Last night there was yet another gun-related mass killing in the United States. This being the case, sensible people will, no doubt, once again point out the relationship between easy access to firearms and mass-scale gun violence, and insensible people will, no doubt, once again wrap themselves in the Second Amendment and intimate that nothing can be done to prevent sociopaths from obtaining weapons without profaning in Founders’ vision. Here we go again…a lot of yelling followed by the same ideological standoff.
There is a reasonably sensible halfway position between gun control and free access to guns, and people trying to stake out some sanity in the debate have often turned to it. Switzerland’s army is a citizen militia. Basically what that means is that anyone who is able-bodied is required to manage a gun as a member of the citizen army, but they do so in a public capacity. In other words, they own and maintain a gun in order to participate in defending Switzerland, and how they use that gun may be regulated by the Swiss state, in largely the same way that police forces regulate how police officers can use their firearms in the line of duty. In other words, you don’t have the spectacle of people engaging in vigilante justice like George Zimmerman, or massing independent stockpiles of weapons like David Koresh or Randy Weaver, or supplying “militia” groups with manifestos twitchily suggesting that the country needs to be liberated from having Obama as president. The emphasis here is on _public_ uses for the might of this decentralised army, not the outfitting of private individuals to wage private battles.
Every once in a while the Swiss example is cited, but then quickly forgotten – because, of course, right-wing gun nuts have no interest in guns being used for public purposes. The NRA is pretty obviously committed to outfitting private citizens who want to “defend” their country from the prospect of minorities having rights and citizens having a modicum of economic justice.
So, I’m not going that route today. Instead, I’d like to mention the flip side of the Swiss example. Though I think the Swiss model is a good one, and would like to encourage people to break past the limits of the stalled US debate over firearms by researching it – I’d like to refer instead in my comments today to what happens when militias commit to private and sectarian goals instead of public ones.
A lot of “gun rights” types suggest that the term “well regulated militia”, as it is used in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, merely refers to whether the militia can fight well. If it can, it is “well regulated”, if it cannot, it needs to regulate itself better so that it can fight well. For this bunch, it is an article of faith that the term does not refer to the government attempting to ensure that militias serve public purposes rather than private ones.
Well, I know a place where private militias have, historically, regulated _themselves_ darn well…Northern Ireland. The organised fighting forces on both the Catholic and Protestant sides were very efficient at killing people. But they had no public spirit – they were all about their own sectarian purpose. And peace comes to Northern Ireland not by appealing to the dream of a citizen’s militia, but rather by appealing to the idea that private militias must be disarmed for the good of the people.
So, yes, we have the shining example of the Swiss citizen militia, and that is an example I take seriously. But that militia only works because it is oriented toward serving a _public_ good. That is why I do not advocate taking guns away from the Swiss Army.
I strongly supported, on the other hand, taking guns away from the paramilitary forces that for so many years dominated Northern Ireland.
As we hear the continuing horrible news from Colorado today, I think it is the Northern Irish experience that is the more instructive. Today is not a day to rationalise people keeping their guns. Today is a day to figure out how to take guns out of people’s hands.