A Dialogue on Gun Control, America, and Ordered Liberty, Pt. 3

Here, Kent and I continue the conversation on gun control and American conservatism (see Part One and Part Two). In this exchange, we go deeper into the question of to what extent policies like gun control may sap the civic fiber of a nation, and whether this loss of active citizenship is worth the increase in safety.  (This may, or may not, be the last publicly-posted installment.)

Hi Brad,

Well, it seems we’re close to an impasse of agreeability.  I’m with you on the lesser magistrate deal. By taking up arms in the last resort I was thinking more of the outright murder-by-government that the twentieth century saw so much of. Such cases would seem to me to fall under the individual right not to get slaughtered if he can help it.

If the purpose of civil government is basically to promote the peace and liberty of the commonwealth, then we have to rule out standing armies and omnipresent police forces as instruments of the magistrate (there is a pretty respectable body of thought that regards them as ready-made tools of war and slavery, respectively). Without those instruments, a society must instead rely on a spirited and independent body of citizens, who collectively respond to the call of the magistrate to defend the commonwealth, and individually interpose between the innocent and their would-be predators. Hence, in England and America, the concept of citizens as comprising the militia of the commonwealth, as well as individual defense doctrines such as the Castle Doctrine. I don’t see any way to uphold such civic and communal responsibilities except through the general duty that able citizens have to own death-dealing weapons. Is the responsibility great? Yes, but civic responsibility is the bedrock of free societies.

By appealing to bygone English traditions I didn’t mean to pull a rhetorical move, but rather to pose an example of a
settled, stable society with a tradition of gun ownership that fairly clearly influenced America’s similar culture–thus hopefully grounding it in something more than a transient phase of settlement.

As you indicated, it’s tricky business to appeal to gun-free contemporary societies, since it all depends on how you read the trajectory they took to get to that point. I believe the general sense in America is that they reached this point through a process of decay. Though I can hardly defend that viewpoint with scholarly rigor, I am inclined to agree. There is a famous quote from Tocqueville which I’m sure you have seen before:

The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations―complicated, minute, and uniform―through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way . . . it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own . . . it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Isn’t this sort of soft despotism the besetting sin of modern developed societies? It seems reasonable to me to categorize gun control efforts as part of this drift toward the enervating regulatory state. A culture of gun ownership seems to stand in opposition to this drift for all the reasons I’ve mentioned before. Thus I’m sympathetic to those who oppose to every attempt to regulate gun ownership: not because, considered in the abstract, a given regulation is necessarily deleterious, but because in the present state of things the aggregate effect must always be to further remove responsibility from the hands of citizens, and thus, of course, concentrate it in the hands of the few, the unrooted, and the unaccountable.

Having said that, I would re-state my agreement that contemporary American gun culture is built too much around an aggressive individualism that has problems all of its own (I’m quite sure libertarians would want nothing to do with the kind of civic and militia duties our forefathers were required–by the magistrate no less–to shoulder).

You’re right to point out the difficulties of localism in the face of new technologies of mobility and accessibility, as in the Illinois malefactors example. But this brings us (once again) up against deeper problems in our political framework, in this case our domestic empire. Only the fact that every state and region within the US has completely permeable borders makes the need for top-down federal laws plausible. I don’t see any solution to that except a significant shift toward local autonomy, such that each state or community could police its borders to the point of being able to control firearms traffic to whatever degree it deems best for itself. So the problem with the Chicago example, isn’t, I think, a problem for localism, but rather the opposite: a problem inherent in mass government.

Lastly (and hopefully briefly, lest this email too become obese), you’re right that the secession and the War were connected to (if not identical with) efforts to preserve slavery. All I should really say is that “slavery” was only marginally about slavery. Like all such events in history, there’s the risk of making simplistic moral judgments unless we first put the work into appropriate contextualization.  For one thing, the theological context was loaded, as Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, among others, demonstrates. For another, the political-economic context was similarly complicated. Eugene Genovese, for instance, has written a good deal about the war of economic theories that underlay the slavery wars; suffice it to say that many Southern thinkers opposed the development of industrial capitalism on the same grounds as those taken by its other Christian critics. Rightly or wrongly, members of both the Southern clergy and political economists saw a Christian take on domestic servitude as the best alternative model of society then available to them (and, moreover, a model with the weight of biblical and classical authorities behind it). So the choice, in 1861, was not a simple one between doing either the square thing or the rotten thing by our black brothers; it involved the foundations of Christian society, and the Southern choice was made with, if nothing else, a sincere motivation to stem the tide of both religious heterodoxy and socio-economic revolution.

