Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Different Argument for the Right to Bear Arms

Supporters usually offer one or more of three arguments: The Second Amendment to the Constitution, the need for a last ditch defense against a tyrannical government, or deterring and preventing crime. The first of these is relevant to a U.S. court, although current courts do not seem to find it very convincing, but less relevant to the rest of us. If the right to bear arms is a good thing, we should have it even if it is not in the Constitution. If it is in the Constitution but a bad thing, then we should repeal the 2nd Amendment and, until we do, interpret it as narrowly as possible.

Two hundred years ago, the second argument was persuasive. As Cromwell had demonstrated a century and a half earlier, a large professional army could create a military dictatorship. A large militia meant that you could manage with only a small professional army. If the army got uppity, its superior quality would be outweighed by the militia’s vastly superior numbers.

In the centuries since, both the relative size of the military and the gap between military and civilian weapons have greatly increased, making that solution considerably less workable. In my view, at least, conflicts between our government and its citizens in the immediate future will depend more on control of information than control of weapons, making unregulated encryption, as I have argued elsewhere, the modern equivalent of the 2nd Amendment.

I made the theoretical argument for possession of concealed weapons as a deterrent to crime in a chapter of my (webbed) Price Theory. The empirical argument was made later in an article by John Lott and David Mustard, setting off an extended scholarly (and sometimes unscholarly) controversy. While I still find the theoretical argument convincing, the empirical question appears to be still open.

There is another, and perhaps better, argument for private possession of firearms. If the population is disarmed, protection against crimes is provided mainly by the police. People very much want not to be victims of crimes, so if protection depends on the police there will be public support for expanding the powers of the police in order to better protect us. The result is a more powerful government, which I think a bad thing. Given the current government, I would expect that argument to appeal to many people who find the first three unconvincing.

37 Comments:

At 10:14 AM, December 29, 2005, Blogger John T. Kennedy said...

"Supporters usually offer one or more of three arguments:"

What about the argument that the right to keep and bear arms is the same as the right to keep and bear hammers, donuts or comic books?

"If it is in the Constitution but a bad thing, then we should repeal the 2nd Amendment and, until we do, interpret it as narrowly as possible."

Bad by what standard? This seems to imply that we may collectively have the right to regulate gun ownership, but what would justify that?

 
At 10:19 AM, December 29, 2005, Blogger John T. Kennedy said...

Isn't a right to *regulate* arms more in need of justification than the right to own them?

 
At 10:25 AM, December 29, 2005, Anonymous Steve Podraza said...

This argument won't be popular for the same reason arguments 2 and 3 are not popular. The percieved cost associated with 2 or 3 is that you will have a million crazy people running around with guns. And what's more, they will be shooting them off every time they get in any sort of minor dispute. The increase in violence and death associated with a private right to carry guns is a cost far in excess of whatever bads we can prevent.

This is conventional wisdom.

 
At 10:32 AM, December 29, 2005, Anonymous Steve Podraza said...

A better way of putting it is to say that the purported increase of violence and death associated with a private right to concealed weapons is of almost infinite negative value. It is so bad, that it just doesn't matter what sort of evil we are weighing it against, whether it be evil private criminals or evil police. Conventional wisdom does not allow a balancing calculation to even take place.

 
At 10:40 AM, December 29, 2005, Blogger Kyle Bennett said...

the gap between military and civilian weapons have greatly increased, making that solution considerably less workable

Except that small arms are even today often the decisive factor. That's particularly true when the goal is to control land rather than simply eliminate the enemy as a fighting force.

Still, even at the small arms level, the gap is still considerable, and the large high-tech weapons systems unlikely to ever be found in private hands in great number can favorably condition the field for a later small arms engagement.

However, the idea of the 2nd amendment as a defense against tyranny assumes a defensive role, and in general, defenders have an inherent advantage that often allows them to succeed against superior forces.

