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I came upon the political science topic of State Monopoly on Violence and was ruminating on past and contemporary political structures, curious what a system where no party was afforded this monopoly would look like.

At first thought I instinctively felt that the US Federal Government held this monopoly on behalf of the American People. However, as I thought about it more I became curious whether this is actually the case under the Constitution.

In this answer on a decomposition of the 2nd Amendment, I found it interesting that the Court's definition seems to say (paraphrased in plain terms): In order to ensure that a truly free country remains so, it is important that all able-bodied men in the country be allowed to own tools of violence and employ them in a structured fashion.

This seems to imply that the Constitution forbids that the Federal Government hold this monopoly on violence for the specific purpose of ensuring the continued freedom of the Country's inhabitants.

There are some arguments that the 2nd Amendment's purpose was mainly to allow people to defend themselves, from whatever threat, through the use of these tools of violence.

Does the US Federal Government currently hold this monopoly?

Have they always, since its founding, held this monopoly?

If the answers to these two questions are different, what has changed this and why?

  • Well, the police are run by state and local governments, so any monopoly on violence would have to be shared by those governments as well – divibisan Nov 27 '19 at 22:57
  • @divibisan Yes, part of the concept of the Monopoly on Violence seems to include that the holder also holds ultimate authority to delegate its monopoly to other parties. I think that the State governments operate under this delegation (through the National Guard). I don't know if I would consider a police force to have this delegation as their use of force seems restricted to only defensive operations, where a monopoly on violence does not carry this restriction. – joshperry Nov 27 '19 at 23:02
  • I'm not seeing how this isn't going to be PBO. See crookedtimber.org/2007/04/20/weber-and-violence for example. Also, most people can't own a hand grenade in the US (never mind an RPG), so whatever the state allows the citizens to use is quite limited as far as weaponry. And no, state police forces don't have anything to do with the national guard. – SX welcomes ageist gossip Nov 27 '19 at 23:10
  • @Fizz PBO (sorry, new at posting here)? I do have my own thoughts on the intent and purpose of the 2nd Amendment, though I'm trying to keep my question from being colored with them. I think that it would be an interesting point for an answer to consider the evolution of US Gov constraints on the type of tools of violence the People may hold and bear. – joshperry Nov 27 '19 at 23:17
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    In most if not all US jurisdictions, it is quite acceptable for individuals to use areasonable degree of violence in self-defence, or in defence of other people or their property. (What is considered reasonable of course varies with time & place.) E.g. the Nevada state constitution (Article 1, § 11(1) says that "every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms for security and defense..." – jamesqf Nov 27 '19 at 23:37
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Does the US Federal Government currently hold this monopoly?

No, but only because, as a federation, the individual states also have the monopoly on violance within their jurisdiction. It could be said that the United States (and Canada, Australia, India etc.) has a duopoly on violence.

However, as a collective whole, the "state" does have a monopoly on violence.

Have they always, since its founding, held this monopoly?

No, see above.

Monopoly on violence

The concept was articulated by Max Weber in 1918 to distinguish what he thought was conceptually different from the modern Whestphalian State from the feudal European powers that preceded them. His definition of a state was a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

The Westphalian system (which is what we have today) treats each nation as sovereign within its own borders, that is, each nation is free to decide what its laws are and no other nation has the right to interfere (directly, indirect interference is tolerated). The government of this type of state (whatever form it takes) decides when it is legitimate to use force.

The feudal system was based on the concept of liege and vassal with a complicated hierarchy which, massively simplified, went empire -> kingdom -> principality -> duchy -> county -> landholding. Under this system, the vassal's owed duties to their lord including implementing the law of the land as well as their own local law. Each individual vassal could decide when it was legitimate to use force.

So, by that definition, the United States of America through it's Federal and State governments has a monopoly on violence. They enact laws that specify when violence is legitimate and illegitimate, the enforce those laws through law enforcement and the courts and punish those who use force illegitimately. Obviously, they don't do this with 100% efficiency - some murders go unsolved for example - but, in principle, even if perpetrators are never identified or punished, such violence is illegitimate.

So, while the second amendment restricts the government in regulating the means of violence, the government(s) still decide when violence is legitimate.

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  • Very interesting perspective, thank you additionally for the links. If, as defined in Heller, a State refers the country as a whole, and the purpose of the right to bear arms is to ensure the continuation of a free country, wouldn't it be implicit that this also includes the right to determine legitimacy of force? If not then it seems the power in the amendment could effectively be nullified by legislation. And if a case that the 2nd was intended to allow protection from was a corrupt legislature, it seems it becomes ineffective for purpose. – joshperry Nov 28 '19 at 0:51
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    @joshperry the government can't stop you owning a gun, they can stop you shooting people with it (or rather, telling you in what circumstances you can shoot people with it). – Dale M Nov 28 '19 at 2:14
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The concept of the government having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is one of the criteria that separates sovereign states from failed states. So that's a reason why this topic would be discussed.

Though it's commonly misunderstood that the Second Amendment was intended to grant gun rights to all citizens, the Federalist Papers clarify that the intent of the Second Amendment was to prohibit the federal government from confiscating guns from state militias.

In Federalist No. 46, Madison wrote how a federal army could be kept in check by state militias, "a standing army ... would be opposed [by] a militia." He argued that state militias "would be able to repel the danger" of a federal army, "It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops."

From the OP's point of view, if the federal government's military and state militia's equally share a license on the legitimate use of force, then this invalidates the notion that the United States is a sovereign state, because of the lack of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Some state militias still exist (some of the militias in this list are still active, like the California state guard, but some are inactive, like the Arkansas state guard). However, these state militias have negligible force and rarely engage in exercising any authority. So, from a practical standpoint, I don't think state militias challenge the federal military's authority at all.

But there's also a second layer to this question. The "monopoly on legitimate use of force" criteria generally isn't considered invalidated just because government authority is shared between the federal and regional level, or shared between the military and the police. Generally the state lacks a monopoly on the legitimate use of force when warlords or drug cartels exert enough authority to challenge the state, i.e. by intimidating judges, overpowering the military, etc. In other words, this type of condition is not reflected in the United States, and the United States does not fit the criteria of a failed state. You can find which countries are closest to being failed states by checking the Fragile State Index. The United States is ranked in the "very stable" bracket (the third most stable bracket overall, and the 26th most stable country overall). However, the United States's stability has worsened by 3.7 points since 2016.

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    I've downvoted this answer for it's false assertions regarding the second amendment and the Federalist Papers. – Drunk Cynic Nov 28 '19 at 6:06
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    @DrunkCynic Would you like to explain why the assertions are false? – user253751 Nov 28 '19 at 16:43
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    It misreads the Federalist Paper, providing an obfuscation instead of honest interpretation. Federalist 46 counts the Federal Army at 1/25th the able bodied population, or 30,000 people; and a response force of half a million. – Drunk Cynic Nov 28 '19 at 17:16
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    The Militia is defined as the full presence of the body politic: "To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence." – Drunk Cynic Nov 28 '19 at 17:17

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