FP Explainer

Is It Legal for Americans to Fight in Another Country's Army?

For the most part, yes, unless they're fighting against America.

Chris Jeon, a 21-year-old university student from Los Angeles, has had quite the summer vacation. He informed family and friends that he was heading off to Cairo, but then crossed into Libya and spent the last few weeks fighting with the anti-Qaddafi rebels. The latest reports suggest his fed-up cohorts may have finally sent him packing. When a reporter from the Abu Dhabi-based National caught up with the L.A. Clippers jersey-wearing math major this week, he explained that he "thought it would be cool to join the rebels." And it seems like he didn't do it for attention: He concluded the interview by pleading, "Whatever you do, don't tell my parents." Parental consequences aside, did Jeon break U.S. law?

Probably not. The U.S. government certainly doesn't encourage citizens to go off and fight in foreign wars, but there's a long history of it -- from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought against Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War to the many Jewish Americans who have served in the Israel Defense Forces.

According to the U.S. code, any citizen who "enlists or enters himself, or hires or retains another to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered in the service of any foreign prince, state, colony, district, or people as a soldier or as a marine or seaman ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both." But a court ruling from 1896 involving U.S. citizens who fought with Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish colonial rule interpreted this to mean that it was only illegal for citizens to be recruited for a foreign army in the United States, not to simply fight in one. (Note to Libya's National Transitional Council: It probably wouldn't be wise to set up a recruiting station on the UCLA campus in hopes of attracting more fighters.)

Since Jeon appears to have traveled to Libya without any encouragement (he bought a one-way ticket because he didn't want to risk losing $800 "if I get captured or something"), he's probably in the clear.

A few caveats: If an American joins an army engaged in hostilities against the United States, that's considered an act of treason and punishable by death. The law also, obviously, doesn't sanction membership in designated terrorist organizations, though the family of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh has tried to argue that he was simply serving in the armed forces of another country and didn't intend to aid al Qaeda or attack U.S. troops.

But what if Jeon happened to take part in an attack on Sirte or some other Libyan city, in which civilians were slaughtered? There might be precedent in the case of Chuckie Taylor, a U.S. citizen and son of the former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. The younger Taylor was convicted in 2008 in a court in Florida for acts of torture committed during Liberia's civil war, the first U.S. citizen to be convicted in the United States of crimes against humanity in another country. 

What about citizenship? If you hold a U.S. passport, you'll note that it advises that you "may lose your U.S. citizenship" by "serving in the armed forces of a foreign state." The word may is critical. In the 1967 case Afroyim v. Rusk, the Supreme Court ruled that under the 14th amendment, U.S. citizens cannot be involuntarily stripped of their citizenship. (That case involved a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who had his U.S. citizenship revoked after voting in an Israeli election, but the precedent applies to military service as well.) Since then, the government has had to prove that an individual joined a foreign army with the intention of relinquishing his or her U.S. citizenship. The army in question must be engaged in hostilities against the United States or the individual must serve as an officer.*

So as long as Jeon manages to avoid committing treason or war crimes and doesn't get promoted -- which seems unlikely given that he reportedly asked, "How do you fire this thing?" after being handed an AK-47 -- he's probably safe from legal consequences. As for what his mom is going to do to him when he gets home, he's on his own.

Thanks to Laura Danielson, an attorney with the firm of Fredrickson & Byron who teaches immigration law at the University of Minnesota Law School.

*Correction: This sentence originally suggested a citizen could be involuntarily stripped of their citizenship under these circumstances. Intent to relinquish citizenship must still be demonstrated.


FP Explainer

When Are British Cops Allowed to Carry Guns?

Very rarely.

This week's riots in Britain, which have spread from the north London neighborhood of Tottenham to the cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, were sparked by the Aug. 4 shooting by police of a 29-year old London man. The victim, Mark Duggan, was carrying a weapon, though tests show he did not fire it. But Britain has long been well known for having an unarmed police force. Is that still the case?

Yes, but there are an increasing number of exceptions. The unarmed bobby on the beat is an image as quintessentially British as Big Ben or the Beatles and -- with the exception of Northern Ireland, where police have been routinely armed for years -- the vast majority of officers, including Scotland Yard, still make do with nonlethal weapons like batons, pepper spray, and gruff admonishments.

This hasn't always been the case. London police were issued revolvers in 1884 following the murder of two officers, though it wasn't mandatory: They could choose whether or not to carry them. The weapons were formally retired in 1936. During World War II, police were issued firearms in case of German invasion, but these were never to be used on patrol.

The police department has gone back and forth on the issue over the decades. Following a number of shootings of police during the 1950s and 1960s, about 17 percent of London police officers became authorized to carry firearms, but many licenses were revoked during the 1980s following a series of shootings by police. An increasing number of specially trained officers are now also armed with Tasers, though their use has been criticized by human rights groups.

As of 2009, there were 6,868 officers authorized to carry weapons in England and Wales. Within London's Metropolitan Police, out of a force of 33,000, around 2,700 officers were authorized to carry guns, though, unlike American cops, the vast majority of those aren't armed on a regular basis. Over 80 percent of British police officers say that despite increasing levels of violent crime, they don't want to see all officers armed. The issue often re-emerges as a topic of public debate, especially after the killing of a police officer, such as the 2005 killing of 38-year old West Yorkshire constable Sharon Beshenivsky during an armed robbery. Thankfully, this is pretty rare. Between 1900 and 2006, only 67 British police officers were killed by firearms, excluding Northern Ireland.

The London police's specialized firearms unit, today known as CO19, dates back to 1966. The purpose of the unit is to provide firearms training to the rest of the force and tactical support when necessary. In 1991, the unit introduced armed response vehicles, specially modified police cars that are able to rapidly respond to gun crimes or provide backup on dangerous assignments such as drug raids.

While armed operations have become more common, they are still pretty rare. According to official statistics, firearms were authorized for 19,951 operations in England and Wales between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, but weapons were fired in four instances.

The unit came under heavy criticism in 2005 following the shooting death of Jean Charles de Menezes, an unarmed Brazilian man who was mistaken for a suicide bomber in the wake of the London Underground terrorist attacks. The Metropolitan Police was fined, but no charges were ever filed against any of the officers.

In 2009, the CO19 began the unprecedented practice of conducting armed patrols in the Brixton, Haringey, and Tottenham neighborhoods, in response to an increase in violent crime in those areas. The officers were charged with carrying out weapons sweeps to deter gang members from carrying firearms. Previously, the unit had only been called in to respond to reported crimes. The program was controversial ever since it was announced -- including within the police department. And, with Duggan have been shot during one of these patrols, the act that triggered the ongoing riots, it's likely to become even more so.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images