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F E A T U R E
Americans have always protected our homes and preserved our liberties with the help of guns and ammo. As restrictions multiply, we must remember that guns are…
The Great Equalizers
Timothy Hall • November 1999

Gun restriction has already started one war in North America. It happened when the government tried to enforce an assault weapons ban. Of course, it was the British government, and the assault weapons were those possessed by citizens of Massachusetts, in the towns of Lexington and Concord.
Some critics of the British have called this one of history’s greatest blunders. But that’s not completely fair. The British were just 220 years ahead of their time.
Had they waited a while longer, they would have seen anti-gun advocates today shouting loudly for gun restrictions ranging from prohibitive licensing schemes (Bill Bradley’s plan) to gun bans of varying scope (Gore’s, Brady’s, Reno’s, etc.). Their opponents in this, gun owners and the National Rifle Association, have been subject to a ceaseless assault from pro-restriction politicians and a sympathetic media, being called everything from anarchists to child killers.
I suppose it is not hard to understand stridency about guns. One thing that is hard to understand, however, is that the calls for gun restriction have taken on a completely normal, unchallenged, mainstream feel. For when one looks closely, there is no empirical support for restriction as a violence reduction policy. More importantly, gun restriction, on its face, offends an important part of our national conception of the relation between citizen and state.
I say “restriction,” rather than the more common “control,” because essentially no one opposes gun control. Not, at least, when “gun control” is accurately expressed as government regulation of some aspect of gun manufacture, sales, possession, or use. By “gun restriction,” I mean the erection of legal barriers to curb or halt altogether the purchase, possession, or use of firearms by adults with no history of criminal behavior or mental illness.
Of course, on my usage, the present legislative debate—trigger locks and background checks—is not about restriction. Even so, these modest measures are controversial precisely because they are seen by both sides as the harbingers of true gun restriction.

The empirical case
To endorse gun restriction on empirical grounds, one must believe it will significantly inhibit violence. To believe this, one must think that gun prevalence increases overall violence.

For people who believe it, that gun prevalence increases overall violence appears self-evident. It is so obvious that it hardly needs investigating; only an incorrigible gun lust could prevent someone from recognizing it.

It might surprise many readers to discover that the prevailing view among criminologists and sociologists today is that there is no persuasive evidence that gun prevalence causes any overall violence. As Florida State University professor Gary Kleck says in Point Blank, winner of the 1993 award for best book in a three-year period from the American Society of Criminology:

“However, as a modest body of reliable evidence (and an enormous body of not-so-reliable evidence) accumulated, many of the most able specialists in this area shifted from the ‘anti-gun’ position to a more skeptical stance, in which it was negatively argued that the best available evidence does not convincingly or consistently support the anti-gun position. …[Subsequent research] has caused me to move beyond even the skeptic position. I now believe that the best currently available evidence, imperfect though it is (and must always be), indicates that general gun availability has no measurable net positive effect on rates of homicide, suicide, robbery, assault, rape, or burglary in the U[nited] S[tates]. This is not the same as saying gun availability has no effects on violence—it has many effects on the likelihood of attack, injury, death, and crime completion, but these effects work in both violence-increasing and violence-decreasing directions, with the effects largely canceling out. For example, when aggressors have guns, they are (1) less likely to physically attack their victims, (2) less likely to injure the victim given an attack, but (3) more likely to kill the victim, given an injury. Further, when victims have guns, it is less likely aggressors will attack or injure them and less likely they will lose property in a robbery. At the aggregate level, in both the best available time series and cross-sectional studies, the overall net effect of gun availability on total rates of violence is not significantly different from zero. The positive associations often found between aggregate levels of violence and gun ownership appear to be primarily due to violence increasing gun ownership, rather than the reverse. Gun availability does affect the rates of gun violence (e.g. the gun homicide rate, gun suicide rate, gun robbery rate) and the fraction of violent acts which involve guns (e.g. the percent of homicides, suicides or robberies committed with guns); it just does not affect total rates of violence (total homicide rate, total suicide rate, total robbery rate, etc.)”