And, security is never about absolute assurances, but about raising the cost of an attack. While private gun ownership cannot gurantee the protection of our rights, it can raise the cost of violating them, possibly resulting in less violation than there would otherwise be (and I would say already has to a very large extent).

You're correct that the military weapons gap makes private gun ownership less viable as a defense of rights than it was, but it is not yet irrelevant.

There is another, and perhaps better, argument for private possession of firearms. If the population is disarmed... The result is a more powerful government

There are also arguments that aren't strictly consequentialist.

P.S., long time, no see, David. How have you been? I'm thrilled that you're blogging.

 
At 8:48 PM, December 29, 2005, Anonymous mindwalker said...

if protection depends on the police there will be public support for expanding the powers of the police in order to better protect us. The result is a more powerful government, which I think a bad thing.

And that is one of the very best reasons for respecting the right to bear arms. Disarming the people while arming the government provides a justification for the state to raise taxes to provide more "services", and the higher taxes will seem more reasonable to the disarmed populace, who believe they depend on the government for their safety.

 
At 12:08 AM, December 30, 2005, Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

I don't understand the distinction between argument #3 (crime deterrence) and your 4th argument. If crime deterrence does indeed occur with private firearm ownership, then there's less work and perhaps a smaller role for police....hence eliminating private firearms requires increasing the size or role of police forces.

If such private deterrence doesn't work, then your 4th argument is irrelevant.

I have a another argument to add to the pot: whether one approves of private firearm ownership or not, it is clear that most firearm owners are peaceful. To confiscate their weapons would require a massive intervention -- searches, seizures, prosecutions, entailing police-state activities that harm everyone, and likely driving many firearm owners to actively resist. Why ask for such trouble?

 
At 7:34 AM, December 30, 2005, Blogger Russell said...

I don't think it's a coincidence that the worst terrorism in the US occurred in an area where people are least likely to be armed.

 
At 8:10 AM, December 30, 2005, Anonymous albatross said...

Russel,

I disagree. US soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and police are routinely being killed by roadside bombs, truck bombs, and suicide bombs. They're all carrying weapons--mostly much more powerful ones than anyone is going to carry around concealed day to day.

If people had been allowed to bring guns onto airplanes, I think the 9/11 attacks could still have happened. The clever part of the attack wasn't taking over the plane with their weapons (as the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania showed, four guys with boxcutters weren't sufficient to hold off the passengers once they realized what was happening). It was exploiting the strategy everyone had for dealing with hijackers--give in to their demands, remain calm, get onto the ground, and talk them out of hurting anyone.

Anyway, if you assume that the passengers had guns, you'd have to assume the terrorists did, too. That's one or two armed guys holding a stewardess or a randomly selected child hostage, gun to head, while the others go seat to seat and disarm the remaining passengers. Or one of the terrorist producing a convincing bomb and proclaiming that he was going to blow the plane up at the first sign of trouble. Since the passengers didn't understand the plan to use the plane as a missile, they almost certainly would have gone along with it.

 
At 8:55 AM, December 30, 2005, Blogger David Friedman said...

Charles N. Steele writes:

"I don't understand the distinction between argument #3 (crime deterrence) and your 4th argument."

Suppose an armed populace prevents crime less well, or at least no better, than a disarmed populace plus armed police. You wouldn't want to argue for the right to bear arms as a way of reducing crime. But you might still argue for it as a way of holding down government power.

 
At 9:13 AM, December 30, 2005, Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Repealing the Second Amendment would not give the federal government the power to regulate or ban gun ownership. Since the Constitution does not enumerate a power to do those things in Article I, Section 8, the feds would have to keep hands off.

 
At 4:38 PM, December 30, 2005, Anonymous M. Davis said...

The result is a more powerful government, which I think a bad thing. Given the current government, I would expect that argument to appeal to many people who find the first three unconvincing.

I agree a more powerful government is a bad thing, but a person who supports disarming the population (and finds the first three arguments unconvincing) most likely doesn't, because if he did he wouldn't support disarming the population in the first place. Your argument asks him to radically change his view of the state -- to see the state as something to fear rather than see it as the good and necessary institution he believes it is. That's a big step that I don't think many would take, even if they despise the current leaders.

