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.