So, yes, there’s plenty neither of us would embrace about antebellum society. But then, we could find gigantic moral problems with every actual or theoretical alternative to industrial capitalism and the cash nexus economy, and yet we still wouldn’t hesitate long if we had to choose sides.

Kent Will



Dear Kent,

This may be my last contribution, especially as we are “nearing an impasse of agreeability,” though there are definitely a few points I want to take up and talk through further.

On the issue of citizen-owned firearms as the means for the individual to resist tyranny in last resort—sure.  We’re not talking about some libertarian tax rebellion, you say, but a keep-Stalin-from-slaughtering-you kind of situation. I’m fine with that reasoning in principle, but I will reiterate my worry that it’s a tad unrealistic.  Had the Ukrainian peasants retained their fire-arms (for all I know they did, but let’s assume they didn’t), I doubt it would’ve slowed Stalin down too much in massacring them.  The technology, size, and organization of modern national armies is such that an armed citizenry, unless very well-organized into civic associations with strong community support (and probably not even then), could do little to check a determined tyrant.  Of course, Steven Wedgeworth made a good point here on my blog, noting that the main value of an armed citizenry would be to check local or regional tyrannies, not national ones.  There’s something to this reasoning (which I’ve strangely heard very little of in conservative gun-rights rhetoric, symptomatic perhaps of the fact that even conservatives are rarely localist in their thinking anymore), though I still suspect that strong civic associations and community organizations will play a much more important role in opposing such injustices than will firearms.  As Hannah Arendt so wonderfully put it, “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power.”

Now your paragraph about relying “on a spirited and independent body of citizens” in place of “standing armies and omnipresent police forces,” I take to be the heart of your argument.  And I’m deeply sympathetic to all of this, to be sure.  I will reiterate that my core instincts are are federalist, Althusian, yea (with a bit of Monte Python tongue-in-cheek) anarcho-syndicalist.  Whatever can be done locally, should be done locally.  Amen, preach it brother.  But—I confess to a certain reluctant skepticism about how much can be done locally nowadays.  The trajectory of society from the 9th century to the present has been toward increasing centralization, toward the notion of the nation-state as that which has “a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”  It’s highly fashionable these days to spin elaborate political-theological narratives abut why this has happened, and how it is inherently idolatrous, a “migration of the holy” (to borrow the title of a recent Cavanaugh book), etc.  But how much of it is simply pragmatic, a result of ever-increasing weapons technology (with one really decisive shift being the invention of the firearm).  When vagabonds, raiders, and neighboring tribes wielded swords, the association of local freemen wielding their own swords or bows could be reasonably effective in checking such threats (although, lest we romanticize, we must remember that violent deaths per capita were in that era many many times what they are today).  The advent of firearms, more expensive to produce and capable of killing on a larger scale, required a larger role for centralized police forces and trained armies. This process has continued as weapons technology has advanced.  With more advanced weapons, we face the problem that a well armed malefactor can inflict massive harm very quickly, and can be reliably thwarted only by a citizenry similarly well-armed, but we flinch at the idea of putting such dangerous weapons into the hands of every
citizen.  That is to say, I don’t like the idea of every citizen carrying around an automatic, and certainly not of every citizen carrying around a bazooka; even such weapons, however, would be little help against the suicide bomber.  As weapons technology continues to advance, the feasibility of arming the citizenry at large to effectively and safely neutralize threats becomes less and less.  Can the ideal of a yeoman’s militia really work in the age of drones and ICBMs?