 
At 12:00 PM, December 31, 2005, Blogger Mark Plus said...

What do you make of the fact that Iraqis living under Saddam's dictatorship could legally buy firearms and ammunition?

 
At 12:09 PM, December 31, 2005, Anonymous Julius Blumfeld said...

Mark Plus said...
"What do you make of the fact that Iraqis living under Saddam's dictatorship could legally buy firearms and ammunition?"

Not any more: http://www.20six.co.uk/juliusb/archive/2003/06/27/1efaelhnjlrl1.htm

 
At 12:27 PM, December 31, 2005, Blogger Mark Plus said...

I haven't run across a good explanation of this fact in light of libertarian theory. Either Saddam had more political legitimacy than the propaganda led us to believe, so that he trusted his citizens with guns; or the Iraqi government ruled relatively benignly by regional standards (a position Lew Rockwell maintained); or else private gun ownership just doesn't do the job in checking the power of police states.

 
At 6:06 PM, December 31, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>"If the population is disarmed, protection against crimes is provided mainly by the police."

Is it your contention that today, with an armed population, protection against crimes is no provided mainly by police? That seems like a real stretch.

If there is any evidence that shows any correlation between private citizen gun ownership and local crime prevalence, I'd love to see it.

 
At 8:09 PM, December 31, 2005, Anonymous Brooks Lyman said...

Actually, the courts are coming around to the "individual right" interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. Part of the problem is, that so many of the court cases (i.e. Miller, 1938 - Miller was a gangster caught with a machine gun) are marginal insofar as the quality of the plaintiffs are concerned, and so unconvincing to both courts and the public. "Bad cases make bad law."

The deterrence against tyranny argument is actually still valid, but in a somewhat shifted way from the original intent. While the government certainly has - and has always had: think of Shays' Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion - sufficient force to overcome any likely group of protesters in whatever manner desired or necessary, the potential negative publicity from doing so may in itself act as a deterrent.

For example, the government got a huge black eye from the Waco massacre. In the old days, with few witnesses and long news lead times, such an action was unlikely to lead to much protest. Today, with instant and often more thorough media coverage (including the internet), the government is likely to think twice before acting in such a blatant fashion, and the potential for casualties on the government's part (I seem to recall at least 4 BATF agents killed at Waco) combined with the bad publicity will likely lead to at least a little restraint on the part of government, particularly when there is no criminal activity or obvious threat to public safety, such as in a hostage-taking situation.

With regard to Sheldon Richman's argument that since Article 1, Section 8 doesn't give the federal government the authority to regulate the possession of firearms, he neglects the fact that most current federal regulation of firearms (and yes, there's plenty of it) is based on an overly expansive reading of the commerce clause in Section 8.

 
At 8:18 PM, December 31, 2005, Anonymous Brooks Lyman said...

To address Anonymous' questions, police are mainly good at solving crimes, not preventing them, for the simple reason that they cannot be present at all times to protect us.

Conversely, the armed citizen, when threatened, is on the scene of the crime and has the possibility of doing something to prevent it (in the vast majority of cases, simply brandishing a gun is sufficient to send the criminal fleeing).

As for proof, I refer you to various studies by Kleck, Lott and others; in particular John Lott's book "More Guns, Less Crime."

 
At 10:11 AM, January 01, 2006, Anonymous Martin L. Martens said...

There appears to be little difference between your argument #2 and #4, they are both "conflicts between our government and its citizens"

 
At 4:01 PM, January 01, 2006, Blogger Tim Lambert said...

Brooks Lyman's "proof" that in the vast majority of cases criminals flee when a gun is brandished is Lott's "More Guns Less Crime". But his survey in that book that he uses for this claim was almost certainly fabricated.

 
At 11:10 PM, January 01, 2006, Blogger Elliot said...

