Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Solving the Gun Control and Budget Impasses

Washington today faces two major domestic policy issues, gun control and the federal budget. Interestingly, reforming the former could help to ameliorate the latter.

Early in the twenty-first century, the text of the Second Amendment can seem inscrutable: “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.” The Founders were intelligent people. The parts about the militia and security were intentional, not make weight or window dressing. What in the world could the Founders have meant?

After years of studying the issue, I’ve concluded that the Founders believed that America would always have state militias. State governments, they believed, would always require males of military age to own a serviceable military firearm and to train with it on muster days. They would always modestly fine those who did not, would not, or could not train at specified intervals.

In addition to raising revenues from those fines, militia muster provided an opportunity to monitor men on an ongoing basis. Those who neither mustered nor paid their fines were outlaws with no Constitutional right to own military grade weapons: muskets, bayonets, and cannons then, and presumably assault weapons today. (They retained, however, the natural right to bear less lethal firearms for sport and self-defense.)

The notion of a civilian militia is neither silly nor antiquated: several nations, including Switzerland and Israel, maintain one to this day. To the Founders, state militias were the last awful way to check tyrannical government, hence the phrase about the security of a free state.

The notion that individual citizens acting in small, uncoordinated units could thwart a tyrannical federal government is of course preposterous. A well-regulated state militia, by contrast, would prove a formidable foe, especially if the Army was disbanded, as the Founders advised. There was no greater threat to Americans’ liberties, they believed, than a standing army (i.e., one that remained large in peacetime, like we have had since World War II).

Militias are not free but they cost far less than a standing army and would not appear on the federal budget. Spending on the Marines, Air Force, and Navy would still be substantial but the overall military budget would be far less than projected and the American people would arguably be safer, even from foreign invasions, remote as that threat appears. And a particularly well-regulated militia would also allow cuts to FEMA and other parts of the Department of Homeland Security. (It might even cut down on the obesity problem too!)

But aye, there is the problem. Few have incentives to switch back to a militia system and many interests would be threatened by it. So instead of rationally debating a policy change that could scotch two snakes with a single stick, the status quo will prevail once again … until it can’t anymore.

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