Now, I want to turn to your claim that contemporary gun-free societies have achieved greater peaceableness (and I appreciate that you do seem willing to concede that empirical fact, as a broad generalization at least, when many in our circles will not) only at the cost of general decadence, an atrophying of active citizenship and vibrant civil society. Certainly the decay Toqueville describes is evident in an advanced state in societies like Britain; I can confirm that from living there.  I do think it would be hasty to generalize this complaint to all European, or gun-controlling societies, and I do not have the empirical knowledge to confirm or deny such a charge; but at any rate, there are clearly a number of places where this trend is evident.  The question is whether it is inextricably related to the issue of arms-bearing.  I am inclined to think it is not, for a variety of reasons.  For one, as a historical matter, it seems to me that several of these societies (including Britain) sustained vibrant civil society, and a robust ideal of citizenship, for a long time in the absence of the kind of widespread gun ownership we take for granted in America.  For another, theoretically, it seems to me that the kind of ideals and associations that are essential to such vibrant civil society and robust citizenship are largely independent; it seems to me that there are all sorts of things that citizens could be doing to take responsibility for their communities, contribute to the vitality of social bonds, and root out antisocial and violent behavior, without being armed.  Given my suspicion that the ideal of the armed citizenry will increasingly become an anachronism given the conditions of contemporary society and technology, it seems to me that we must exercise our imaginations in constructing these alternative modes of active citizenship in ways that meet the needs of our communities.  I’d like to think, in other words, that we can accept the reality of an essentially centralized, top-down law enforcement system (since I see little alternative), while simultaneously sustaining a robust bottom-up network of political agency expressed at the local level.  Perhaps that is naively idealistic, but on the basis of Arendt’s claim—that the exercise of power does not require the use of violence—it seems to me plausible.

Of course, when I say “centralized, top-down” I mean only relative to the idea of an armed citizenry; I do not necessarily mean to insist that authority must continue to be concentrated at the national level. Could and should we have more state and local autonomy?  Sure. But I think you are being naive and idealistic when you say, “Only the fact that every state and region within the US has completely permeable borders makes the need for top-down federal laws plausible. I don’t see any solution to that except a significant shift toward local autonomy, such that each state or community could police its borders to the point of being able to control firearms traffic to whatever degree it deems best for itself.”  There is a reason that we have moved toward the idea of completely permeable borders, and increasing homogeneity among the states—the same reason that Europe has done the same thing: to facilitate a free flow of capital and labor.  Our reigning economic ideology demands the removal of all barriers to economic activity, which automatically undercuts most attempts to assert authority and craft distinctive policies at more local levels. Even national sovereignty is increasingly undermined in favor of the global flow of information, goods, and services.  I think that you, at least (unlike most American “conservatives”), are aware of this issue, and the need for a rethinking of economic relations if we are to resist centralizing political trends.  Perhaps you have some bright ideas about how we can do this in the long-run.  My point is that in the near-term, at least, it’s unrealistic to be able to expect for local jurisdictions to be able to institute either effective gun-control or gun-rights legislation.

On the issue of slavery and the antebellum South, yes, I would basically agree with everything you say here, even if I would worry somewhat more that it is always easy to rationalize injustice as “the best model of society available,” and so just because it could appear to be such does not mean that we can gloss over the evils that, in hindsight, hid behind such rationalizations.  However, this has grown into quite a distinct issue from the main thread of our conversation, so I will let it drop for now without further elaboration.

Eager to hear any of your further thoughts, either in email or in person.



8 thoughts on “A Dialogue on Gun Control, America, and Ordered Liberty, Pt. 3

  1. Matthew SG

    I have read this discussion with great interest. A Canadian living in Britain and an avowed opponent of all but the most limited privileges of personal gun ownership, I have agreed relatively little of either with you on the question at hand (though considerably more so when local government was under discussion) but found the discussion interesting and enlightening of the considered views of those who disagree with me. I have taken some issue with the tone of your slightly tangential discussion on the ‘Old South,’ as you have referred to it, but only in this last installment have I felt the need to comment. I found myself nothing less than offended at the following comment of Kent Wills’:

    "Rightly or wrongly, members of both the Southern clergy and political economists saw a Christian take on domestic servitude as the best alternative model of society then available to them (and, moreover, a model with the weight of biblical and classical authorities behind it). So the choice, in 1861, was not a simple one between doing either the square thing or the rotten thing by our black brothers; it involved the foundations of Christian society, and the Southern choice was made with, if nothing else, a sincere motivation to stem the tide of both religious heterodoxy and socio-economic revolution."

    I am the descendent of slaves. My father’s ancestors were stolen from their homes by local potentates and sold into servitude for European goods. They were forced into slave ships, ferried across the Atlantic, and resold (no doubt at only a very reasonable markup) into service of the economic interest of men very much like the plantation owners, clergy, and political economists of the ‘Old South.’ I’m not pointing this out to claim some moral authority over either you but to raise the point that Kent Wills has willfully overlooked in his comments on competing econonies and models of societies: the humanity of those ‘black brethen’ of Kent’s. It was erased by the institution of slavery and it has been erased in this discussion.