An economist at the University of Chicago, John Lott, goes further than Kleck in assessing the benefits of private gun ownership. He found that violent crime can be expected to drop between one and two percent a year every year for several years after a state liberalizes its concealed carry laws, with no increase in gun accidents. There is dispute over his findings. However, the dispute is over how much good the liberalization of these laws does, not how much harm. The worst case for Lott appears to be no net effect on crime rates.

One might wonder about gun accidents, which Kleck doesn’t mention above. Don’t people, especially children, die in gun accidents all the time?
Gun accidents are rare. According to the National Safety Council, in 1997, there were about 1,200 lethal gun accidents for all age groups. The death rate is 0.6 per 100,000. that is less than half of the rate for accidental drowning for any age group. This, despite the fact that guns outnumber swimming pools by 20:1 in the United States. Children under four, those portrayed by the national media as constantly drawn to guns with lethal consequences, are killed fewer than 50 times a year in gun accidents. Children that age drown in mop buckets more often than they die in gun accidents.

Obviously, any time a lethal gun accident occurs it is a tragedy. The number of deaths, however, is very low compared to other accidental causes of death. It is hard to understand how gun accidents by themselves could motivate gun restriction where we don’t have pool restriction or cleanser restriction.
The findings I’ve cited may seem surprising to those who have heard public health advocates decry the tremendous harms from gun ownership to kids, to families, to friends, to dogs, to the ozone layer, etc., over and over. However, the frequency of these reports owes more to the stridency of political advocates and their allies in the national media than the quality of the research. A review of all the relevant literature would be too long for one article. Suffice it to say, though, that the most prominent researchers outside the field of public health find the much-publicized “public health” research amateurish, partisan, and even outright deceptive. In fact, even some doctors are coming to have this view: Doctors for Integrity in Research & Public Policy has formed to combat the intellectual sloppiness and partisan political advocacy that characterizes public health research on guns and violence.

So there is at least one reason to oppose restriction other than a desire to see America’s children laid waste: there is no persuasive evidence that restriction will work.

The non-consequentialist case
For many advocates, the argument against restriction does not depend on its efficacy in reducing the levels of violence. There is a non-consequentialist justification for it: the use of lethal force by a private individual is inherently wrong, even in self-defense.
One must be careful here to distinguish statism from pacifism. A pacifist believes simply that one may never employ lethal force (or perhaps any violent force on some views) even to resist murder or comparably serious injustice. As the use of legal force is condemned, so too, by extension, is the possession of the implement of that force: guns.

Some advocates of gun restriction are pacifists.

  • “The General Assembly [of the Presbyterian Church USA] has declared in the context of handgun control and in many other contexts, that it is opposed to ‘the killing of anyone, anywhere, for any reason.’”

  •  —A church representative at the Hearings on Legislation to Modify the 1968 Gun Control Act, 1985-1986.


The Church Assembly has a radical view: it believes that even if a violent felon would torture and kill you and your loved ones unless you killed him that nonetheless you may not do so. To its credit, the Church apparently does not make a distinction between individual and state exercise of lethal force in this regard; either one doing any killing in any circumstances, it believes, is seriously immoral.

All I will say about pacifism here is that it is not widely held even among restrictionists, much less the American public at large. It is not likely ever to become the basis for legislation of any kind. Let us consider, then, by far the more dominant non-consequentialist view driving restriction: statism. A statist is one who believes that use of lethal force by a private individual is wrong because it goes beyond the legitimate scope of non-governmental behavior. Lethal self-defense is seen as akin to vigilantism; they are both anti-social acts which are tantamount to “taking the law into one’s own hands.” Gun possession, the facilitator of this anarchical condition, is morally wrong or is acceptable only with severe restrictions.

Here are some remarks by individuals who are or are likely to be statist:
 

  • “[Those who buy guns for self-defense] are traitors… anti-citizens, enemies of their own patriae… arming themselves against their own neighbors.”

  • —Syndicated columnist Garry Wills
     
  • “I do not believe in people owning guns. Guns should be owned or possessed only [by the] police and military. I am going to do everything I can to disarm this state.”

  • —Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, 1986
     
  • “[Gun ownership represents a return to] barbarism… anarchy, not order under law—a jungle where each relies on himself for survival.”

  • —Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, from Crime in America.
     
  • “The need that some homeowners and shopkeepers believe they have for weapons to defend themselves [represents] the worst instincts in the human character.”

