Monday, February 14, 2011

Guns and Freedom: A Different Argument

A recent post by former BBC North American editor Justin Webb expresses puzzlement at the pattern of gun ownership in the U.S., reporting that the zip code he used to live in, an area safe enough so that people routinely left their doors unlocked, had a surge of gun purchases after the Supreme Court found unconstitutional the D.C. ban on handgun ownership. He thinks it is obvious that his one-time neighbors have no need for guns to protect themselves, and attributes the pattern to a peculiarly American belief in a link between private ownership of firearms and political freedom.

I have no idea whether his facts or his interpretation are correct; his post does not provide any link to his data source on handgun purchases, leaving open a variety of other explanations. He is surely correct, however, that many Americans see private ownership of firearms as something that makes tyranny less likely.

The interesting question is why. Webb takes it for granted that the underlying argument is that firearms make rebellion against oppression easier, and that is indeed an argument common among supporters of the Second Amendment. He points out, as evidence against, that we have just had an example of a successful rebellion in Egypt, and private firearms played no significant role.

As it happens, I agree with the view that private ownership of firearms helps prevent tyranny. But I don't think the main reason is that it makes rebellion easier. That argument was plausible in the 18th century, and probably played a considerable role in the writing of the Second Amendment. But changes since then make it a much weaker argument now. The gap between private weaponry and military weaponry has become much larger, as has the size of the professional military. Part of the original theory, at least as I read it, was that a large militia made a large professional army unnecessary.

In my view, the real argument for private firearm ownership is a different one. The less able individuals are to protect themselves from crime, the more dependent they are on protection by government law enforcement. The more dependent they are on protection by government law enforcement, the more willing they will be to accept abuses by government law enforcement. The more willing we are to be pushed around by the police, the harder it will be to prevent a tyrannical government from arising. Indeed, in some contexts, most obviously the War on Drugs, one can argue that one has already arisen. And been tolerated.


Skip said...

I'm not sure that I would classify what just happened in Egypt as a successful rebellion. From my perspective it appears to be more properly classified as a successful military coup, and the lack of private ownership of firearms wouldn't tend to do anything but increase the likelihood of that I'd think.

Power Child said...

It's funny you should mention the War on Drugs:

Even if one accepts the arguments of gun-control advocates (that guns don't deter criminals, that guns typically harm people by accident, that guns' only use is to kill people, etc.), the War on Drugs illustrates the prime reason why we should not have restrictions on gun ownership.

norm said...

Although the modern military can clearly put down any resistance from armed citizens if motivated to do so, I think that a potential tyrant, say an elected president trying to extend his rule, will find it more difficult to motivate his military to control civilians if the citizens are armed. Thus the tyrant will have to disarm the population first, a provocative step.

Thomas said...


I don't think I agree with you. If I were the evil genius in a western country, I would rather have armed citizens as opponents. With our public opinion being as it is, it should be almost impossible to have the military fire into an unarmed mob. If on the other hand your opponents are armed, it's way easier to mark them as terrorists and have public opinion on your side to suppress them and declare martial law.

Anonymous said...

BBC "And yet this week they watched a dictator overthrown in Egypt - with no recourse to violence.

The link in American minds between guns and freedom is, you could argue, proved by the events of yesterday to be deeply irrational."

It's not sound logic. We haven't got a clue what's going to happen in Egypt and it was undoubtedly the army's guns part funded by US taxpayers which sent their dictator packing. Also perhaps Egypt wouldn't have got to where it was today with an armed population.

Charles Pooter said...

What is really "deeply irrational" is the British fear of privately held firearms.

Andrew said...

America is right, and the rest of the world is wrong!!!

That's the American way!

Jonathan said...

As a British libertarian, I'm in an interesting position here. I agree that in principle it's hard to justify laws against gun ownership, but in practice I feel happier and safer not to be surrounded by gun owners (as indeed, in Europe, I am not).

If the people around me have guns, they're more likely to shoot me: through accident, anger, drunkenness, etc.

Owning a gun myself would, I think, do little or nothing to protect me against crime, and if I tried to use it against armed criminals I'd be most likely to get shot myself.

