons for defense? I think this is a stronger argument, but I wish to draw attention to three points at which I think it falters.

First, French surely overstates when he suggests that access to assault weapons is a “necessity.” The percentage of legally possessed guns that are assault weapons is relatively small, and thus the percentage of citizens who own such weapons even smaller. No citizen who does own such a weapon knows that he or she will need to use it someday. Nor do any know that, in the event that they do use it, no other firearm would be as effective. There are stories, easily accessed on the internet, in which homeowners use assault weapons to defend their homes. In one recent event three teenagers, one of whom had a knife, were killed by a twenty-three-year-old man in Oklahoma. Was the assault weapon a necessity in this case? Or was it, literally, overkill?

Second, French points out that police “typically” do not carry revolvers but assault weapons. He then asks, “if a person doesn’t ‘need’ a high-capacity magazine to defend himself, then why do the police use them?” But the police are not in the business of personal defense. Their purpose is defense of the citizenry at large, apprehension of criminals, and prevention, when possible, of criminal activity. All these purposes go beyond personal defense. Differences in the weapons used for the personal-defense purposes of private citizens and the law-enforcement purposes of police should be expected.

Not to mention that there are reasonable questions about whether even police should be “ramping up” their weapons of choice. The United States’ model of law enforcement is not the only one; most British police do not carry guns. It is beyond the scope of this essay to address this issue, but it should not be assumed that a police arms race is the only, or most rational, approach.

Third, we should inquire more closely into the right of self-defense. French undoubtedly believes, as do many, that this right encompasses a right to intend the death of an attacker. But as Thomas Aquinas famously argued, intentional killing in self-defense is wrong.

One does have a right to self-defense, and indeed to the use of force in self-defense. Such force may be lethal, but for one with an upright will, the lethality is outside the intention, a side effect. Even when I shoot my attacker, my intention should be merely to repel him so as to stop his aggression. That is why, having incapacitated an attacker, it would be wrong to finish him off with another shot.

Now, the mere choice of weaponry does not determine intention: one might intend death while wielding a knife, and intend only defense while launching an anti-aircraft missile at a terrorist-piloted airplane.

But one’s intentions shape and can be shaped by the instrumentalities one adopts. If one intends to kill anyone who invades one’s home, one will probably opt for something one expects to do that more effectively. And if one has at hand a weapon that can easily and lethally wipe out a perceived threat—such as the threat posed by teenagers with a knife and brass knuckles—then one may be tempted to respond not with appropriate force, but with intentionally lethal force.

Conservatives say often that the law teaches. That is true. A law that makes weapons such as the AR-15 available seems to teach that private citizens are entitled to use the same kind and amount of force, and with the same intention, that police are. That, I think, is an error.

We exist in a time of deep polarization and lack of compromise. On some issues, that seems inevitable: if abortion is the unjust and intentional taking of innocent human life, then there can be no compromise with those who judge the right to abortion “fundamental.” But the gun-control debate, while carried on in the same highly toxic register of outrage and fury as other neuralgic issues, seems different. Canada does not seem to me a fundamentally unjust society where guns are concerned, but guns are certainly more heavily regulated there than here. Assault weapons seem an appropriate point of compromise on the part of the proponents of a right to bear arms. It is, at the very least, an appropriate point for continuing the conversation that French’s essay initiated.

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