Mohandas Gandhi, the greatest pacifist of the 20th century, is widely quoted as having said, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look back upon the Act depriving the whole nation of arms as the blackest.”
Some have struggled to reconcile his pacifism with an opposition to disarmament. But there really is nothing to reconcile once you understand, as Gandhi said on another occasion, that “the State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form.”
Peaceful gun owners and the violent state
Gun-control advocates have long associated themselves with the cause of anti-violence. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says it all in its name. In the midst of high-profile mass shootings in 2012 — at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, a Colorado movie theater, and a Connecticut elementary school — we immediately heard calls for greater firearms restrictions in the name of domestic peace. Those of us who resisted this agenda were often decried for insensitivity toward the horrors of violence against the innocent. Gun controllers seem not to recognize that their policy itself encapsulates violence.
All the government’s prohibitions rely on violent state power. Indeed, the state itself is simply the institution with a socially legitimized monopoly on legal force, as most law and political science professors would agree. When the state criminalizes an activity or the ownership of contraband, it enforces its prohibition through legal violence — ultimately, through police using guns to force suspects to go to court and, if convicted, to go to prison.
The entire criminal-justice system depends on legal violence, and gun control is no exception. Somehow, many modern liberals who recognize the problems of using police power against drug users or illegal immigrants, or who show concern that law enforcement employs overbearing force against petty criminals, ignore the reality that gun control fundamentally entails physical coercion against mostly peaceful people.
A gun sitting in someone’s drawer or tucked into his pocket does not itself constitute violence. That would be true of nonviolent gun owners even if most other owners misused their weapons. But only a very tiny percentage of gun owners ever act belligerently or irresponsibly. There are 250 million firearms in the United States, and yet fewer than 10,000 homicides every year involve a gun. Lawbreakers also use guns to commit other crimes, of course, but the Department of Justice found that between 1996 and 2008 “less than 10% of nonfatal violent crimes involved [a] firearm.”
It should be clear that firearms ownership is a malum prohibitum offense. That means that it is an offense against the positive law, but not something that would be criminal if the state did not outlaw it. Such offenses are distinct from malum in se violations — such as murder or kidnapping — that are an affront to natural law regardless of what the state says. In fact, the government might deem something legal and yet we would still consider it an injustice — for example, chattel slavery.
Gun controllers seldom explain why police can be trusted with guns but the rest of us can’t. According to some studies, police are around five times as likely as a private person to shoot the wrong person in a confrontation. There are probably many factors at play, but it is likely that one of them is that police are less often held personally liable for their mistakes.
In any event, gun ownership on its own is a peaceful activity. Gun bans, on the other hand, necessarily require state violence. Some approaches, such as local gun “buyback” programs, are more peaceful, though they depend on taxation and the guns aren’t really bought back because the local government didn’t sell them in the first place. However, research indicates that such programs have virtually no effect on illicit gun ownership.
Such relatively nonviolent tactics will fail even to put a dent in gun ownership. The state must be prepared to handcuff, arrest, detain, and incarcerate people for disobeying gun laws, most of whom have done no harm to anyone. If the person resists, the state resorts to lethal force.
Take the state out of the question and you see the problematic violence inherent in gun control. Reasonable people would perhaps accept the moral defensibility of busting down someone’s door to stop a rape or murder. Far fewer would defend breaking down someone’s door just to take his guns away. Who would voluntarily hire an armed mercenary, endowed with one of the largest arsenals in the world, to crash into someone’s home, point a rifle at the homeowner’s head, rip him away from his crying family, and throw him in a cage, threatening the whole time to shoot and kill him should he resist, all because he has illegal weapons in his basement? Yet replace the word “mercenary” with “police officer” and that is exactly what gun control often boils down to when conducted by the state. Whether knowingly or not, those who favor the disarmament of the general population categorically favor the state’s increasing its own violence, as well as its own power disparity, over the people.
It should be no surprise that some of the most conspicuous expressions of state violence have been rationalized on the grounds of disarming those without power. In August 1992 FBI agents killed Randy Weaver’s son, wife, and dog at their home in Idaho. A sniper shot Mrs. Weaver in the head as she stood in the kitchen window holding her infant. That killing at Ruby Ridge was ultimately predicated on Weaver’s alleged violation of a gun-control law — FBI informants had entrapped him, cajoling him into sawing the stock off a shotgun. The modification made the weapon illegal under federal law and led to the government actions that culminated in two Americans’ deaths.
From February to April 1993 federal law enforcers held the Branch Davidian religious group at siege just outside Waco, Texas, in a horrific standoff that culminated in the FBI’s injecting poisonous gas and driving a tank into their home. An explosive fire took the lives of 76 Davidians, including 20 children under 14. The outrageous state violence was largely defended during and after on the grounds that the Davidians had owned a “stockpile” of weapons. One of them was a legal arms dealer.