I'm 56 years old. In my life so far, I've never felt any need of a gun nor any urge to own one.

Andy said...

Jonathan, that's one of the points that party-line American libertarians fail to understand. Guns provide liberty, but guns also provide the ability for others to very easily take away your liberty with the push of a trigger.

Simon said...

Jonathan, what do you think about Switzerland? As far as I understand, their gun laws are more liberal than those of the U.S. (e.g., fully automatic weapons are illegal the U.S.). Do you feel unhappy and unsafe in Switzerland?

Jonathan said...

Simon: I have briefly visited Switzerland a few times, and didn't notice ordinary people carrying guns; nor, of course, using them. I understand that the typical Swiss weapon is a military rifle kept locked up at home in case of military need. I suppose it could be a concern in principle, but in practice the Swiss are not noted for shooting people; whereas, for instance, the American film industry ensures that Americans are noted for shooting people.

Some things are a matter of culture. For instance, in some countries the army not infrequently takes control of the government. In other countries, the army has the power but doesn't use it; this seems to be a matter of culture.

Most people have strong opinions for or against gun ownership; they think they have The Answer. I see good, respectable arguments on both sides; I don't think I have The Answer. But, in this particular respect, I feel personally comfortable with the kind of society I've grown up in.

MamaLiberty said...

Johnathan, I'm a 64 year old woman, long time widow. I've already had to shoot a man to save my life. I carry a gun because, while the risk is low, there is no place on earth where the risk is zero.

This silly idea that the mere presence of guns will somehow lead to "blood in the streets" from accidents and road rage type shootings has been hysterically touted for a very long time here. But it never works out that way in reality!

Vermont, Wyoming and several other states have a long history of openly and freely armed people. Not only do they have incredibly low crime rates, there are far - FAR - fewer "accidents" and rage shootings in those places than in almost any area with strict "gun control" and draconian laws against self defense.

Then, consider the fact that a person who wishes to harm another has an infinite array of potential weapons to choose from, including their bare hands! The gun is merely the most effective tool to counteract this aggressive violence, giving an older woman like me a good chance to survive an attack.

The problem is people and their attitude, not the availability of guns. Those who wish to harm others will do so, whatever the "laws." Only the "law abiding" citizen can be disarmed - so the "laws" ultimately only benefit the criminals.

Anonymous said...

Andy: If the ability to "erase one's liberty" were a criteria for coercively banning certain items then one would have to ban significantly more things than guns without falling into contradiction and arbitrariness.

This is why "party-line American libertarians" are all pro-gun ownership. It is not that we fail to see your point, it is simply that from logical coherency your point is irrelevant.

Johnathan: I am curious to ask whether you have actually been to the states before. you claim to have been in Switzerland (which indeed does in many cases have more lax controls than we do) and yet you felt just fine with them owning firearms because you never saw them. Yet if you were to walk around any American city you would see essentially the exact same thing.

This leads me to believe that the entire aversion to firearms inherent in European libertarians (despite them agreeing they should not be illegal) is from experience (cultural). Namely, there is a complete lack of a genuine private shooting heritage (we have that in America) and huge amounts of propaganda which claim that private ownership of firearms is per se bad (we have that too). You seem to agree with me that your position is largely one of "feeling safe" and not really based on a non-arbitrary view of the facts. I shoot constantly and so see nothing inherently wrong if I should spot someone carrying, which is very rare considering the lack of good open carry laws (usually it is when their shirt brushes open and I just barely see the butt of a concealed handgun).

As to the idea of an effective civil insurrection being able to effectively stop the military, I believe that there is an extremely wild overestimation of what the military is actually capable of. Let us recall that we have essentially a cold war army, designed to fight OTHER cold war armies. Lots of missles which can break warships, but in relative terms overall very few soldiers with assault rifles which would actually be necessary to fight a largely civilian population armed with somewhat similar armaments. Unless the military were to begin actively poisoning huge sections of water treatment facilities or things of that nature then they would actually do very poorly in putting down a widescale popular civil insurrection.

That is my take anyway.

