Here’s the issue before us, after Dallas: Is the United States a state?
The question seems strange; this nation’s full official name suggests not only a state, but also a union of states. Among defining attributes of a state, the United States possesses a territory, a flag, laws — and courts and bureaucrats to enforce them.
What it doesn’t have, crucially, is a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence by a central authority.
In part, this is by design. The Constitution provides for the legitimate use of violence by a federal government, but also by the 50 semi-sovereign entities represented in Washington. Indeed, in the founding era, the federal government exercised only limited power to establish a standing military or law-enforcement apparatus; it relied heavily on state cooperation, and state resources, to provide what we know today as “national security.”
And then there’s the Second Amendment, which gives “the people” a right to “keep and bear arms,” thus legitimizing nongovernmental violence, not only by groups — from slave patrols to pioneers to sheriffs’ posses — but also by individuals, from hunters to homeowners.
No constitutional provision better expresses an essential difference between the state as Europeans understood it and the “republic” America’s founders conceived. Yet none has spawned more debate, confusion and conflict within America itself, right down to the present day.
The Civil War established that the lawful use of violence does not extend to armed state secession. Subsequent constitutional amendments also abolished slavery and the state- and individual-level violence that had maintained it. Henceforth, all Americans, white and black, would have equal rights, including both a right to summon official forces for protection against illegitimate private violence, and a Second Amendment right to use private violence for legitimate purposes, individual or collective.
This new dispensation proved unstable. Reconstructed Southern states struggled to recruit and arm biracial militias and police, as white supremacist paramilitary forces terrorized and murdered — and disarmed — freedmen and their (few) white allies, with the goal, ultimately achieved, of seizing state power for the white supremacist-dominated Democratic Party.
Federal troops, aided by a handful of Secret Service agents and U.S. marshals, intervened episodically but ineffectually. Industrial strife, including clashes between worker militias and corporate private security forces, plagued the North. Mob rule, and its evil concomitant — lynching — prevailed across much of the West.
The 20th century saw the rise of a federal administrative state, including federal police agencies such as the FBI, and a large, permanent military. All of the above helped pacify the hinterlands, unify the country and end the official white supremacist monopoly on legitimate violence in the South. There was a strong movement toward national gun control in response to crime and the political violence of the 1960s — which bred a powerful Second Amendment “rights” backlash. Today, myriad state laws and prevailing Supreme Court doctrine enshrine an individual right to firearm possession, albeit with exceptions not yet fully defined.
Undeniably, if inconveniently for gun-control advocates, this dispensation has a basis in the lapidary phrases of the Second Amendment. It is nevertheless manifestly unstable, characterized both by widespread private gun ownership, overwhelmingly for legitimate use, and by regular mass shootings by madmen and terrorists of various stripes, not to mention more routine shootings.
Though not the bloodiest episode, the Dallas massacre epitomizes our predicament. Police came under fire from an African American who believed himself to be resisting governmental abuse and tyranny — which, according to many a gun-rights advocate, is one of the reasons to have an armed populace.
Attempting to locate the sniper, Dallas law enforcement had to contend with some 20 people who were marching in a larger protest against police brutality while openly carrying rifles and wearing body armor, as was their right under Texas law.
It’s a small miracle, or a huge tribute to the police’s restraint and professionalism, that none of these people was shot by an officer who amid the chaos might have understandably switched from protecting the marchers to defending himself from them.
Meanwhile, the fact that the African American men shot dead by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana appear to have been armed does not excuse the police’s actions, or de-racialize them — but does complicate the narrative. An America where anyone can be, and often is, carrying a gun is an America where more police-civilian encounters escalate, with deadly consequences.
An effective monopoly on the legitimate use of violence at least gives states, such as those in Western Europe, legal clarity and all the advantages that flow from that.
By contrast, the people of the United States, and its 50 component states, live under more complicated and variable rules. We struggle to respond, situationally. There must be some advantages to that, too, though just now they don’t seem terribly salient.