Mayor Lyda Krewson of St. Louis, Missouri, has been in some hot water lately, to say the least. After becoming the target of outrage for doxxing the folks calling for much-needed police reform, angry citizens invaded her gated community to bring the protest to her front lawn — and ended up in a dramatic showdown with a pair of armed, frightened homeowners in her neighborhood.
Since, the situation has become tremendously divisive on social media. Some idealize the homeowners for standing up and (ultimately, peacefully) protecting their property. Others, still, vilify them for the display of force and threatening the protesters.
But both the demands for police reform and the standoff itself ask a much larger question of us: When police fail, what comes next?
Well, that’d be an urgent need for guns.
Right now, our nation is stuck between a movement that wants to restrict our police, and one that wants even more policing during this time of crisis. Some say defunding the police would mean a free-for-all, and more situations like the one in St. Louis. But the choice between chaos and life under the heavy heel of a police state is a false dichotomy. There are plenty of paths toward peace, security and human flourishing. All of those paths, however, are only possible with our right and responsibility to keep and bear arms.
First of all, it’s crucial we recognize that robust police reform doesn’t mean utter lawlessness. From the unquestionably overdue elimination of qualified immunity, to the loud calls to defund police, none of these necessitate a total free-for-all. It may be hard to imagine a world without police right now, but the world fared pretty well without them for the majority of human history.
Take New York City, for example, which didn’t have a police force until 1845. Did that mean the city was until then a free-for-all, a heaven for bandits and murderers (like it is now)? No. For the majority of American history, policing was provided by local elected officials, who deputized individuals and militias. Unlike the police of today, these were ordinary members of the community.
Their goal was to keep the peace, rather than enthusiastically and violently enforce prohibitions against victimless conduct. That isn’t to say the old system was perfect. Far from it. But it also doesn’t make sense to suggest that reforming our policing system would mean an instant return to the Stone Age.
The widespread keeping and bearing of arms in this country is a crime deterrent in its own right. For another historical example, look to the American South post-Reconstruction. In the South it took no time for the newly-introduced police to completely fail to protect black communities. With no police to depend on, and vicious groups like the Klan terrorizing communities, American minorities turned to firearms to keep themselves safe.
This, of course, led to a dark spot on American history, when white folks required blacks to submit to prohibitive permits and licensing before owning or carrying arms. In fact, most modern American gun control can trace its roots to this era.
We need arms today for the same reason minority communities needed them in the Reconstruction era. No matter what systems our government puts in place, they are always prone to failure. Whether we defund the police, begin holding them accountable or do nothing, there is no getting around the simple fact that there may be times in our lives where each of us will be on our own. Our right to keep and bear arms and armor serves as a backstop to guarantee that, even when our systems fail, we aren’t left to the wolves.
In the case of true chaos — total lawlessness — each of us would be forced to depend on our own physical strength in the event of an unlawful attack or even a dispute. Luckily, that’s not how things were in the days before police as we understand them now, and it’s not how it would ever be in a society where the people have a right to arms. Firearms are a great equalizer, they mean a disabled man isn’t helpless when attacked by a strong one. On an individual level, they mean we don’t ever have to be completely helpless.
Of course, we’re sure to see lawmakers soon point to the old scapegoat of gun control, as we have many times in years past. But keep in mind, when all else fails, it’s better to have a means to protect yourself than to depend exclusively on what’s already failed.
Conflict will always be with us. Like the old truisms say, “As long as there’s two people, there will be conflict.” Yet, ultimately, what keeps people from tearing one another apart is the perception that there will be consequences. It’s irrelevant whether those consequences are eternal damnation, a jail sentence or finding themselves at the end of a citizen’s gun barrel. If we can’t have one, we must have another.
• Matthew Larosiere is the director of legal policy for Firearms Policy Coalition and a senior contributor to Young Voices. He can be found on Twitter @MattLaAtLaw.