Spend much time reading libertarian tracts, and you’re bound to come across the phrase “at the point of a gun.” Writers use those words while warning about the dangers of overly invasive government action.
Government is the only entity with a legitimate right to use force — including a gun — to compel people to act in certain ways. But the “point of a gun” language can come across as overly dramatic in some cases. (It’s hard to picture a police officer pulling a gun to make you pay a parking ticket, for instance.)
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the reference to armed force amounts to more than merely a rhetorical flourish.
As John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood reminds us, state and local government officials in North Carolina have invoked their power in unprecedented ways in recent days. They have placed severe restrictions on our lives.
“I have been ordered, under threat of arrest and imprisonment, to minimize my contact with friends and family who live across town or in another city,” Hood writes. “I have been ordered, under threat of arrest and imprisonment, not to assemble with others to express our jointly held opinions or practice our jointly held faith.”
He didn’t invoke the “point of a gun” phrase. But Hood’s implication is clear. It’s the threat of force that makes shelter-in-place orders more than just suggestions or pleas. Fail to comply, and you could end up facing the wrong end of a gun.
It’s a disturbing picture for those accustomed to the normal operations of a free society. Even those with the guns can appear uncomfortable when contemplating their enforcement role.
Take as an example the March 26 news conference detailing Wake County’s stay-at-home mandate.
“Who’s in charge of enforcing this?” asked a local television reporter. “Say someone gets pulled over, and they don’t have documentation. Will they be cited?”
“From a law enforcement standpoint, we here — the Wake County Sheriff’s Office is here to stand by our leaders, the decisions that are made … comprehensively as to what’s going to be safe for Wake County,” responded Sheriff Gerald Baker.
That didn’t answer the question. But Baker wasn’t finished.
“So we happen to be out there, and you get stopped — we’ll try to determine why you’re there,” he said. “We’re going to ask for your patience and to work with us. We’re here. We’re trying to enforce the instructions and the order that’s been given to us.”
“We’re just trying to make sure that you have a reason to be there and be out because we don’t need anybody out who doesn’t need to be out,” Baker continued. “That’s going to be where we’re coming from. We’re going to be asking you very kindly, very politely to come into compliance with what’s been asked of us to do.”
Still unclear about the sheriff’s enforcement plans? So was a second television reporter. He asked whether Baker planned to pull over motorists or set up checkpoints.
There’s no plan for checkpoints, Baker said. “We’re just going to try to monitor it as we normally do with our routine patrolling,” he added. “It’s certainly not going to be an aggressive enforcement.”
A third reporter picked up on the sheriff’s statement about no “aggressive” enforcement. “If they didn’t comply, what are the potential consequences or citations that they could face?”
“The action at that point would be … the terminology that we would use to cite someone by citation … um, how … it’s going to be in reference to being in noncompliance to the proclamation,” Baker answered. “If you’re out, and you’re not supposed to be out, and that contact with that officer and that person went beyond what it should be, then that officer — if he has to at that point take more action, to the point of citing or charging someone — we have the verbiage from the [district attorney}’s office that gives us what we need to cite you and release you and supply you with a court date, which is more than likely going to be postponed … due to the courts being closed.”
The sheriff then shifted away from specifics. “Our citizens here in Wake County, we know everyone’s going to comply,” Baker said. “We’re just going to be very soft-handed in trying to enforce this proclamation.”
It’s clear that Baker believes his deputies won’t have to use their guns to enforce the stay-at-home order. It also seems apparent that he would rather not dwell on the fact that those guns — and the genuine threat of force — provide the only guarantee that government will get the compliance it wants.
But the reporters at the recent news conference aren’t alone in questioning how this process will work. None of us in a free society is used to government ordering us in such detail how we must conduct our lives.
We listen to those orders ultimately because of the government’s pointed gun.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.