  • Washington Post op-ed column
  • “I think it’s 1999. …I think if you own a gun you should go to jail.”

  • —Rosie O’Donnell, spokesperson for the K-Mart corporation (which is, incidentally, the world’s largest gun dealer).
Statists differ from pacifists in that they believe the use of lethal force by appropriate state officials is justified. Citizens may not shoot an intruder. The police, though, may shoot an armed resister, the FBI may short dangerous insurrectionists, and soldiers may shoot the enemies of the state.

A recurring theme in statist denunciations of gun ownership is the charge that those who would desire to possess such weapons are anti-social, or uncivilized. The charge is that, unconcerned with the cooperative relations necessary to build society, gun owners cling to an outdated macho fantasy of a lone gunman on the prairie, or of a musclebound gun-toting terror a la Schwarzenegger. One need only glance at editorials excoriating the National Rifle Association in almost any media outlet to see this complaint made constantly.

It is arguable that statism, however, itself offends some of the most cherished political principles in our national tradition.

To see this, we should make one more distinction. On the extreme statist view, any non-governmental use of lethal force is forbidden. On the moderate statist view, lethal force itself is not forbidden, but traffic in guns is restricted with the aim of inhibiting one’s ability to exercise lethal force.

The right to life is named, in the Declaration of Independence and in America’s political tradition, as an inalienable right. The philosophy behind this enumeration is a belief in a personal zone of moral inviolability which is prior to the exercise of state power. An important point—though not the only point—of saying that individuals have certain inalienable rights is precisely that these rights cannot be surrendered to the state.

Included in the right to life is the right to defend that right from unjust infringement; a mark of a right generally is not simply the permission to avoid infringement, but, in appropriate circumstances, to repel it. This was taken to be self-evident at the time of the Founding and is embodied presently as a self-defense provision in the homicide statutes of all 50 states. It is important to keep in mind that on the view in question a legal permission for self-defense is not a permission from the state to fight for one’s life. Rather, it is a recognition of the state’s duty to respect the zone of inviolability of an individual. It is a condition of the state’s legitimacy that it do this. The extreme statist view, then, appears straightaway to offend the Founders’ conception of an inalienable right to life.

The moderate has a different difficulty. It is the idea that important natural rights imply a state requirement to respect citizens’ ability to acquire the practical means to exercise those rights in society. Indeed, it is precisely this principle that in our national tradition links such things as a natural right to free expression and the political right to a free press. It is this principle that links the natural rights to person and property with the political rights against unwarranted arrest, search and seizure. The state’s duty to respect a citizen’s right to life, then, can also be argued to require that the state not interfere with a citizen’s acquisition of practical and realistic means of self-defense.

The American case
Guns may seem indecent to many, and undesirable. Most of us in academic life don’t care for them. But, like it or not, guns are a practical means of defense for those who need them. With minimal training, they permit the old, the weak, or the small to repel violent aggression from the strong, the young, or the many. According to research done by Kleck and others, one is approximately twice as likely to escape injury or death from a violent attack if one defends oneself with a gun than by any other means—including non-resistance. Most of these defense incidents involve just brandishing the weapon without firing it. Guns represent a proportional level of force compared to a life-threatening personal assault; they are not weapons of “mass destruction.” The threat, furthermore, of violent criminal aggression cannot with a straight face be said to be unrealistic in contemporary American life. (One would think in any case it should not need much showing to convince the government that guns are useful to repel violence. The state doesn’t protect its valuables and its officials by disarming police and declaring the area a “gun free zone.”)

There are reasons to believe then, that a state should not just consider a liberal policy on small arms possession by its citizens. An argument can be made that a state is duty bound to respect citizens’ desires to attain and use guns. Some actual governments explicitly recognize such a duty, in fact. One government’s formulation has an operative clause which reads, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

So the best empirical evidence we have provides no support for restrictive legislation as a violence control measure. Severe restriction can be argued to offend the conception of inalienable rights on which the nation was founded. And one can argue positively that in our national political tradition a state has a duty to permit its citizens to own and use guns for self-defense. This argument parallels those widely accepted for state duties to respect other cherished freedoms. The very freedoms, one might point out, that were fought for in that war in the late 1770s.

—Timothy Hall is a lecturer in the philosophy department
 

   
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