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Guns and Libertarianism

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The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, has expectedly renewed interest in the “gun debate,” animating the worst inclinations of both the left and right halves of the statist conversation. Some conservative quarters are calling for something like armed-to-the-teeth military police to be stationed in the country’s schools. Progressives have naturally fallen back on all of the stock bilge in adjuring for stricter gun laws. It would thus seem to be as good a time as any for libertarians to interpose with some much-needed nuance, with a sane rejoinder to the constant insistence for more state intervention in our lives.

Libertarians assess the gun question quite differently than do those in the statist mainstream, evaluating it not in isolation, on an ad hoc basis, but in terms of general principles. Libertarianism, by definition, is not something that can be enacted from on high, declared by fiat to be the governing rule. Rather, it is a benchmark, allowing us to scrutinize society and government as they are now and to imagine them as they should and could be. As applied to the question of guns and gun violence, the libertarian ethic demonstrates forthwith that instead of actually removing guns and attending savagery from society, the state merely chooses who is allowed to hold firearms and engage in such savagery. More-stringent control of firearms never impedes the madman or common criminal, never dissuades the miscreant for whom law and order are regarded as worthless anyway. Further, such control is decidedly not applied to the agents of the state itself, which at the present moment must be considered the most aggressive and abusive criminal actor currently operating.

Under the standard gun-control proposals, only ordinary working people, the decent and law-abiding citizens on whom gun laws are ostensibly imposed to protect, are disarmed, left without the ability — which is their right — to defend themselves and their families. Such proposals are the natural ally of aggression, which is the true crime to which law should hope to address itself (and, indeed, the only crime that libertarian principles recognize). To coercively foreclose, under the pretense of preventing violent crime, a person’s opportunity to peacefully possess a gun is a cruel joke.

Those unconversant with the libertarian philosophy reflexively see our resolute defense of a person’s right to arm himself as part and parcel of that broader societal obsession with guns and violence. But given that libertarianism is fundamentally a philosophy concerned with nonviolence and defined by its opposition to all coercion, nothing could be further from the truth. In point of fact, a disarmed society, one in the thrall of elite power as a matter of course, is not at all nonviolent, a fact that history has thrown into sharp relief wherever compulsory disarmament was instituted under the law. The whole object of the libertarian philosophy, at its base, is to oppose and to controvert the “the militant type of society,” borrowing Herbert Spencer’s notable formulation. And it is impossible to undermine militancy in society by further obliging the strangulation of the peaceable citizen’s prerogatives, especially while the military imperial state continues to march on.

Underlying all the wonted calls for further strictures on guns, then, is the basic assumption of every “society organized for militant action” — that “the individuality of each member [of society] has to be so subordinated in life, liberty, and property, that he is largely, or completely, owned by the State.” A genuine censure of the militant type of society, one that would confront the real fount of America’s notorious “culture of violence,” would heed Spencer in focusing on the operating principle of our society — not on disarming nonaggressive individuals. Were we to shift our attention for a moment to the ways in which our society is regimented under the principle of militancy, we would see that sudden, inexplicable eruptions of heinous violence are an unavoidable consequence of that principle.

So how would things look if societal relationships were characterized by the libertarian idea? Society generally is likely to become less militant, less obsessed with violence and thus with guns as a social archetype, as the principle of nonaggression advances in practice. The societal change that would accompany the full, principled embrace of libertarian ideas — individual sovereignty, private property, consensual agreement and exchange — would have to be extensive. Indeed, to reach such a point of social development and advancement in the first place requires a deep-seated understanding of why a society built on the bedrock of the ideas just listed ought to be preferred to the bellicosity of today.

Americans can’t have it both ways. Living under a mammoth government that makes bold military empire a matter of civic faith will engender an erratic and warlike populace. That fact has nothing much to do with the accessibility of guns for the average member of productive society. Perhaps the new year will see a movement away from the boring, old debate on guns we keep having, and toward an understanding of a legitimate philosophy of peace and nonaggression: libertarianism.

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    David S. D'Amato is an attorney with an LL.M. in international law and business.