In response to my post on Timbuktu, reader PG proposed the following question, one that is as astute as it is intriguing.
I’ve always wondered about something and never seen it addressed in the scholarly work (e.g. by Glenn Reynolds, John Lott et al) that I’ve read about the 2nd Amendment and firearms, so I hope you can provide a useful perspective.
When I think about instances of serious governmental overreach within living memory in the U.S. — something where I think the word “tyranny” is not a total exaggeration — the biggest one that comes to mind is not something like Ruby Ridge or Waco, where the government was just trying to regulate firearms themselves. Instead, I think about the mass internment of West Coast Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, when the actual bodily liberty of over 100,000 people, most of whom were U.S. citizens, was taken away by the government’s herding them into camps.
Do you think it would be the correct course of action for citizens, when faced with such a threat by the government, to respond by utilizing their 2nd Amendment rights to defend themselves? If so, how do you think that would have worked out for Japanese-Americans as a response to the government’s demand that they go into the camps?
For those who do not know—and hopefully that’s not many of you—PG is referring to the forcible relocation of 110,000 Japanese-Americans to so-called “War Relocation Camps” during World War II. This action—taken under an executive order issued by FDR and found constitutional under a highly dubious Supreme Court decision—was based on the idea that the interred—2/3 of which were American citizens—constituted a sleeper army, loyal to imperial Japan. The federal government would eventually pay $1.6 billion in reparations to those affected by the internment. Today, it is hard to find anyone willing to argue that interment was anything other than what President Reagan called it—a shameful incident based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Which brings us to PG’s question and what it means for the gun control debate.
Generally speaking, there are three bases on which advocates of the right to bear arms rest their case—practical, historical, and philosophical. Practically speaking, guns are necessary for self-defense in the modern world, as well as for many recreational activities like hunting and sport shooting. After all, even the President shoots clays on occasion.
The philosophical grounds is more metaphysical but no less important. Having the right to bear arms is, in many ways, the ultimate right. It is action in a way that voting or speech is not, and it makes a mockery of the notion that the government has a monopoly on force. It is power, the kind ordinary citizens have not held during 99% of human history.
PG’s question goes to the historical basis. It’s the Timbuktu case. We need guns to defend ourselves from tyranny. But what does the Japanese question say about the viability of that argument?
I think PG knows—and I think most people would agree—that it would have been an unmitigated tragedy if the Japanese had resisted internment. At that time in our nation’s history, in the shadow of Pearl Harbor, it’s hard to imagine the death and destruction that could have resulted from resistance. In many ways, an armed rebellion would have served to confirm in the minds of the architects of internment the need for their policy. To put it simply, if the Japanese had resisted, they would have been slaughtered.
What is the lesson to be drawn from that conclusion? It’s not that the Japanese were not within their rights to take up arms against the state. They might very well have had the high moral ground given the circumstances. Rather, it’s that in a country of several hundred million, an armed populace is a defense against a tyrannical minority, not a committed majority. If a passionate majority wants something, it will happen, come hell or high water. No constitution, no politician, no political safeguard will stop them.
Does that defeat the historical argument for the right to bear arms? I actually think it strengthens it. One might be inclined to fear an armed citizenry, ever on the lookout for perceived tyranny, ever ready to strike against the government. Sounds like chaos and anarchy to me. But the reality of the situation is that an armed revolution truly is the last defense against tyranny, and it will only be invoked in an extreme circumstance.
The internment of the Japanese was a shameful moment, and one in which the rights of American citizens were wrongfully taken away. But it is political checks and Constitutional order that must be employed to stop that sort of government overreach. I am reminded of a story from the drafting of the Constitution. It’s no doubt apocryphal, but informative nonetheless. The story goes that as the Constitutional Convention drew to a close, a woman from Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin a question. “What have we got, Dr. Franklin?” she asked. “A monarchy, or a republic?” Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The internment of the Japanese should never have happened because the people of the United States and their elected representatives should never have allowed it to happen. But the right to bear arms could not save the Japanese. The Second Amendment is not, and should not be, the only defense of freedom. Rather, it is the last defense, one that is as dear as it should be rarely employed.