What about the obvious argument: people should be free to do whatever the hell they please short of hurting others.

Letting people have tools of all sorts makes them more powerful. That is, on balance, good.

 
At 9:46 AM, January 04, 2006, Anonymous Freder Frederson said...

What about the obvious argument: people should be free to do whatever the hell they please short of hurting others.

How is this an obvious argument, since bearing arms obviously increases your ability and chance or hurting others?

 
At 1:58 PM, January 04, 2006, Anonymous JLA said...

It is amazing that the natural human right of self-defense is rejected by some of those posting comments. They will always be slaves begging the favor of their masters and depend upon the master for protection. History is full of examples of genocide and how people become victims when disarmed of their guns?

 
At 8:03 PM, January 04, 2006, Anonymous Robert said...

As an outsider of the US, I had thought that
"the right to bear arms" was intended as:
"the right to defend private property [including owning guns if you feel you need to]".

I think this fits in very well with your idea of encryption -
"the people have the right to protect their information [property]".. protection again from piracy.

Not that I have read the constitution, but it would seem to me that the right to bear arms [as a form of property protection (including life).] could be separated from the right to discharge arms in improper places without recourse.

Meaning in the extreme that discharging a gun (in “Public”) is an act of dissent - and thus you must be given the right to either be deported, or to challenge the government’s right to govern you (and your property) in court - In the case of an individual, that challenge would of course be hopeless.

but in face of a community bearing and discharging arms, one would like to think they could be given the right to become peacefully independent - if they believe they can survive the influx of others fleeing US government sovereignty (for both desirable and the undesirable causes), and/or Military invasion, should they harbour nutters*.

*[Americans refer to terrorists, we refer to “half-wits” or “nutters” – an effective disarmament when you hear “Today in Baghdad: 12 people killed by nutters in a car-bomb”, or “the September 11th half-wit hijacks”. Incidentally that too makes Mr Bush seem a little silly when he talks of a long tough “war on half-wits”..

Anyhow, like the idea or not, your gun policies make it easy for the rest of the world to unduly write-off your system of rule as paranoid and disharmonious where an individual has the right to cause harm in self interest, if he can prove that either his government failed him directly by oppression, or indirectly by failing to protect him from the oppression of others. The point of government is that people are part of it – and if a gun is your best mechanism of anti-corruption, then you really are still a land of (very wealthy) cowboys.

 
At 7:33 AM, January 06, 2006, Blogger markm said...

Steve Podraza: "you will have a million crazy people running around with guns. And what's more, they will be shooting them off every time they get in any sort of minor dispute." This is the primal myth of the gun-controllers. It doesn't happen, at least in our society.

 
At 4:26 PM, January 06, 2006, Blogger JT said...

The comment section of this blog looks to be populated by much more scholarly folks than I, but I'll give answering Anonymous's question a shot.

If there is any evidence that shows any correlation between private citizen gun ownership and local crime prevalence, I'd love to see it.

Start with the difference in murder rates in Washington, D.C., where Joe Citizen can't own a handgun at all and must keep any rifles and shotguns disassembled and locked up, and just across the river in Fairfax County, VA, where Joe Citizen can not only own a handgun but can easily obtain a permit to carry concealed. I believe the rates in 2003 were something on the order of 41 per 100K in D.C. and 1 per 100K in Fairfax County. The geographical proximity and shared demographics of the two areas would seem to indicate a favorable similarity for comparison. Admittedly, it's just one example, but it's a start.

 
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At 2:08 PM, April 12, 2006, Anonymous js290 said...

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/

Apparently, there's US law that prevents sale of crime control or detection instruments to China. Cisco interprets this to mean shotguns, police helmets, and handcuffs, not networking equipment.

If govt agrees with Cisco on that interpretation, then is it likely that the govt will disagree that the 2nd admendment protects unregulated encryption?

 
At 1:17 PM, May 18, 2006, Anonymous js290 said...

http://news.zdnet.co.uk/0,39020330,39269746,00.htm

 
At 10:11 PM, March 16, 2007, Blogger E. David Quammen said...

