Monday, September 19, 2016

Unpacking Trump's Secret Service Taunt

by Michael Dorf

On Friday, Donald Trump said this about Hillary Clinton's Secret Service Detail:
I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons. They should disarm. Right? Right? I think they should disarm. Immediately. Yes? What do you [pointing to crowd member] think? Yes. Yeah. Take their guns away! She doesn't want guns. Take their . . . let's see what happens. Take their guns away. Okay? It'd be very dangerous.
Because this particular outrage came fast on the heels of Trump's love-fest with Dr. Oz and his admission that President Obama was in fact born in the U.S. (coupled with a free commercial for his new hotel and a new lie that Hillary Clinton originated Obama birtherism), Trump's suggestion that Clinton's security detail should leave her open to political violence did not receive all that much attention--and certainly less attention than this sort of comment would receive had it been uttered by any candidate for major public office (much less the presidency) who had not inoculated himself against criticism through dozens of equally outrageous statements and stunts. The weekend stabbings in Minnesota and the bomb in NYC then pushed the entire story out of the news.

Such critical attention that was paid to Trump's Secret Service remarks understandably focused on Trump's pattern of inciting his followers to engage in acts of political violence while he and his enablers deny that this is their intention. (See, e.g., this NPR story.) That's a fair critique. But it is also worth asking whether Trump's argument, even stripped of its inflammatory elements, makes any sense on the merits. To do so, let's try to construct a less inflammatory version of the argument. It would go like this:

(1) My political opponent wants to disarm people.

(2) She thinks guns are bad.

(3) But there are dangerous people against whom guns are needed for defensive purposes.

(4) That's why Secret Service agents, police, and other government officials carry guns.

(5) Therefore she's wrong. Taking away guns would not make people safer. It would make them less safe.

To the extent that there has been critical attention paid to this more academic version of the argument, it has mostly focused on the fact that point (1) is factually false. Clinton favors various measures that would bar certain categories of weapons and that would make the purchase of firearms illegal for some categories of people, but she does not advocate anything like a complete ban on private ownership of firearms.

Perhaps, however, Trump and his backers fear that Clinton's support for modest restrictions on gun possession and ownership merely reflect the constraints of the existing political environment. Perhaps they believe that if she had her true druthers, she would favor very strict gun control that presumptively denies to otherwise law-abiding citizens the right to own a firearm and that she would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overrule District of Columbia v. Heller, thereby allowing a sweeping federal gun-control law to be enacted. I have no doubt that some of Clinton's supporters would endorse such an approach, but there is no concrete evidence that this is Clinton's secret plan.

Nonetheless, in the interest of unpacking Trump's argument, let's assume that this is her plan. Suppose that a candidate for president really did want to ban nearly all private possession of firearms. In other words, let's suppose that claim (1) were true.

It would not follow that claims (2) through (5) are true. Here's an analogy. I think that private parties should be forbidden from printing money. Is that because I think money is bad? No, of course not. It's because I think that for money to work as a reliable medium of exchange, the government should have a monopoly on creating it. Likewise with guns. One can think that on the whole people are made safer by a government monopoly on possession of firearms. One can think that guns are, on net, bad in private hands but good in the hands of well-trained law enforcement agents.

Indeed, it's worth focusing a bit more on claim (4). An advocate of strong gun control could say that she only favors gun possession by law enforcement until strong and effective gun control is in place. Once the public are disarmed, in this view, law enforcement would not generally need to carry firearms. That is the policy in the UK (outside of Northern Ireland), where only select police units carry guns. The policy can be criticized on the ground that it occasionally leads to officers dying in the line of duty, but it is ultimately an empirical question whether arming most police with guns is, all things considered, likely to lead to fewer or more civilian and police deaths. At the very least, in addressing the question whether most police should carry guns, one would want to consider how likely it is that they will encounter criminals armed with guns. And that is partly a function of whether strong gun control exists.

In rejecting the 5-step argument detailed above, I am not necessarily making an argument for strong gun control. Arguments against strong gun control don't depend on the 5-step argument outlined above.

In particular, one might think that the government oughtn't to have a monopoly on the use of force, even if that would make people safer overall, because one worries about the threat of tyranny. This is the so-called insurrectionist argument against gun control that some scholars closely associate with the original meaning of the Second Amendment, although it does not play a major role in the Heller decision.

Another line of argument would recognize that there is a distinction between the police carrying guns for defense of the public and individual members of the public having guns for self-defense. In this view, the police cannot always arrive at the scene of a threat in time to address the threat. Instead of relying on the police, one sometimes relies on a "good guy with a gun."

The standard pro-gun-control response to the good-guy-with-a-gun argument is utilitarian. It acknowledges that there are circumstances in which, before the police have time to arrive, a private citizen carrying a gun can defend herself or others, but goes on to point to the negative consequences of people being armed. For every good guy with a gun who stops a criminal, there are too many gun deaths and injuries by suicide, accident, and domestic incident, the advocate of strong gun control says. This is largely an empirical proposition that should be testable by careful social science research, but the ideological stakes prevent agreement based on facts.

It could also be argued that even if, all things considered, fewer guns make for less violence, otherwise law-abiding people who want to possess firearms for their protection should be entitled to do so on libertarian grounds. The idea here is that the right to (armed) self-defense is so fundamental that people should be able to exercise it even if, in the aggregate, permitting them to do so leads to net social harm.