David Friedman said...

"whereas, for instance, the American film industry ensures that Americans are noted for shooting people."

Not a very good measure of actual practice.

As far as I can tell, Americans shoot each other in two different contexts. There are very rare but highly publicized incidents of multiple killings by crazy people. There are much more common shootings, largely among people engaged in criminal enterprises, and largely concentrated in the poor areas of the inner city.

I don't think the average middle class suburban American is at much, if any, more risk of being murdered than similar folk in Europe.

"Some things are a matter of culture. For instance, in some countries the army not infrequently takes control of the government."

It's at least worth mentioning that one of the countries where the army once took control of the government is England. I'm not sure it's very relevant to the contemporary situation, but I'm pretty sure that the English experience in the 17th century is one of the things that helped form American attitudes on the subject in the 18th.

Doc Merlin said...

"He points out, as evidence against, that we have just had an example of a successful rebellion in Egypt, and private firearms played no significant role."

Why do they keep referring to the rebellion in egypt as successful. They ousted a dying man and replaced him with the organization that was behind his power.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of Weapons Systems and Political Stability, by Carroll Quigley?

Jonathan said...

In case it wasn't obvious, my comment on the American film industry was made tongue in cheek. I have no experience of living in America and I'm not qualified to judge American society.

Furthermore, I'm already aware of the various arguments in favour of gun ownership, and I respect at least some of them.

If Americans want to live in an armed society, as far as I'm concerned they're welcome to do so. It's not my personal preference, but each according to his taste.

It's good that different countries do things different ways. It means that anyone who feels strongly about it can choose to live in a country where they do things his way. Though, unfortunately, countries often enforce immigration restrictions that may impede such movements.

Downsize DC said...

Yes, all guns must be legal.

But here's an idea: perhaps American gun owners put up with so much - the Patriot Act and War on Drugs to start - precisely because, being allowed to own a weapon, they thing they are free.

There might be a complacency that develops when people more or less enjoy First and Second Amendment freedoms, that causes them to tolerate what should to be intolerable.

Anonymous said...

The Washington Post ran a story on this subject recently. I no longer have a copy of the article so I don't know whether Justin Webb was using it as a source, or was himself quoted in the article (maybe neither).

I do recall that I thought the number of gun sales reported in the article was not particularly large. I also believe that gun sales are more likely to be recorded when bought by residents in the area where he formerly lived, than by those in some of the other areas with higher crime rates and lower reported gun sales. There would be a higher demand for unregistered guns, for one thing.

- Bob

Douglas Knight said...

This post seems to predict that gun ownership is anticorrelated with abusive policing. This is very much not true in the N=2 case of the US vs Europe. I doubt it is true across European countries or American states, both of which have wide ranges of gun ownership.

Jonathan said...

I suppose that, in my ideal society, ordinary people would have the right to own guns, but few would choose to do so (and I wouldn't be one of the few).

To return to the original post, the argument is made that an unarmed populace will tend to tolerate more abuses by the police. This is somewhat plausible but, as far as I know, unproven.

By this theory, one would expect the police in Britain to be significantly more abusive than those in the USA. This isn't my impression of the real-world situation, but I haven't lived in the USA. What do you think?

Jonathan said...

Another theory occurs to me. In a society in which many people go armed, the police will expect the typical suspect to be armed and dangerous. They may have had colleagues shot in confrontations. "Shoot first and ask questions later" may appeal to them as a useful tactical principle.

In a society in which few go armed, the police can afford to be more relaxed and less trigger-happy.

Like the proposal in your original post, this is an unproven speculative hypothesis that I propose merely because it seems plausible to me.

Francis said...


I understand your point about gun ownership (in the UK vs the USA, for instance.) I live in Canada, I am a libertarian, and I thought like you for a long time. Yet something changed my mind: when I realised that there were many people already walking the streets with concealed arms... illegally. I was in a bus and a friend of mine showed me, inconspicuously, that he carried a revolver in the pocket of his jacket. I didn't worry, of course, because I knew him, but then he said to me that even small petty criminals, not just drug dealers, carry them all the time. Those people may be all around you in public places.

