The Boston Bombings and the 2nd Amendment

As terrible as the Boston marathon bombing was, it was the subsequent searches and shootouts that might have the greater long-term implications for supporters of the 2nd Amendment, as well as those uncomfortable with the increasing militarization of local and national police forces. Four related issues bear consideration in the wake of these events.

Boston's Disarming -- Since 1998 Massachusetts has suffered under one of the nation's most restrictive and extensive gun control regimes. Predictably, this did not increase public safety but rather produced soaring crime rates. However, it did result in the third lowest rate of gun ownership in the country (12.6%) behind only New Jersey and Hawaii.

So when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fled into Watertown, he had little to fear from the local residents, barely one in ten of whom likely had firearms available, and presumably none an "assault weapon" or high-capacity pistol. How those residents felt as an armed and murderous terrorist roamed the streets while they were effectively disarmed, unable to protect themselves and their loved ones, is still a matter of speculation. A spike in Massachusetts gun purchases (restrictions and all) is a good bet.

Maryland (my own state) with a gun ownership rate only modestly higher than Massachusetts (21% -- ranked 42 nationally) will likely be in a similar situation in a few years, thanks to draconian new restrictions on firearms here. One hopes that at least some Maryland politicians are questioning their recent votes banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

In any event, in the wake of the events in Boston, it should be harder for gun-control advocates to parrot their standard line that firearms for home defense are a danger to individuals and to the community at large, rather than useful tools.

Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazines -- If there is one image people will likely take from the Tsarnaev brothers' flight through Cambridge and Watertown, it is of hundreds of policemen, armed to the teeth with assault rifles and pistols, of types that states like Massachusetts and Maryland ban for their own citizens.

Police used these weapons against the terrorists. They exchanged over 200 rounds of ammunition during the battle that killed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and critically wounded transit police officer Richard Donahue. Some of Donahue's colleagues ran out of ammunition during the gunfight, and charged the Tsarnaev brothers with their police car. For all that, neither brother was killed or even incapacitated by police bullets. Tamerlan died when Dzhokhar ran him over with a stolen SUV as he struggled with police officers attempting to arrest him. Dzhokhar succeeded in fleeing the scene and engaging police in another gunfight before his capture.

This demonstrates is that all the blather over assault weapons and high capacity magazines being "unnecessary" is so much nonsense. Nobody knows in any given situation, how much ammunition or firepower will be required to put down a threat. I'm not consoled by the fact that my governor, Martin O'Malley, knows that in facing down a criminal or terrorist I will not need an assault rifle or more than ten rounds of ammo in my pistol. Nor am I reassured that Senator Diane Feinstein and Vice President Joe Biden are equally certain that 12-gauge shotguns are the be-all and end-all of home defense, just because President Obama shoots skeet. Never mind whether a shotgun is an effective weapon suited to my abilities and needs.

If a squad of heavily-armed police officers with assault weapons and plenty of ammo could not put down a pair of desperate and fanatic young men, how can any politician with a straight face claim that an average citizen should be able to do the same with much, much less?

Gun-control advocates like to use reductive logic to make the case against assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, since they have nothing but contradictory anecdotal evidence to support their case. By such logic, because it is highly unlikely that I, or any other American homeowner, will ever be threatened by a terrorist in the neighborhood, I should not need weapons capable of defending myself and my family from such a threat. But events in Boston prove it is hardly impossible. On the other hand, there is a close to zero chance that I would ever use an assault weapon or high capacity magazine to harm an innocent person. So even by their own reductive logic, the gun controllers are wrong.

A Well Regulated Militia... -- No other phrase is more problematic to gun rights advocates than this introductory phrase in the 2d Amendment. To gun control advocates, and even people without strong feelings on the subject, the right to keep and bear arms appears dependent on membership in a well-regulated militia, e.g., the National Guard. Whether or not that is a compelling legal argument, it is still persuasive for much of the population at large. What else could a well-regulated militia mean? The experience of Watertown offers a populist answer.

During the pursuit of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, authorities locked down the metropolitan Boston area, ordering residents to remain indoors, effectively attempting to institute police control over the entire city. It didn't work. The younger Tsarnaev managed to move unnoticed and unmolested through the locked-down streets of Watertown, and was only discovered by a homeowner after police lifted the lockdown.

Watertown's residents might have been organized as a local militia, had they been allowed to do so. What are neighborhood watches if not local militias? I'm not advocating that armed residents of Watertown should have taken to the streets posse-like to hunt down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- although such an effort might have proved more successful than police searches. Rather, alert citizens, independently armed and secure in their homes, and out on their properties, would have made Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's flight much more difficult, and might have obviated the final dangerous gunfight in a local driveway. This concept of a militia is probably something like what the founding fathers had in mind.

The Militarization of the Police -- An alternative to active civic involvement in the maintenance of order and security in the streets appears to be increasingly large and militarized police forces. During the lockdown, Boston looked like a city under martial law, all for the pursuit of a single 19-year-old man.

The Posse Comitatus Act strictly limits the employment of federal military force in within the United States. Obviously, absent the Act, a power-hungry federal leadership could threaten the democratic fabric of the nation through the tremendous power of a modern military force. Military officers respect the Posse Comitatus Act, and both by legal sanction and temperament are loath to violate it. In fact, such has often been the case with many modern militaries, which prefer to fight foreign enemies rather than their own people.

On the other hand, modern totalitarian dictators have used militarized police, rather than the military, to effectively assert dictatorial power, as in both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While we are still a long way from such horrors, the increasingly militarized appearance and firepower of our modern police organizations is disturbing.

Federal and local police forces moved door to door in and around Boston searching residences because a single terrorist was on the loose. Presumably most searches were consensual, but it's pretty clear that the searches would have been forcibly conducted (and may have been in some cases) under the exigent circumstance exception to the 4th Amendment. If a major American city is subject to much larger and more determined attack -- like in Mumbai in 2008 -- what's to stop the police from demanding that residents surrender their firearms in order to protect the militarized police forces moving through? Military forces want to dominate and pacify areas, and hold exclusive coercive force. Our increasingly militarized police may not be far from such practices.