Two stories in recent news, one local, one national, serve as stark examples of the decay of our system of government.

In New York City, an attorney that specialized in navigating its difficult and seemingly at-whim pistol permitting process is going to trial for bribery. Nationally, President Trump ordered the bombing of suspected chemical weapon sites in Syria.

What do these have in common? Both are the product of an attitude that places personal preference ahead of the rule of law.

The local story is a tale born of the near-impossibility of getting a concealed carry permit in New York City. Yes, any citizen with no disqualifications (e.g. a felony conviction) can apply for a carry permit, but the (long and expensive) process requires a statement of necessity and documentation to support that necessity, and approval, even with a demonstration of need, is by no means guaranteed. What is that need, you might wonder? Celebrities and the well-connected can assert a need for self-defense, but for the rest, that assertion is near-automatic grounds for denial, believe it or not. Instead, it’s typically proof that you own a business and make frequent large cash deposits at a bank. Even then, approval is based on some government official’s opinion or whim. Given New York City’s long-standing political hostility to guns and gun ownership (that’s the citizens and not just the politicans), it should come as no surprise that there are fewer than 4000 carry permits in a city of eight million.

The national story centers on the Constitution’s War Powers Clause, which very clearly states that only Congress has the power to declare war, but which has been routinely ignored or circumvented consistently since the Korean War. President Trump ordered the strike on Syria – a nation and civil war that poses no threat to America (and certainly no immediate threat) – without so much as a “by the way” to Congress. The smattering of conservatives who do respect the Constitution have pointed out how Trump, years back, excoriated Obama for doing the exact same thing.

Over the past few days, I’ve witnessed liberals who supported Obama’s war-unilateralism complaining about Trump, and conservatives who complained bitterly about Obama’s bombing defend Trump. Given reasons vary, but they inevitably boil down to either partisanship or some contortions about how it was the right thing to do and it was the only way to get it done. In other words, ends justify the means.

The problem is, the means are vital to the health of a free society.

I just started watching the fourth season of the Amazon detective series Bosch, which begins with a trial over alleged police abuse of a suspect. A suspect was connected by some circumstantial evidence to the abduction of a young girl, and he was supposedly tortured in an attempt to ascertain her whereabouts. There are more than a few of us who might consider such actions justified in extreme and exigent circumstances – like the hypothetical torturing of someone who knew where a suitcase nuclear bomb about to explode in a major city was located.

These are difficult moral questions that societies have to deal with from time to time, and it is common for people to let their emotions rule the day in deciding what they support. The problem is that, when our emotions favor granting excessive power to our government, we foster both corruption and a disregard for the safeguards put in place to protect us from our government.

In the case of the pistol permit scandal, people who the government has absolutely no reason to deny are systemically debarred from a right protected by both the plain language of the Second Amendment and by the landmark Supreme Court cases Heller and McDonald. This created fertile ground for corruption, and, sure enough, we hear substantial allegations of such. Moreso, the fostering of corruption allegedly enabled someone who should have had his permit revoked over a domestic abuse incident retain it. Bad guy keeps permit, good guys can’t even dream of getting permit. This contrasts with most of the nation, where getting a concealed carry permit is merely a process, with the burden on the government to show just cause for denial. Would corruption and bribery exist if it wasn’t so blasted difficult to get a permit? There are howls of outrage about a possible reciprocity bill enabling out-of-staters to carry concealed in New York, but would it even be under consideration if the permitting in some places wasn’t so impossible? Wouldn’t the concerns about too-lax vetting elsewhere be moot if the vetting in places like New York was tight but fair and reasonable?

Is there something unique about New York City that requires near-total denial of citizens’ rights to bear arms? There are other major metropolitan areas that aren’t so restrictive, and seem to be doing just fine. There are, of course, other major metropolitan areas that have gun restrictions as tight or tighter than NYCity’s, but that are among the most crime-riddled in the country. Rates of gun ownership do not correlate with violent crime rates, in any case, so denial of this core right isn’t even supported by utilitarian arguments.

Instead, it is the wholesale hostility to gun ownership that the people of NY harbor that perpetuates this infringement. While in a true democracy, a popular opposition to something carries the day, ours is a republic, where individual rights trump popular opinion. When we ignore that core principle because it gives us a result we like, we set ourselves up for being “done unto” in bad ways by our government in the future.

As for the Syria bombing, there was no exigency, nor was there any secrecy. Trump blatantly declared he was contemplating punishing Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, and so could very easily have asked Congress for an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). It would have been Congress’s job to weigh the evidence and debate the prudence and degree of action. Instead, I see arguments that Congress is feckless, or might have said “no,” so it was good and proper that Trump acted unilaterally. War isn’t a video game, nor is the launching of a hundred missiles a triviality. There are lives at stake, and there are consequences, immediate and long-term, both locally and geopolitically. Our system of government is designed to keep too much power from accruing in any one person’s hands, but when we ignore that system’s rules because it might get in the way of a desired outcome, we corrupt the entire system itself.

People, left and right, complain bitterly about how our system is broken. The system as written, is just fine, though, and would not seem broken if we all followed the rules instead of being happy they’re ignored when we get what we want. When we don’t, we get government at someone else’s whim. I doubt anyone thinks that’s a good idea.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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