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The Assault on Guns Continues

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The anti-self-defense lobby never quits. Two new books show the lengths to which that lobby will go to discredit gun ownership. But if this is the best the lobby can do, advocates of the right of self-defense perhaps have little to worry about.

The first of the anti-gun tracts is a book by Michael Bellesiles called Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, which purports to show that eighteenth-century Americans hardly ever saw guns. They were expensive and impractical for self-defense, and our forefathers didn’t use them to hunt because most Americans, who were farmers, didn’t hunt. Bellesiles’s chief piece of evidence is the probate records of the various states, which he says rarely listed firearms.

Mr. Bellesiles writes that Americans didn’t become interested in guns until the Civil War and after being subjected to advertising by the gun manufacturers. But so what? Why does it matter if Americans came to value gun ownership in the eighteenth or nineteenth century?

But there’s another problem with Mr. Bellesiles’s thesis: It’s wrong. As a historian of my acquaintance points out, probate records are an inferior guide to how widespread gun ownership was in the eighteenth century. It seems the guns of the patriarch were divided up apart from the formal probate process.

There’s a much better guide to this question: the countless contemporaneous accounts of people in the colonies and young nation. Those accounts create a tidal wave of evidence that guns were ubiquitous in the English-speaking new world. In his book That Every Man Be Armed, Second Amendment historian Stephen Halbrook quotes the prominent revolutionary Charles Lee, who wrote in 1775, “The yeomanry of America besides infinite advantages over the peasantry of other countries, are accustomed from their infancy to firearms; they are expert in the use of them.” Another historian, Clayton Cramer, responded to Bellesiles’s thesis a few years ago when Bellesiles published it in an academic journal. Cramer’s response consists of pages of testimony by eighteenth-century Americans and European visitors. During his American travels in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville encountered a Tennessean who said, “Provided he has food enough and a house which gives half shelter, [the American] is happy and thinks only of smoking and hunting…. There is not a farmer but passes some of his time hunting and owns a good gun.”

Cramer provides dozens of such quotations. He also shows that there was an active gun and gun-powder industry in the United States half a century before the Civil War. I guess the early Americans were too busy shooting to remember to list their guns among their personal possessions.

The other anti-gun salvo comes from two economists who brag that they have calculated the true cost of gun violence in America and how much money it would take to rid our society of such violence. In Gun Violence: The Real Cost, Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig attempt to tally the cost of gun violence ($100 billion a year) by counting medical costs and lost productivity, psychic costs to people who lose loved ones, and various burdens to the rest of us. They even include the time spent waiting in line at airport security stations.

The problem with this is that costs are subjective and unquantifiable. What’s a lost life worth? Also, the economists fail to consider the benefits of gun ownership. Several studies indicate that guns are used to stop crime up to 2.5 million times a year. That means guns save lives more often than they take them. The feeling of security is obviously worth something to people. That changes the whole picture.

The authors also telephoned 1,200 people and asked how much they’d be willing to pay each year to cut injuries from the criminal use of guns. The answers were extrapolated to total $80 billion for the whole nation. This is absurd. What people say bears no necessary relation to what they’d actually do in a given situation. Moreover, we don’t know how people would spend the money. I’m willing to spend $500 to reduce the chance of crime against me. That’s what I paid for my pistol.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.