Commentary & Opinion
3:30 pm
Tue February 12, 2013

Stephen Gottlieb: Guns, Militias and Public Safety

Stephen Gottlieb: Guns, Militias and Public Safety

I’d like to address the debate over guns from an angle very different than the general conversation. Most of the conversation is about whether guns increase or decrease the risk of homicide or suicide. I’m pretty well convinced that the most likely victims of guns in the house are the people in the household, just as most car accidents happen within a short distance from home. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I see another problem that I think is quite significant.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has developed a great deal of expertise and information about the existence of hate groups around the country. It has identified thirty-seven different hate groups operating around New York State, forty-seven in New Jersey, thirty-four in Pennsylvania, ten in Massachusetts, five in Connecticut, four in New Hampshire and one in Vermont. These groups spew their venom at virtually every racial group, many religious groups, and gays. They comprise a litany of despicable groups from the KKK, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups to anti-Muslim, anti-white and Holocaust deniers. Some of them just write, speak and blog, but some have been involved in criminal violence.

To make matters worse, we know of at least two military style groups operating across New York, 1 each in New Hampshire and New Jersey, and four in Pennsylvania. These are the type of group that Timothy McVeigh belonged to before he bombed and destroyed the Oklahoma City Federal Building on an April morning in 1995 with children in a nursery school, hundreds of federal government employees and many ordinary citizens there to do business, killing 168 people, nineteen of whom were pre-school-age children.

Perhaps it’s the arrogance born of carrying weapons that led demonstrators not far from here to  brandish, point or even fire their weapons in a show of force or repeatedly give the finger to a fine woman I know for demonstrating in opposition.

Weapons are dangerous which is why gun safety is important. It’s also why most police are not big supporters of gun rights. But guns in groups, where people are pumped up by the psychology of the crowd, to focus their venom and their hate, are particularly dangerous, not just individually but to public order and the safety of large numbers of us.

Americans like to think they have nothing to learn from Europe. But Europeans understand that the Nazi regimes that took over almost all of the continent were brought to power by the fear and mayhem that just such groups brought about in killing sprees around Germany and elsewhere. They didn’t defeat the German army such as it was in 1932. They undermined the will of the people and the politicians to hold them down.

Other countries have faced serious violence as the result of paramilitary organizations. In much of Central and South America they were called Death Squads and they continued their murderous rampage for decades. Peru faced the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path in English, which paralyzed large portions of Peru for over a decade. The list goes on but the point is simple, paramilitary organizations are dangerous, for the safety of the people and for the survival of democracy.

Dealing with such groups is not easy but making it harder to get the kinds of weapons they would need to carry out their murderous ideas is a no-brainer.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

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