Friday, June 20, 2014

Ivan Perkins on Why Guns Make us Less Safe

It's a sign of the times. Ivan Perkins has an adjunct faculty position at UCLA. In that capacity he "studies" law and international affairs while his day job is editing articles for the UCLA Law Review. It's like sweeping the offices of tenured professors. Bright young graduates just can't get real teaching jobs anymore.

In the meantime, however, Rowman & Littlefield has published Perkin's book, Vanishing Coup: The Pattern of World History Since 1310; and he has been guest blogging at Volokh Conspiracy.*

Second Amendment gun enthusiasts in the United States (e.g.) can be heard to say that a government with an armed citizenry is more respectful of citizen's rights. Individual ownership of guns prevents governments from lapsing into tyranny. That's why we need The Right to Bear Arms. On the other hand, those of us who would like to see more regulation of guns, and less easy access to them because we are concerned about school shootings, shooting of elected politicians, and a drive-by-shooting youth-culture, know in our bones that this argument is wrong.  Ivan Perkins helps us articulate why it's wrong:

According to a Rasmussen poll, 65 percent of Americans believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to protect the nation from tyranny. Some of those Americans are on the Supreme Court. In their landmark 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court argued that the Framers intended the Second Amendment to serve as an ultimate “safeguard against tyranny.” Two years later, the Court quoted Justice Joseph Story, who thought the Second Amendment would “enable the people to resist and triumph” against a usurper....
But the facts don't bear this out, says Perkins:
[A]rmaments help groups like gangs, drug cartels, cults, and fringe groups detach themselves from the mainstream, and establish alternative bases for loyalty and security — in effect, “mini-states” at war with the official government. We see this phenomenon among Mafia families, Mexican drug cartels, and Colombian guerrillas, among many others. The basic process looks like this. A ringleader organizes a well-armed clique for criminal enterprises. By using bribery and intimidation to recruit policemen, officials, and judges into his private army, the boss establishes a shadowy rule over certain neighborhoods and regions. His henchmen and stooges owe loyalty to him personally, rather than to the nation, its laws, or institutions....
The reason our nation is secure from tyranny has nothing to do with the proliferation of civilian guns. As I explained earlier this week and in my new book, Vanishing Coup, we enjoy a stable democracy because we live under the rule of law, enforced by impartial and independent police, prosecutors, and judges. By insisting on legality and procedure at every level of our military and civilian bureaucracies, we make it impossible to practice the nepotism and corruption required to build personal-loyalty cabals.
Without high-level cabals, plotting a coup d’├ętat becomes inordinately difficult. When “big men” have loyal followers, plausible conspiracies form relatively easily, as each boss brings his own people on board. But in the absence of corrupt cliques, a conspiracy must grow individual by individual, with each new recruit posing a substantial danger of betrayal. Under these circumstances, coup plotting becomes absurdly perilous, and the notion of a coup d’├ętat effectively disappears from the corridors of power. This is why all the nations to achieve long-term stability — including Britain, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, and others — enjoy strong rule-of-law institutions and low corruption. (For maps of the “coup-free zone” over the past century, see yesterday’s post; for the extended map series, click here.)
Gun proliferation poses no immediate threat to American democracy, but it moves the ball in the wrong direction. Guns help criminal mini-states form, expand, and warp the operation of law. ... Thus, new gun regulations are necessary for many reasons, including the long-term preservation of our Constitution. The widespread availability of high-powered military-grade weaponry does not keep us secure from tyranny — in fact, it increases the probability that one day, our great-grandchildren will live under thuggish warlords and tyrants. 
* I note that Volokh Conspiracy is making an effort to incorporate more diverse voices since moving to the Washington Post.  Liberal Constitutional law Professor Lawrence Tribe recently guest blogged.


  1. I think this article misses the point. Our rights are not subject to cost-benefit arguments. We will always have the right of self-defense and defense of liberty (regardless of speculation on what form that might take, now or in the future). The fact remains it is the people's responsibility, and having the right demands the means to exercise it. Whether society happens to be peaceful or violent at any particular point in history is irrelevant.

  2. Certainly the rule of law protects our way of life and the multiple checks and balances make it harder for the system to break.
    However, an armed citizenship is the ultimate last resort when government believes that the laws do not apply to government.

  3. Thank you Odysseus and Top Cat. I think, but it's not absolutely clear, that you are both in agreement. Yes? I agree that "rights are not subject to a cost benefit analysis." That is the point of rights. However, you also seem to disagree with the empirical point of the article; i.e. that historically, an armed citizenry can lead to warlords and a breakdown in society.

    I found the article interesting for that empirical claim. It seems plausible to me. If true, I don't think the claim is irrelevant because it might inform how deeply committed we should be to the second amendment, and whether we might want to consider amending it. Thanks for reading.