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The Right to Life Equals the Right to Possess Firearms

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In the opinion of the pundits, the tide has turned on the gun-control issue. After years of successful opposition to federal gun control by the National Rifle Association and others, the public is said to be ready for limits on gun ownership. The most recent evidence is passage of the federal Brady Bill, requiring a five-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns, during which the would-be buyer’s background could be checked by police. Proponents of the waiting period readily concede that it will not curb crime; rather, they see it as a first step toward further control of handguns and rifles, misleadingly called “assault weapons.” President Clinton has said he wants federal registration and licensing of gun ownership and a ban on such semiautomatic weapons.

The gun-control issue is so overgrown with brush that essentials get obscured. Rather than exchanging endless statistical studies about what did or did not happen when this or that state liberalized or tightened its gun laws, we need to look afresh at the roots of this important matter and see what has too long been overlooked: gun control strikes at every individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In spelling out why this is so, I wish to acknowledge a debt to Jeffrey R. Snyder, an attorney in Washington, D.C., for making that elementary point in a landmark article, “A Nation of Cowards,” in the Fall 1993 issue of Public Interest . Sometimes overlooking the obvious is the simplest thing in the world. When someone shows you what is right under your nose, that person deserves praise. Jeffrey Snyder is in that position.

If you own your life, then you have the right to defend yourself against anyone who would deprive you of it. I can’t imagine anyone’s taking issue with that statement. And if you have the right of self-defense, it follows that you have the right to act (in ways, of course, that violate no other rights) to obtain means appropriate to that defense. That brings us to firearms, particularly the handgun, which so many people would outlaw. The handgun has been called the equalizer (“God made man, but Colonel Colt made him equal”), and for good reason. It affords smaller, weaker people the chance to defend themselves against bigger, stronger people who threaten them. Handguns offer the otherwise defenseless a convenient, practical, inexpensive method of safeguarding themselves and their families. Banishing handguns — even if the big and the strong were also denied them — would leave the small and the weak defenseless. The big and the strong aggressors have other tools of violence at their disposal; the small and the weak do not have other effective means of self-defense.

Thus, outlawing handguns is a denial of the right of self-defense and, perforce, the right to life. It is absurd to claim to uphold those rights while denying the right to own handguns. But that is not all. Any restriction on handgun ownership — including outlawing the carrying of handguns — represents the same violation of the right to life. That includes waiting periods, registration, right-to-carry licenses, and the rest.

But, many people will say, in a civilized society, we have delegated our right of self-defense to the government. We don’t need to carry guns. Here is the crux. We cannot delegate our right of self-defense. I am not talking about morality now. In the most practical sense, it is impossible to delegate our right to self-defense or, for that matter, our responsibility to defend our families. Why not? Not even the most idealized vision of government has ever promised to protect each individual 24 hours a day. The most it promises is a general deterrence through police patrols and apprehension of criminals. (Leave aside the fact that the government’s record of delivering on its promises is abysmal.) Simply put, the government leaves us unprotected nearly all the time. In fact, government law-enforcement personnel have no legal obligation to protect you even if they see a crime in progress.

The upshot is that anyone who believes he has turned his self-defense over to government is living in a dream world. Self-defense remains the right and responsibility of the individual. That is an unalterable fact of life. There is no choice in the matter.

Since government cannot — and makes no attempt to — protect citizens at all times, even so-called moderate gun-control interferes with the right of self-defense. Take the waiting period. Can the state guarantee that an applicant for a handgun will not be victimized during the five-day wait? Of course not. The state thus forces applicants to be vulnerable to aggression while it decides if they are worthy of an indispensable method of self-defense. What about registration and licensing? The licensing power, of course, entails the possibility of being turned down for a license. Furthermore, registration and licensing have been used countless times in the past to carry out a wholesale confiscation of guns. The Clinton proposal, therefore, would put all peaceful people at risk of having their means of self-defense taken away.

Other regulations similarly put innocent people in harm’s way. Virginia’s new law limiting gun purchases to one per month interferes with the self-defense rights of someone who wishes to buy guns for home and workplace. Laws against carrying a handgun leave people vulnerable when they are on the street. It is no accident that most crime occurs outside of people’s homes. Criminals know that one in two homes has a gun, but very few people are permitted to carry a gun. Thus, they know it is safer to attack someone who is away from his home. (In England, where gun ownership is more severely restricted, more crime occurs in people’s homes. According to David Kopel, in Britain 59 percent of attempted burglaries occur in occupied homes; in the United States, it’s 13 percent. “Fear of being shot convinces most American burglars to strike empty targets,” he writes in The Samurai, The Mountie, and The Cowboy .)

But there are already too many guns in society, the proponents of control say. More guns would make society more violent. Would it? The issue is not a matter of numbers. What counts is not how many guns, but who has them. Today, the people who would use guns to violate rights have little trouble getting them, while those who would use them to defend their rights have increasing trouble getting them. That is undeniable truth that refutes the gun controllers who say they want to reduce violent crime. Someone who intends to rob people is not likely to respect gun laws. Most guns used in crimes were not bought by the criminal at a gun store. They were bought on the black market or stolen. The bottom line is that gun control, regardless of the proponents’ intentions, harasses rights defenders and barely touches rights violators. Gun control is, in effect, a subsidy for criminals.

To be sure, gun accidents happen, and were there no guns, there would be no gun accidents. But the number of gun accidents has been falling for years and represent a minuscule percentage of the some 66 million handguns Americans possess. Meanwhile, according to researcher Gary Kleck, Americans use handguns (without necessarily firing) in self-defense 645,000 times each year, and surveys of convicted criminals show an understandable desire to avoid armed victims.

A much-touted study purporting to show that a handgun in the home greatly increases the odds that an innocent person will be killed ignored all the cases in which merely brandishing the gun succeeded in protecting innocent people. Terrible incidents — such as the mass murder at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and on the Long Island Railroad — would be less likely if people were free to carry handguns. Even if such an incident occurred, fewer people might be killed, because one of the armed bystanders would wound or kill the assailant. That happens at least as frequently as the shooting of a group of unarmed victims, but it rarely is reported in the national news media. (Shortly after the Luby’s incident, an armed citizen saved 20 Shoney’s restaurant customers from armed robbers in Anniston, Alabama.) The possibility of accident and the probability that some will use guns to kill themselves (which, after all, violates no one’s rights) are not good reasons to interfere with the right of self-defense.

The gun controllers think they can shut up their opponents by conjuring images of the Wild West. But as much research shows, the frontier was not nearly as violent as the movies would have us believe. It stands to reason: if most people are armed both with guns and the knowledge of how to use them, violent crime is deterred. In our time, we have seen just those results in Florida and Oregon after those states liberalized their license-to-carry laws.

“An armed society,” wrote libertarian science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, “is a polite society.” An armed people is a people who have taken a personal interest in keeping their society civil. David Kopel reports that 81 percent of the “good Samaritans” who help victims of violent crime are gun owners. The state has failed to protect us — we should never have expected it to. The time is now for us to take control of our own destiny.

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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.