Volume 19

The Right to Armed Self-Defense in Light of Law Enforcement Abdication

by David E. Bernstein

This article defends the position that the right of armed self-defense remains important today, particularly in light of the civil unrest during Summer 2020.

The article proceeds in three parts. The first part summarizes arguments from various prominent commentators that the right to self-defense with firearms is anachronistic in the contemporary United States. These critics argue that Americans can and should rely solely on professional law enforcement officers to protect them.

The second part of the article focuses on how this argument has been undermined by the events of the summer of 2020. This part documents, in great detail, the failures of law enforcement in reacting to looting, rioting, and other illegal behaviors that threatened the well-being of the public. First, many police departments received implicit or explicit orders from their political supervisors to “stand down.” Second, in many instances the police themselves were unwilling or unable to combat lawless behavior. If police consistently fail to enforce law and order, the argument against the individual right to bear arms for self-defense purposes significantly weakens.

Finally, the last part of the article discusses examples of individuals and groups of citizens using firearms in self-defense during the recent unrest in the absence of effective law enforcement. Some of these episodes are open to criticism, whether because one believes that it is never worth using or even threatening to use deadly force to defend property, or because the line between justified self-defense and unjustified vigilantism is not always a clear one. Nevertheless, if law enforcement is unwilling or unable to preserve basic law and order, it is both inevitable that citizens will try to fill the breach and desirable that law-abiding individuals should be given the means to do so.

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