What many seem to dismiss is the Preamble to the Bill of Rights itself. To Wit;

The Conventions of a number of the States having, at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added, and as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution;

Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two-thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States; all or any of which articles, when ratified by three-fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the said Constitution, namely:

...Amendment II

declaratory; (Common Defense)

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,

restrictive; (Self-Defense/Preservation, The First Law of Nature).

the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

The Right was pre-existent and considered as a Natural one. To Wit:

Pre-constitution;

"The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defense, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute I W. & M. st.2. c.2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression."

- William Blackstone, 1 Commentaries on the Laws of England 136, 1765–1769.

Post-Constitution;

"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government...."

"....This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty....The right of self-defense is the first law of nature; in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Whenever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction."

- St. George Tucker, Blackstone's Commentaries, (1803).

It was mean to be one of the "liberties" intended to be "secured" to ALL of We The People, by the Constitution;

"It is a fortunate thing that the objection to the Government has been made on the ground I stated; because it will be practicable, on that ground, to obviate the objection, so far as to satisfy the public mind that their liberties will be perpetual, and this without endangering any part of the Constitution, which is considered as essential to the existence of the Government by those who promoted its adoption...."

"In some instances they assert those rights which are exercised by the people in forming and establishing a plan of Government. In other instances, they specify those rights which are retained when particular powers are given up to be exercised by the Legislature. In other instances, they specify positive rights, which may seem to result from the nature of the compact. Trial by jury cannot be considered as a natural right, but a right resulting from a social compact which regulates the action of the community, but is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature."

- James Madison, June 8, 1789 House of Representatives, Amendments to the Constitution.

"Shall NOT be Infringed" means EXACTLY what is written. The cause for the Second Amendment. Centers around the rebellion that had happened in Massachusetts. And the resultant disarmament law passed by the Mass. legislature as punishment;

"The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order. I hope in God this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted."

- Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 13, 1787 letter to William S. Smith.

References:

“Agreed to found our Rights upon the Laws of Nature....”

'for the common defence'(?)

"Rights of the citizen declared to be --"

The Right was/is considered as a God-given Natural Right. One that was considered as one of the inalienable's. That makes ALL 'gun control' laws REPUGNANT to We The People's Constitution. Self-Defense is not only the Right, but the Duty of ALL free citizens. If a person has committed a crime, and is confined. Government must then provide their protection.

When they are released, after having served their lawfully imposed sentence. They are again in the "state of nature" and entitled to the best means they can obtain to defend themselves.

 
At 1:03 AM, August 12, 2007, Blogger Jonathan said...

"People very much want not to be victims of crimes, so if protection depends on the police there will be public support for expanding the powers of the police in order to better protect us. The result is a more powerful government, which I think a bad thing."

Yes. But you have yourself outlined how police and law could be provided without government, in which hypothetical case there would be no link between police powers and government powers.

If your utopia were to be implemented in a European country, I predict that the laws of that country would make possession of guns a criminal offence. Because that would be the preference of most Europeans. In the USA, I guess the results would be more patchy (as I think current US law varies somewhat from state to state).

Returning to the real world, is it really true that the police are much weaker in the gun-owning USA than in the non-gun-owning UK?

 
At 6:48 AM, January 21, 2009, Blogger wow power leveling said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 9:36 AM, January 13, 2013, Anonymous James said...

Having been the victim of a home invasion and experiencing the terror that accompanies this event coupled with the length of time we waited for a police response. My argument for gun ownership is simple; Self Defense.

 
At 9:44 AM, January 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy.

 
At 10:37 PM, April 24, 2013, Anonymous js290 said...

http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/04/encrypt-your-data/

 
At 2:14 PM, October 09, 2013, Anonymous js290 said...

http://thelibertarianrepublic.com/ignorant-fbi-agents-realize-cant-open-bitcoin-digital-currency-wallet/

 

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