Weapons Boycotts and the Realpolitik Limits of American Rights

The aftershocks of the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school are still felt in statehouses across America, where legislative responses which provide for what proponents call ‘gun control’ and opponents call ‘civilian disarmament’ have made more progress than they have at the Federal level. In New York State, gun control supporters passed a far reaching piece of legislation called the NY SAFE act which is hotly contested. Numerous New York County Sheriffs, the elected chief law enforcement officers of New York’s counties, have pledged not to enforce nor allow the enforcement of this law in their jurisdictions. The breadth of rejection of this legislation is largely without precedent in recent history, though it is being mirrored nationally, as local law enforcement vow to arrest federal agents arriving to carry out any new federal legislation. Some states are even moving to enact laws which would make the execution of new federal firearms legislation a crime. These responses indicate that these political leaders are either making a stand on their principles or are playing to a local electorate whose values they understand.

Image courtesy of Theo la Photo, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Theo la Photo, © 2008, some rights reserved.

There is a similar national protest against the NY SAFE act which is noteworthy. More than 100 firearms and defence firms have boycotted New York law enforcement agencies and officers in protest of this new law, refusing to sell them arms and ammunition. While the biggest firms and most large manufacturers in the industry have not joined the boycott, some significant companies and suppliers have. In order to fully understand the depth of this boycott, a brief explanation of how American law enforcement is organised is needed. Within any given state, there is no monolithic law enforcement entity, nor even the amalgamated agencies familiar in the United Kingdom. Broadly speaking, each town and city has their own proprietary force, then each county has their own Sheriff and deputies, alongside of which State Police operates. There is no hierarchy of authority between these agencies, meaning that a state policeman does not outrank a local officer just by dint of his employer’s wider jurisdiction. This means that between all of the different agencies and levels, there is significantly more variation in policy than there is in Europe. Some of these agencies explicitly oppose the new legislation. Moreover, this boycott is especially significant because not all American law enforcement officers are issued weapons owned by the government; many are required to buy their own weapons. The boycott extends even to these individual purchases, making the boycott a particularly biting protest by denying officers the tools they need for their jobs.

This means that American weapons manufacturers and defence contractors are refusing to sell their products to New York law enforcement in order to protest what they perceive as a violation of the Second Amendment, an article which they believe to enshrine a fundamental human right. An alternative explanation is that these for-profit entities have realized that the wrath of their customer base — were they to sell to New York agencies enforcing the new law — outweighs the potential profits of selling to those agencies.

This boycott is noteworthy for two reasons: first, these companies are forgoing sales in protest of a perceived violation of rights, and second, their customers would flay them if they continued their sales to an agency construed to be enforcing an unconstitutional law. Examining these actions from an international affairs perspective reveals a contemporary example of the realpolitik that determines American foreign policy and the double standard embodied in the American approach to the rest of the world. The international parallel of this domestic boycott does not exist in the global market for American arms. We have yet to see the American defence industry boycott the security services of a foreign state because there is a perception that they may violate rights. If that happens at all, the ban is a political decision by the State Department and imposed on the industry. We are also yet to see the American defence industry cease sales out of fear that its other customers would abandon it, because it had dealings with a foreign power that infringed on rights.

The distinction is tied to the fact that the American defence establishment has no qualms about selling to organisations with questionable rights records, so long as those violations are not against our rights, that is, our rights as either Americans, or more broadly speaking, those of American allies. This is no surprise. Taken alongside the defence industry boycott of New York law enforcement for a domestic issue though, it becomes easier to identify the exact contours of the distinction between ‘us’ – those who have rights which are worth protecting – and ‘them,’ out there in the world, whose rights are plainly less important than the national interests of the United States.

This domestic boycott further reveals that the broad appeals to natural law that the United States was founded upon have certainly taken on a physically and nationally limited character. Out-with the physical limits of the United States and the West at large, it seems natural law fades away into meaninglessness. Another view is that perhaps, out there, natural law never existed, as the concept was from the get-go, endemic to the West. In that the United States makes one claim for domestic affairs and a second claim for international affairs, it is not at all unique. However the nature of this double standard is rarely so clearly illustrated as it is with this current boycott in New York.

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