A Rational Case for Gun Ownership

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The fundamental error of gun-control advocates is philosophical: They do not really believe that we have free will. 

If the goal is to reduce gun murders, the obvious means is to establish stronger punishment for criminals. Since the overwhelming majority of shooting deaths are by people with prior felony arrests, and since only about 1 percent of such shootings are by legal gun owners who are committing a crime, why is the primary focus on the law-abiding individual? Why isn’t there a greater demand for longer sentences for felonies, or for the elimination of parole or for the construction of more prisons?  

The gun-controllers do not see any major distinction between criminals and non-criminals. To them, the two relevant categories are simply the armed and the disarmed. Why? Because, as is typical of those on the left, they believe that our social environment determines the decisions we make—if we’re born into poverty in America, we will turn to crime; if we lack job opportunities in the Muslim world, we will become jihadists. So they maintain that if allowed access to guns, we all become capable of murder. A gun is the stimulus, crime the inevitable response. The weapon, not the perpetrator, is their principal villain.  

But using a gun in self-defense against a criminal is radically different from using a gun to commit a crime. An individual is violating no one’s rights when he uses a gun (when police are not at hand) to protect himself against acts of force. To the contrary, he is upholding rights—the right to defend one’s life. 

Of course, everyone else has the same right, and no one may engage in an action that threatens innocent people. Consequently, since guns exist to kill people—leaving aside sporting or hunting uses—the government ought to impose certain restrictions. It should, for example, prohibit giving a gun to minors, to felons or to the mentally unstable.  And it should restrict the type of weapons that may be owned—i.e., a handgun may be legitimately needed for self-defense, a machine gun isn’t. Anything beyond what is normally required for personal protection constitutes an unwarranted threat. A man walking down the street with a grenade launcher poses an objective danger to the rights of others.  

Many conservatives, however, make a false case for gun ownership. They wrongly claim that the justification is the need to arm people to fight against a tyrannical government.  

The measures that may be taken in the name of self-defense must be clearly sanctioned and defined by law. If you shoot someone who invades your home, you must be prepared to show that the shooting was indeed an act of self-defense and that your behavior was in accordance with the law. The decision about what kind of force can be used, and under what circumstances, cannot be left to the discretion of every individual. Contrary to the libertarians, anarchy represents a massive danger to individual rights. The law must codify the limits of proper self-defense.

But if the justification is the need to subdue, not a criminal, but an oppressive state, what kind of legal codification could there be? Who is going to set the limits? Certainly, there cannot be laws endorsing your arming yourself for the purpose of disavowing the government and its laws. This proposed justification reeks of anarchism. 

If our government does ever descend into dictatorship, we definitely have the moral right to forcibly resist and to overthrow it. Today, though, when we still have relative freedom, we are not entitled to physically battle the government. We have a right to repel a robber’s attempt to use force against us, but we have no right to shoot the tax collector coming to our door, even though he too is initiating force against us. Similarly, a person cannot claim a right to acquire arms, whether handguns or howitzers, on the grounds that he might need them to fight some future despotism—a despotism as defined by him. His actions, in today’s context, pose an objective threat to the innocent. 

Within that context, however, the law should fully recognize the right to self-defense. There is a legitimate, rational use for guns, a use that results in crimes deterred and lives saved. The left’s argument that people may use guns for illegitimate purposes is senseless. Why should those who use guns rationally be sacrificed for the sake of those who will use them irrationally? We don’t ban cars simply because some people will drive recklessly. We don’t ban alcohol simply because some people will get drunk and attack their neighbors. The same should apply to guns. The individual has volition and he has inalienable rights. The freedom to possess a gun to defend himself follows logically from those two premises. 

Peter Schwartz is the author of “In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice Is Unjust and Destructive” (Palgrave Macmillan).

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