Will you significantly increase the rate of firearms being misused if you make them legal? Perhaps. But perhaps not. When I was young, it was not rare to see a kid with a .22 or a .410 along a country road, in search of groundhogs to shoot for fun. Were we worried? Not at all. It was something common and familiar. My aunt even took the family gun once, to shoot an ows which was feeding on her flower seeds in her garden. We found the story funny, that's all.

Another question: people drive cars all around you every day. They even routinely get mad, rudely insult pedestrians and other drivers. But do they run over people with cars suddenly. It happens, yet very rarely. Why?

Chris said...
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Jonathan said...

Francis, thanks for your polite comments; but both you and MamaLiberty seem to think I'm arguing for a ban on guns. I'm not.

All I've said is that I have no interest in owning a gun myself, and that I feel content to live in a society in which people don't normally carry guns—as a matter of culture, not merely as a matter of law.

If you live in a violent society, owning a gun may give you psychological reassurance; it may even be useful in some circumstances, if you're lucky. But my own preferred solution would be to move out of that violent society and go to live somewhere more peaceful.

A gun is not a protective force shield. It helps only if you see your attacker and draw first, or shoot first. If you're taken by surprise, or faced with several armed attackers, oops. Hence my preference for moving out...

The analogy with cars is interesting. Yes, it's rare for people to use cars to kill deliberately. Nevertheless, I've read that cars kill more than a million people a year, worldwide, and injure some 50 million. And the car isn't even designed to kill: its primary function is transport.

Chris said...

Widespread gun ownership and concealed carry are somewhat of a protective force shield. Criminals probably assess risk differently to non-criminals but they have their limits.

As I understand it, in the USA you can easily avoid the violent areas and getting shot.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, I sometimes think about the state Britain is in today, and I notice that people reflect nostalgically on the "good old days" - they remember fondly, say, in a trope, the UK of Dixon of Dock Green (an early 1960s tv series that followed the fortunes of a small-town police station). "Bobbies on bicycles two by two", etc., etc.

But hang on a minute - in THAT world, that safer, kinder Britain of nostalgic memory (at least up to the mid 1950s iirc), guns were pretty much legal!

In Dixon of Dock Green land (or at least up to the decade prior), the appearance of a "shooter" was a big event. Criminals just didn't resort to guns as a matter of course, they were a last resort, an ultimate show of force. Violence there was, but it was thuggery, not (as today) little girls getting accidentally shot in gangland drive-by executions.

So what's changed between the Britain of the mid-50s and the Britain of today?

It might be (extrapolating and analogising from the concealed carry experience in the States) another case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. At some point we in the UK got rid of guns entirely, outlawed them. At that point, crime started becoming a bigger and bigger problem in the UK.

Maybe it really is as simple as this: if a criminal has to factor in a higher risk of injury, that in itself is a deterrent to crime. For this to work, it doesn't actually require that everyone carry, it just requires the criminal not to be in a position to know whether someone is carrying or not. But for that to work, it must be LEGALLY POSSIBLE to carry.

Or maybe it isn't that simple? Dunno, just putting it forward.

Jonathan said...

I don't really know about "the state Britain is in today": I left the country in 1986. I live in Spain now, where the police carry guns routinely (which still looks bizarre to me) but I don't notice anyone else doing so.

From my point of view, the personal decision is pretty simple. I've never been in a situation in which I wished to have a gun, and don't expect I ever will be. I'm not making decisions for anyone else.

George Weinberg said...

Another point worth mentioning is that you are actually safer if your friends, relatives, and neighbors own guns, assuming they are decent people. Armed civilians don't just protect themselves, they protect each other.

Jonathan said...

George, that's a point of view, but it lacks proof. In some unusual circumstances, you might be safer if your neighbours are armed; in other circumstances similarly unusual, you might be less safe. For instance, your neighbour might shoot you by mistake while practising.

It seems odd that (a) you're willing to assume that all your neighbours are 'decent', and yet (b) you live in such fear of violent crime that you think you all need to be armed.