    The political interests and economic considerations of the priviliged and the powerful do not override the humanity of the oppressed and regardless of whatever ideals they thought they fought for, they fought for the right to enslave, to dehumanise, and to brutalise blacks in a cruel and violent system of institutional racism and servitude. This had nothing to do with Christianity. It had everything to do with power, social as well as economic. They risked losing their power. They fought to keep it. That was the choice to be made in 1861. The ‘Old South’ made the wrong one, the unchristian one. Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even opposition to "religious heterodoxy and socio-economic revolution," can excuse it.


    • Kent Will

      Matthew, thanks for your comment. I know where you are coming from, but I believe you may have misunderstand the point of the remark you quoted. Brad and I were discussing whether the legacy of the Old South had good qualities that today’s conservatives could identify with and appropriate, or whether it should be rejected entirely as a legacy of cruelty and oppression. By describing the context surrounding its defense of slavery, I did not excuse whatever wrongs were done, but confined myself to suggesting that Southerners did not consider themselves to be fighting for, in your words, "the right to enslave, to dehumanise, and to brutalise", etc. Rather, they viewed their intellectual defense of slavery (as practiced in the South) as part of a larger model of Christian society that they were urging over against contemporary radicalism. We need to judge their motives on these grounds, and not substitute much different and more clearly iniquitous motives, as you did. Again, there is nothing in the point I made that would excuse real wrongs, or even suggest that a bad choice was okay because of good motives–only that, in evaluating the legacy of the old South, we need to take stock of the real, and not the popularly attributed, motives behind their defense.

      Of course there was much more that could have been said on this subject, but it wasn’t the main thread of our discussion and we were both trying to keep the rabbit trail within bounds. Your last paragraph made a number of (rather heated) empirical assertions which seem to beg the question under discussion, and which are difficult to engage without a bit more supporting argumentation.


      • Matthew SG

        Kent, the point I sought to make was that the "intellectual defense of slavery (as practiced in the South) as part of a larger model of Christian society that they were urging" was not, in fact, their root motivation. I was not substituting motivations but positing that different ones, iniquitous ones, to use your term, were the real factor. The ‘real motivations’ which you describe, the self-conscious defence of model of Christian society which endorsed slavery as ‘Christian servitude,’ is what is called a ‘discourse of privilege:’ a self-justificatory theory or narrative which defends or apologises existing privilege on an ad hoc or post hoc basis. Obviously no one (or at least almost no one) self-consciously defends their own privilege (in the sense of the contemporary category of critical discourse) but the privileged conceive theories or narratives which apologise for their privilege by defending oppressive social structures along other vectors of argument. A topical example would be the discourse of female rape victim-blaming, which perpetuates male privilege, specifically in the form of male power over women’s bodies, by arguing that the woman is to blame for her assault because she drank, dressed a certain way, walked in a dangerous place, etc.

        While this is a far from an appropriate forum in which to lay out the complete relevant critical race theory, I would encourage you to check out the works of David Kazanjian, Joanna Brooks, and Philip Gould if you are interested in the question of narratives of racial identity and social power. Kazanjian’s 2003 The Colonizing Trick: National Culture and Imperial Citizenship in Early America seems especially germane to your interests, based upon your arguments from this series.

        My argument is that the theories of social order which the South espoused were such a discourse. The intellectual defense of slavery in which they engaged perpetuated and legitimised their power over blacks, which power served their own economic interest as well as their social and political statuses. These theories, though sincere (just as the rape apologist who argues that the way to prevent rape is for women not to walk on the street at night is sincere in wanting to stop rape) were auto-justificatory: their ultimate end was to perpetuate an oppressive social order which served their theorisers, the privileged, at the expense of the oppressed. These theoris ignored oppression to serve privilege. It wasn’t the good of the slaves in question, it was the good of the white people. To argue otherwise does, in fact, serve to excuse wrongs done because it legitimases these theories and erases again the people they harmed.