How could the mere ownership of weapons, even illegal weapons, possibly justify actual violence against those in possession?
Gun controllers point to incidents such as the Ruby Ridge and Waco massacres to illustrate how violent gun owners can be, rather than acknowledging that gun control itself means violent confrontation.
At trial the jury acquitted the Davidians of all murder charges, although it convicted five of aiding and abetting the voluntary manslaughter of federal agents. It is telling that eight were convicted of violating firearms laws. There is something wrong with this picture. When a standoff results in dozens of deaths, including four law enforcers, and some survivors are locked away for nothing but firearms violations, it raises serious questions about the different moral codes followed by the state and the rest of us and the different standards of evidence for violent crimes rather than mere weapons ownership.
Do guns make the world more peaceful?
Even if private gun ownership encouraged violence, that fact would not justify punishing people merely for owning guns, a peaceful activity in itself. Some speech encourages violence. People can advocate revolution or war. Marx’s ideas have encouraged violent acts for more than a century. But few who endorse gun control also endorse prior restraint of speech.
Yet it seems that gun ownership doesn’t in itself encourage violence at all. No positive correlation clearly links a nation’s gun ownership to its violent-crime trends. The Swiss have one of the highest gun-ownership rates in the world, but a firearm homicide rate of only 0.25 per 100,000 — less than a tenth of the U.S. statistic. In a 2006 paper published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, criminologists Don Kates and Gary Mauser pour over tons of historical and international data and find “no correlations … when a large number of nations are compared across the world” to indicate that “a large number of nations with more guns have more death and that nations that have imposed stringent gun controls have achieved substantial reductions in criminal violence (or suicide).”
Such data are not conclusive, but they certainly do not paint the picture gun controllers imagine. In the United States gun ownership has been on the rise but overall gun violence has declined. According to Gallup in October 2011, “Forty-seven percent of American adults currently report that they have a gun in their home or elsewhere on their property. This is up from 41% a year ago and is the highest Gallup has recorded since 1993.” According to FBI statistics, gun homicides in the United States fell from 10,225 in 2005 to 8,583 in 2011. And the state with the second-lowest gun homicide rate, Vermont, has the loosest gun laws in America.
Moreover, assailants are perfectly capable of committing horrendously violent acts without guns. Homemade explosives can slaughter people in large numbers. People can and sometimes do get in cars and run down innocents. If 9/11 should have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need guns to cause mass death, and the state with its tens of billions of dollars in security cannot keep us safe.
People were certainly able to commit violence long before guns existed. Indeed, research in such works as James Payne’s History of Force and Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined reveals that interpersonal violence of nearly all kinds has fallen over the millennia, over the centuries, and over the decades. Yet over the course of time, people’s access to deadly weapons has increased.
Correlation is not causation, but we could pose some conjectures about why guns might have actually reduced violence. Before they existed, human society more closely reflected a Hobbesian state of nature, where the strong dominated the weak, men dominated women, and the able-bodied ruled over the physically infirm. Guns, if anything, are a great equalizer. The decline in rape in concealed-carry states in the 1990s, after women began packing heat, only reinforces that claim. By numerous estimates, American women defend themselves from sexual assault about 200,000 times every year.
Americans defended themselves against crimes using firearms many times last year, in more than 90 percent of cases without having to fire on the criminal, according to Gary Kleck, professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University. In 1994 Bill Clinton’s Justice Department put the number at 1.5 million a year, and even the incredibly low estimates put the number at around 65,000 — eight times the gun homicide rate.
Indefensible state violence
None of this touches on the racist and authoritarian roots of gun control in America, for example, its use in subjugating blacks in the Jim Crow South. In the modern world, where political systems have committed the worst acts of violence, it seems odd to trust the state to monopolize weaponry.
Nor do we have any reason to expect even rigorous gun prohibition to work in the first place. Laws cannot stop criminals from getting guns any more than they can stop people from buying drugs. In the near future of 3-D printing technology, people will be able to “print out” working guns in their own homes. The whole project of gun control is doomed as a practical matter. We should also doubt that government can keep us safe. Its gun-free zones have not protected public schools. Government could not even stop the Fort Hood Army Base massacre in November 2009, in an atmosphere where it exercised total control.
But one of the biggest reasons to oppose gun control is that it is not a peaceful approach toward a more peaceful society. It is a violent approach that will usher in only more violence. Those who seek less violence should oppose gun control. Even those who oppose gun ownership should even more strongly oppose empowering the state to determine who may have weapons and who may not. Indeed, peace-loving people should oppose anything that enhances the power of the state, particularly its police and criminal-justice apparatuses, which inflict massive violence domestically.
Whether you oppose only aggressive violence or all violence, there is one position you must take to be consistent: You must oppose gun control, which necessarily involves state violence against peaceful people.
This article was originally published in the March 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.