Have you ever experienced violent crime? If so, you're either very unlucky or you live in a more dangerous place than I'm familiar with. (Incidentally, I've lived in 12 different countries.)

Jonathan said...
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Jonathan said...

I've had further thoughts on this but I've put them on my own blog because I've probably said more than enough here by now.

Doc Merlin said...

Mmmmm endogeneity.

Scott G said...


Could you briefly give your thoughts on how gun control my work in an anarcho-capitalist society?

It seems that some people would want to live under rules in which guns are heavily restricted, while others would want to live under rules in which some people possess nukes (Armadillos)?


Voluntaryist said...

Civilian guerrilla warfare is vastly more effective than government uniform warfare. Just consider this as food for thought. An M1A1 costs $35 million. An RPG-29, which can easily penetrate any part of the M1A1, costs $1k (officially). Some ordinary guy can just have one stuck away in a closet and wait until an M1A1 drives by and poke it out the window.

This is why Vietnam/Afghanistan/Iraq are so baffling to the politicians. The proper resident uniformed armies get rolled in 5 seconds every time. It's the civilians after that who win it. In Vietnam every village was an ambush. The enemy was unknown. A grenade would just drop down your pants out of nowhere. Occupation was impossible. The only option against such tactics is to kill and destroy everything and everyone on sight, which nullifies the purpose of being there. Though that is always done to some extent, it only delays the inevitable.

Jonathan said...

Scott G: Any society needs law and law enforcement, otherwise it will be intolerably unpleasant for its members. Therefore, however law and enforcement are provided in an anarcho-capitalist society, we can take it that they will be provided somehow or other, if the society is to endure for any length of time.

The law of this hypothetical society may or may not permit individual ownership of handguns, assault rifles, flamethrowers, nuclear weapons, etc. It's really up to the members of that society. If they all want a particular law, they'll find a way to get it. If none of them want a particular law, they won't tolerate it. In between, if some want a law and some don't, they'll have to negotiate in some way.

It's likely, therefore, that different anarcho-capitalist societies in different geographical areas would have different sets of laws, depending on the preferences of their members.

Unknown said...

Another effect of private ownership of weapons is that petty bureaucrats feel less safe enforcing oppressive rules; they know they risk to not get away with it.

Even if large-scale rebellion is made nearly impossible, it is expensive to put enough goons with guns to protect each and every petty bureaucrat.

MagPie from Valais said...


I'm from Switzerland, since you mentioned it :-)

i come from the mountain, where we are pretty much like rednecks, i would say. so, i grew up seeing a lot of guns on the table, my father would hunt, and so on. i fired the first time as a little girl at seven years old, but before that, i knew that i never never should approach a firearm if alone, because it's very dangerous. then i learn to unload about every type of gun, before doing anything.

so, that is for the past. now im 25, in a socialist city (lausanne), studying (and apparently coming from a very very different world than this kind of city). these last 10 years, we saw politics and "public"(media-mainstream)-opinion change about firearms politics.

Specially since Switzerland signed Shengen's agreements, i think.
Now...buying and selling firearms without noticing the state is illegal, some kind of wheapon are illegal...everybody has to declare their firearms (it wasn't the case before). you're looked as a dangerous person if you defend guns ownership, specially in my generation...

BUT, i have to say...that i'm not really aware about everything.

So, for more information, i advice you this very good website hold by someone i know a little bit :

very informative about the situatino in Switzerland, for those of you who are interested.

Take care...

I hope freedom will stay a focus,

Jonathan said...

Francois-Rene: "... it is expensive to put enough goons with guns to protect each and every petty bureaucrat."

I'd like to point out that there is a fallacy in this kind of thinking.

A gun is not a protective weapon. You can kill other people with it, but you can't protect yourself or anyone else with it. It's most unlikely that you can use it to stop an incoming bullet.

Thus, if someone wants to kill a particular person, and that person sometimes walks in the street, the assassin has only to wait unseen at a window and he can do the job even if the target is surrounded by a hundred armed men.

He doesn't even need a gun to do it. A crossbow would do, or any other weapon that works at a moderate distance. A hand catapult? A poisoned dart?