I have suggested three possible paths to rejecting strong gun control, even assuming that the 5-step argument is false: insurrectionism; inadequacy of police protection in some circumstances; and strong libertarianism. What's notable is that Trump's 5-step argument--even cleaned up as I have cleaned it up here--doesn't gesture in the direction of any of these or any other rational grounds for opposing strong gun control. It simply makes a transparently false and illogical set of claims.


Joe said...

The discussion is interesting but the basic point is Trump rests of a false premise.

At the very most, the strong position here (which Clinton doesn't profess to hold) is that there is no general right to own firearms. But, few of even this minority thinks police should disarm. Her Secret Service detail would be covered here. Likewise, they disagree non-public security should all be disarmed, at least in limited cases such as protecting public officials and so forth. A person can disagree that only government security or some special private analogue should be armed. That is quite different from Trump's comment.

So, Trump is full of it. Let's be blunt about that. He is benefiting from a somewhat common bit of confusion. We can debate further, including the basic arguments for not having a general right to own firearms, but let's say this upfront.

Joseph Simmons said...

During this campaign, I have been increasingly convinced that it doesn't matter what politicians say regarding policy, as long as they signal to voters they're on the same page in a broad sense. I've known it doesn't matter that much, but now I just don't know if it matters at all. To the extent that politicians discuss policy in detail has little relevance to what they actually do in office. Politicians can hurt themselves with dumb statements, whether about a "basket of deplorables" or "binders full of women," but it's so much more disconcerting that those kinds of things can swing an election. I agree with your breakdown of Trump's statement. To the extent people are turned away by such a statement will not be by its illogic. We can posit that voters should care about logical argument but even then, when faced with two choices, they will forgive all kinds of illogic and intemperance, and even incompetence. Even many of the smartest people will not vote based on ethics or reason, but by the broad policy agenda that hope will be furthered. One (many ones, in fact) think Trump is the ultimate exception and, for good reason, believe many Republicans should not vote for him (the vote-for-the-crook-it's-important meme). But it simply hasn't shaped up that way and as we get into the homestretch it becomes more about not voting for the other candidate because of their broad agenda. Trump has successfully blunted the notion that he is the exceptional candidate. The Democrats didn't do themselves favors by painting previous candidates as racist, sexist, poor-hating monsters.

Joe said...

" The Democrats didn't do themselves favors by painting previous candidates as racist, sexist, poor-hating monsters."

They didn't though. In various cases, as parties do, they strongly rejected various candidates in part based on their positions on race, sex and economics. Romney, e.g., was an easy target here, and don't see why the Democrats shouldn't have done so. But, he wasn't made into a "monster" as such. Nor a range of other candidates like McCain, Dole, Bush41 etc. Bush43 was strongly treated, true, but it was based on actual things he did. And, the Dems regained control of Congress.

I don't know what the Democrats could have done except some sort of kid gloves that would be laughable unlikely -- and even then ("Hillary campaign started birthism" etc.) Trump would just b.s. some, if not blatantly lie. Some sliver will be latched on to. And, kid gloves these days leaves a tad to be desired. Kerry saw what not playing hardball resulted in 2004. Oh, how did demonizing him go? Hurt the Republicans much?

Basically, there is a general desire to have a two person horse race and it takes more that Trump himself to do so. It's a result of various things. The overall "signal" point is true enough. It's a job of people like Prof. Dorf to help people have a bit of perspective. People do discriminate some here. OTOH, policy discussed, including platforms do matter. They DO give us a sense -- Reagan did do various things he talked about. Ditto the other side. We need not be nihilistic.

Hashim said...

Mike -- isn't a simpler and more defensible characterization of his comments that he's criticizing Hilary for hypocritically supporting policies/judges that would deprive ordinary citizens of the armed protection that important politicians give themselves through the Secret Service? Put differently, if general police protection is good enough for the ordinary citizen, then it should be good enough for politicians too. Unless one thinks that politicians are more likely to be in danger (a doubtful empirical premise, at least in some parts of this country) or more worthy of being protected (a debatable normative premise).

Joseph Simmons said...

Joe, let us not quibble over how great a warmonger Romney was in the "War on Women." What would I expect the Democrats to do other than suggest he dislikes women, minorities, and the poor? Well, that is what I'd expect.

Even accepting for the sake of argument that many Republican proposals hurt particular demographics not outweighed by other considerations, that it is deliberate and ill-intentioned is another matter. But again, I expect that. What else, kid gloves? Expect people to develop informed and coherent views on the value of a policy without the inflammatory rhetoric?

I'm not calling into the question the legitimacy of pointing out illogic or expressing opinions on what makes for bad policy, but I am lamenting that it doesn't seem to matter in any substantive way in an election.

The following discussion concerns entirely hypothetical candidates:

In my ideal world, a history of shady ethics, legal transgressions, and personal behavior would make a difference too. Then again, if the race were between a conservative GOP candidate who was erudite and of great personal integrity running against a Democratic candidate few accomplishments, a shady history and a record of holding some offensive and illiberal positions, the majority of informed liberals would vote for the Democrat. And I'd expect the same if the shoes were on the other feet. I'm not entirely nihilistic nor do I think people are too stupid for democracy, but I do wonder if there is a better way to engage people in the process than what currently occurs.

Friends on facebook post blurbs about something dumb or offensive said by Trump and I wonder if they think anyone will look at it and say, "well now I'm not voting for him!" Trump was illogical in his gun control statement and he does not suggest a reasonable case against gun control. Prof Dorf does an admirable job of exploring it. To what extent should illogical and unreasonable rhetoric persuade us to vote for the other guy/girl? I'm not saying it is Prof Dorf's attempt to persuade in that vein, but for the purpose of discussion, what does a voter do with this information?