What's So Hard to Understand About the Right to Bear Arms?


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February 4, 2009

'Among the many misdeeds of British rule in India , history will look upon the Act of depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.'

~ Mohandas Gandhi, from An Autobiography

When Mohandas Gandhi can be quoted in favor of an armed citizenry, I'd reckon the issue should be closed, once and for all, but of course, it's probably not. This essay is my attempt to put another log on that fire.

Starting with the Basics

Now, as a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, I could really care less about what a specific document declares regarding my rights, but nevertheless, whenever one talks about rights in the United States , the Constitution is bound to come up. At that point, the debate will most often descend into a rabbit-hole, debating the point-of-view of the Founders, what they really meant, what they believed, how they really lived, and probably where they shopped as well. Who cares?

For the record, I think the Constitution is a fine document; however, one absolute fact about the Constitution should preclude any such discussion for our purposes here. That fact is: the portion of the U.S. Constitution referred to as The Bill of Rights is an exposition, not a bestowal. Whatever 'well-organized militia' meant to someone in 1776 or to anyone this week is irrelevant since the clause is explaining what exists already, not what the document provides to a lucky citizen. One of two things is true: a human being has the right to protect and defend himself or he does not.

Now, the question might become, 'How best can one protect and defend himself without unnecessarily fraying the fragile fabric of society?' Although I might argue that society isn't that fragile, that's still a fairly good question. As far as my pedestrian logic takes me, the answer to that question cannot involve disarming every single citizen. History has proven, time and again, that any such action will have exactly the opposite effect. Such an observation was made in the 1700s by legal theorist Cesare Beccaria when he noted, 'Laws that forbid the carrying of arms . . . disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes . . . . Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants.'

Continuing with a Few Working Assumptions

I am generally not a person who spends time lamenting the existence of 'bad people' in society. Life is too short. I don't figure there are enough of them about which to worry that much anyway. As for the supposition that we all are bad, that too strikes me as largely irrelevant for this discussion. For our purposes here, let us draw one unassailable conclusion: bad people exist. That is, there exist people who would infringe upon you directly, violently if given the chance, and who won't experience a blip of conscience larger than a burp while doing so. Let's call that Assumption One.

Whether there are many or few of these bad people is simply a detail, a statistical anomaly from which no substantive modification to that assumption can be made. Either way, no rule or regulation can be expected to selectively arm a segment of society, while disarming another. As such, attempting to arm only a specific cadre of people'the police for example'cannot generate peace and tranquility. Why not? Those who care little about life and liberty care even less about rules. Ergo, there is no scenario under which the police [or place name for special gun-toting folks here] will be the only armed people in a society. None. Not close to one. Let's call that Assumption Two.

I'll Show You Mine

The police'and the army, and the Secret Service, and whomever else'carry arms for one primary reason: personal protection. (One might also argue that they carry arms so that they have a substantial advantage in armament over the governed as well, but that's probably another essay.) They expect that at some point someone they encounter in the routine administering of their supposed duties will respond with violence. They want to be ready. Guess what? I do too. Sure, if a law-giver happens to be around at the exact moment when someone is infringing upon me, they could help, but seriously, what's the chance of that? That chance is low, for reasons I'll examine below.

Carrying a weapon also provides a prophylactic effect on those who might wish to infringe or act out violently. Police know this. When is the last time anyone heard of a madman entering a police station with plans of killing a bunch of people like [place name of psycho here] did at [place name of ostensible gun-free zone here]? People who are known-to-be, or even possibly might be, armed tend to scare psychos away, or at least give them a reason to rethink their lunacy. Let's call that Assumption Three.

Have you ever met a bully? Almost everyone can remember that kid back in high school who took advantage of the nerds and/or the weaker kids. Generally, he was bigger, but not surprisingly'if you understand his pathology'this guy never accosted the kids who could readily defend themselves. Why? Bullies are cowards. This is a corollary to Assumption Three. Gun-free zones, and any other places where people are known to be less able (or less willing) to defend themselves tend to attract bullies and/or psychos. Let's call that Assumption Four.

What's Good for the Goose

Have you ever met a policeman or a soldier? More generally, have you ever met anyone who was authorized to carry a weapon? Did they strike you as unique in terms of their humanness? That is, was there anything objectively true about that person, as a member of the species Homo sapiens, which somehow made them gun-carrying-material? Don't rack your brain; the answer is no. (The answer is closer to 'Hell no.')

No offense to any policemen in our studio audience, but we all know that policemen are just people doing a specific job. They applied. They were accepted. They got trained. They got strapped. End of story. The likelihood is therefore high, nearing 100% actually, that you and I can be similarly trained and just as deservedly strapped thereafter. In other words, there is nothing about being a citizen or a policeman that means one is destined to be armed and the other is not. Let's call that Assumption Five.

Now, before anyone strains a ligament jumping to chime in, certainly there exist aptitude differences between people. Division of labor is alive and well too. Everyone isn't cut out for brain surgery, nor is everyone only a class or two away from expert marksman. The point is that there is ample space between 'career choice' and 'working knowledge' that lends itself to the typical citizen being trained in a number of fields. Firearms use is absolutely one of them. In fact, it is a relatively recent development that people believe that firearms usage is not a basic life skill, or that massive citizen disarmament, combined with massive police presence will lead to a safe environment. One only need examine Washington, DC to see that such a point-of-view ain't exactly data-driven. If that examination is unconvincing, one can review what has happened in Great Britain.

I'm not, for one moment, suggesting that society needs to evolve into a citizen army, with every person cocked, locked, and ready to rock. (I'm also not saying that would be a bad thing!) In fact, simply allowing the fog of war to return to most inner cities in the U.S. would quell violence in a relatively short time. Recall that bullies require, almost as a necessity to act, that they have a substantial known advantage over their victims. When I say, 'fog of war' I mean that such an advantage, even if it actually exists, is unknown. (This point cannot be overstated, and by the way, applies to governments as well. It might even apply to governments more directly!)


Well, that just about concludes this episode of 'Whoop, There It Is.' To review:

Assumption 1: Rights infringers exist.

Assumption 2: There is no realistic way to preclude unauthorized (or psychotic) people from being armed.

Assumption 3: People who are known to be armed tend to discourage rights infringers, even (shockingly!) the supposedly psychotic ones.

Assumption 4: Bullies tend to be cowards and therefore seek to attack people over whom they have a substantial known advantage.

Assumption 5: There is nothing morally different about a person supposedly authorized to carry a gun, e.g., a policeman, and a regular citizen.

Assumption One is a tautology. Assumption Two is obvious, and explains why waiting periods cannot preclude shooting sprees on college campuses. Assumption Three explains why violent and/or property crime is so relatively low in places like Kennesaw, GA , and most police stations. Assumption Four explains why crime is so high in the inner city. (The only people in most inner cities who are armed are the cops and the robbers, and both groups know it. Now, the proximity of people and property leads to an increased benefit for violence in densely-populated areas. That caveat notwithstanding, rights infringers seek both a benefit to immoral action and an advantage over their victims.) Assumption Five is simply a restatement of the Argument from Morality.

Bottom Line: Arm and train the citizens in [place name of violent place here] on Wednesday and I bet violent crime will plummet to unheard of levels by Friday. Disarm every citizen on Wednesday and not only will every psycho within shouting distance be ready to take advantage of him by Friday, but his government will also be much more likely to infringe upon him as well.

I'm not sure which one is worse, but I certainly don't want to experience both!

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.