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Packing Heat, Part 1

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I sometimes wonder what the people around me would think if they knew I had a pistol under my shirt. A few years ago I would have been the last person I know who was likely to carry a concealed handgun. But here I am. I carry it nearly everywhere. On the rare occasions when I don’t have it on me, I miss it. For one thing, I know that if it is with me, it’s unlikely to be stolen, which isn’t true if it’s at home or in my car.

As a libertarian I have always believed in the right to keep and bear arms. It never made sense that there could be a right to life and a right to self-defense, but no right to have firearms. But having a right to bear arms didn’t automatically mean one ought or needed to do so.

Having grown up and lived in safe surroundings, the issue of buying a gun frankly did not occur to me until recently. It was not on my radar screen. I did not grow up around guns. I had never fired a gun.

In my adult life nothing had happened close enough by to make me fear for my safety. In addition, for many years the legal restrictions on gun ownership were stringent. It wasn’t until the mid1980s that states started passing concealed-carry laws. Until then it was either illegal to carry a gun or next to impossible to get a permit to carry, since the licensing officials had nearly complete discretion.

Then I read an article that opened my eyes. It was Jeffrey Snyder’s “Nation of Cowards,” which appeared in the fall 1993 issue of The Public Interest. It is also the lead essay in his book, A Nation of Cowards: Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, published by Accurate Press.)

I couldn’t possibly do this essay justice. You just have to read it. But I can’t resist describing and quoting from it.

Snyder opens his essay by pointing out the incongruity of living in a society that at once encourages people to “revel in their individuality and incalculable self-worth” and also to acquiesce in “the indignity of a criminal assault.” He was referring to the incessant advice not to resist the demands of criminals. Something doesn’t add up. Snyder writes,

“The assumption, of course, is that there is no inconsistency. The advice not to resist a criminal assault and simply hand over the goods is founded on the notion that one’s life is of incalculable value, and that no amount of property is worth it. Put aside, for a moment, the outrageousness of the suggestion that a criminal who proffers lethal violence should be treated as if he has instituted a new social contract: ‘I will not hurt or kill you if you give me what I want.’ For years, feminists have labored to educate people that rape is not about sex, but about domination, degradation, and control. Evidently, someone needs to inform the law enforcement establishment and the media that kidnapping, robbery, carjacking, and assault are not about property.”

Crime is not only a complete disavowal of the social contract, but also a commandeering of the victim’s person and liberty. If the individual’s dignity lies in the fact that he is a moral agent engaging in actions of his own will, in free exchange with others, then crime always violates the victim’s dignity. It is, in fact, an act of enslavement. Your wallet, your purse, or your car may not be worth your life, but your dignity is; and if it is not worth fighting for, it can hardly be said to exist.

Thus there is a grave inconsistency in believing your life is something special while being unprepared to resist its hijacking by a street thug. For Snyder the problem of crime is not a matter of too few prisons or soft judges. Rather it is the result of people’s being taught to be cowards. The criminals can hardly have failed to take notice.

Growing up, we are all taught that in a civilized society we delegate responsibility for our protection to the government. Thus self-responsibility need not include the ability to ward off an assault on one’s person. It is often suggested that chaos would result if people assumed that responsibility for themselves. That’s why we have the police, prosecutors, and courts, isn’t it? And if they aren’t doing the job, then the answer obviously is . . . more and better police, more and better prosecutors, more and better prisons.

In response to all this, Snyder reminds us of some simple, yet commonly overlooked, facts about crime. The major one is that the criminal takes the initiative. He can strike anywhere and tends not to give warning. (I don’t recall voting on those rules, but that’s how it works, whether we like it or not.) So we can be fairly sure that he won’t strike when his victim is standing next to a policeman.

It’s also a bit inconvenient to call for a policeman once a crime is in progress. The criminal class is not the most obliging lot. And, by the way, the cops have no legal obligation to come to your aid anyway. You have no contractual claims on them. The courts have said so.

So, although the police force may in a general way discourage crime through routine patrol and may catch a criminal after his transgression, metaphysically speaking, actual protection is up to the person on the spot: you and me. In a criminal situation, you are the one person you can be sure has your interests at heart. Of course, of all the self-defense technologies available, nothing approaches the handgun for efficacy and practicality.

Think how often this is evaded. On the day of the Million Mom March against guns, mistress of ceremonies Rosie O’Donnell was asked if she supported concealed-carry, because the statistics indicated it reduces crime. Oh no, she said, “I want to take the guns away from the bad guys.” And, pray, what should we innocent folks do in the meantime? The question was never asked. As Snyder writes, “A society that stigmatizes the carrying of weapons by the law-abiding — because it distrusts its citizens more than it fears rapists, robbers, and murderers — certainly cannot claim” to be civilized. “Our society suffers greatly from the beliefs that only official action is legitimate and that the state is the source of our earthly salvation.”

This is clearly an outgrowth of the state-worship that is inculcated throughout the culture, including the government’s schools (and many private schools). Don’t worry — the government will take care of it.

Let’s face it, there is no substitute for would-be victims’ being armed. The other so-called environmental solutions to crime pale in comparison. As noted, the Right’s calls for more police, prisons, et cetera, miss the mark. The Left’s prescriptions — essentially, welfare and midnight basketball — are ludicrous.

In the years since Snyder’s article, his theme has been amply confirmed. Thirty-three states have passed mandatory-issue, concealed-carry permit laws. (This is not to concede that states have any right to restrict gun ownership.) As John Lott, in More Guns, Less Crime, has demonstrated, where concealed-carry is legal, crime drops at a rate that cannot be attributed to other factors. Imagine that! Criminals avoid people who might be armed!

In other words, the best way to stop crime is for would-be victims to assume full self-responsibility and to be prepared to practice it. That means acquiring a handgun, becoming proficient, and having it with you. “Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion to your walks,” Thomas Jefferson said.

Snyder’s article was like a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. It woke me up to an issue that I was hitherto content to leave as a vague principle and sentiment that had no influence on my actions. Reason is indeed liberating.

As to the precise way in which Snyder’s seminal article moved me to action, I’ll take that up next time.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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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.