        I have not taken issue with the fact that you described these theories (which, in academic history circles, we call ‘doing history’) but with the fact that you legitimated them by making them the ultimate cause of the South’s secession. I do not deny their importance and I do not suggest that there is nothing of value to be proud of in the ‘Old South’ but I protest (heatedly, even) when these theories are taken in isolation of their material causes and the material harm they caused. The theories of ‘Christian social order’ were the candy coating atop the root cause: an iniquitous and unchristian institution.


      • Kent Will

        Matthew, thanks for your reply and for taking the time to lay it out in some detail. I think I understand what you are saying, but I believe you may still be assuming what needs to be proven. Our conversation seems to have gone something like this:

        Kent: "The South’s apology for slavery was formulated out of their Christian conception of society."

        Matthew: "That is false, because the South’s apology for slavery was actually a ‘discourse of privilege.’"

        I don’t get how you can start from that point and appeal to it as a given, since that is exactly what needs to be proven in order to refute my claim.

        As you said, this blog probably isn’t the place to get into this. But I am interested in what you have to say, and if you are inclined I would welcome your further thoughts: kent.will@gmail.com.


      • Brad Littlejohn

        Thanks for these comments, Matthew. I understand and largely sympathize with your concern here, and indeed, it was toward this that I was gesturing (although fleetingly, as I did not want to get diverted from the main point) when I said, "I would worry somewhat more that it is always easy to rationalize injustice as "the best model of society available," and so just because it could appear to be such does not mean that we can gloss over the evils that, in hindsight, hid behind such rationalizations."

        While, given the almost wholesale discreditation of antebellum Southern society, there is some value in attempting to read sympathetically, and separate the wheat from the chaff of their social and theological worldview, I worry that this is a very delicate procedure, and can easily become a way of glossing over injustice, as you are concerned. Of course, while I agree that much of the antebellum theory of Christian social order was, as you say, simply a post hoc rationalization of "an iniquitous and unchristian institution," I think it would be unhistorical to say that it was entirely so—we have to separate out the various elements—the pieces that were classic federalist political theory, the pieces that were the inheritance of a long Christian politico-theological tradition, and the parts that were specific to the legitimation of institutionalized slavery.

        Aside from this issue, if you wouldn’t mind, I would be curious to hear you elaborate on what respects you disagreed with both of us on the main question of gun control.


      • Matthew SG


        My apologies in being so long in getting back to you. I had a post on my own blog go rather viral (that’ll teach me for writing on something topical) and have been completely consumed just trying to keep writing at my dissertation while also handling the hundreds of daily emails and tweets.

        The substance of my disagreement is that I do not think there is a reasonable argument for a right to private gun ownership as conceived in the United States. Admitting that I do not come from the same cultural background as you and Kent and am thus perhaps more inclined to dismiss arguments that turn on that culture, I think that the public health and safety risks which come with such easy access to firearms (and, say what you like about criminals not following laws anyway, no state comparable to the US that has extensive gun control has anything approaching American levels of gun violence) outweigh any other arguments. I will not deny that there are some reasonable instances for gun ownership, such as for sporting purposes or defence of livestock from large predators, but I see no reason to conceptualise this as a right any more than one should have a right to drive.

        Sorry for not raising any particular objections from the series; time just seems so short these days. If you’d like to raise any specific objections or question, please do.


      • Brad Littlejohn

        No problem, Matthew—under those circumstances, I’m surprised and grateful that you found the time to come back here and reply at all.

        I’m glad I asked for clarification, though, because your response suggests that you were missing a big part of what I was trying to say. You say that you can’t see a reason to treat gun ownership as an a priori right which governments must feel bound to respect at any time and place. But this is essentially what I was arguing from the first post: "we should only cling to something if it has ongoing positive social value….Can the same be said of gun rights in America today? To what extent do these continue to serve a positive social purpose? If the circumstances that gave rise to the right no longer hold, if society has changed to the extent that what was once an asset has now become a liability, then reform is needed." That gun ownership rights can exist as a particular positive right, I of course granted. And that such a right may have been, and may continue to be in many times and places, of crucial social benefit and therefore be worthy of upholding and defending, I have granted. But circumstances can change, and it appears to me that one may compellingly argue that they have so changed, so that, continuing to grant this legal right poses, as you say, such public health and safety risks that a society cannot in good conscience continue to grant it, at any rate without careful limits and regulations.So, I’m not sure where we differ on the principles, even if you are more thoroughly persuaded from an empirical standpoint that the conditions of modern society render strong gun control essential.


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