In the United States, the story is always the same. Some maniac (examples of whom, we might add, will be found in any society regardless of the strength of its gun ownership rights) walks into some public building such as a school or shopping mall, opens fire and kills anything from a handful to tens of individuals. Then comes the usual tirade of arguments from the “gun control” advocates on the one side, crying out for more government control of private gun ownership in response to these heinous crimes, batted back by pro-gun ownership rhetoric from the likes of the NRA and the remainder of the gun lobby.

Many libertarians leap into this issue automatically in favour of the pro-gun lobby and deplore the attempts of government to regulate gun ownership. So far so good, but this does not examine the issue fully from the standpoint of pure political philosophy. Such an examination is, admittedly, often very difficult given that the question of gun ownership rights is enveloped in the history and tradition of the United States, a union born out of a revolution and where the right to bear arms has been enshrined as a constitutional amendment. Many pro-gun Americans who favour gun ownership rights would probably say that not only are these rights sacrosanct but also that it is a good thing for people to be privately armed, preserving one’s right to self-defence and reducing crime, or at least creating some sort of symbolic gesture of being a free individual. People on the gun control side, however, would not only like to see strict, gun regulation but would probably also state that increased gun proliferation, regardless of government intervention, is a bad thing and people should not own guns at all. In other words, not only do they support government gun control (up to the extent of an outright ban on private gun ownership) but they also believe that people should not choose to own guns in the first place and that gun ownership is an inherently bad scourge on the face of society.

In our capacity as libertarians we do not take either of these positions. We do not think that it is a good thing that everyone owns guns, in other words we are not crying aloud in response to gun control advocacy that “everyone should own guns!” We may each believe privately that gun ownership by individuals will create a more peaceful and law-abiding society, but we may just as plausibly detest the idea of individuals possessing firearms and lament the fact that we cannot trust every other human being to live in harmony with us. But the important thing to realise is that whether guns (and people owning them) are good or bad is not a libertarian issue. The only thing that concerns us as libertarians is whether the trade and ownership of firearms should be regulated by government fiat, i.e. by the force of the state. Whether gun ownership should be abundant or not is something that we must reflect upon in our privately held morality. Indeed, as libertarians we are not, therefore, against “gun control”. We are simply against government gun control.

Let us, therefore, restate clearly the libertarian and the statist positions on gun ownership. As libertarians what we will argue here is that any government control of gun ownership is just as unethical as government invasion of any other private property, whether it be a house, a car, your bank account etc. The central tenet of the statist, on the other hand, is that the sale and ownership of guns must be controlled and regulated by government force. We must note that the statist position does not necessarily mean that the entirety of the citizenry be completely disarmed and that guns will be totally banned. While many gun control advocates would prefer this, such rhetoric is usually employed as a straw-man scare tactic by the gun lobby into frightening its supporters into the belief that “government will take all of our guns!”, a notion made popular by catchphrases such as “from my cold dead hands!”. The only argument we will assume on the part of the statist is that government should control gun ownership without necessarily banning it.

Libertarians and Gun Ownership

On a strictly theoretical level, gun ownership is no different from the ownership of any other homesteaded or voluntarily transferred physical good. A gun is simply a piece of matter like a pen or a wristwatch and owning it per se endows nobody with the right to violently interfere with that ownership. People may become very concerned at the possession of a gun by another individual, but in the absence of any reasonably imminent threat of an attack by the gun owner and if he is otherwise a normal and law-abiding individual, the proper response to any subjective fear on the part of anyone else is to arrange one’s own property in such a way as to minimise the damage from any attack. On the bare bones of theoretical ethics, this argument is sufficient to dispose of any argument that suggests an individual should be violently prevented from gun ownership. Nevertheless such an argument would be most unlikely to convince any pro-gun control advocate. If we are to make any headway in promoting libertarian views on this issue we must, rather, tackle the utilitarian issue of minimising the effects of aggressive violence with firearms. What libertarians need to state convincingly, therefore, is that just as the regulation of anything that is dangerous is better left to the voluntary interaction between free individuals in the marketplace, so too is the regulation of firearms, whereas regulation left to government will not only fail to accomplish this to the extent that the free market can but may actually exacerbate the situation and make it much worse.

Indeed the acknowledgment that our common goal is to reduce violence may be a strong card to play in any debate on this topic and libertarians, who are usually so good at stressing their anti-violence credentials, should use them to their full extent in this issue. Not only do we have our commitment to the non-aggression principle but we all hope that our libertarian world will be a peaceful one with minimal crime, and guns do, we have to acknowledge, empower someone with an augmented ability to commit an act of aggression. Emphasising that we have plenty of common ground with government gun controllers might be an important first step in convincing them that we are not advocates of a society of heavily armed warriors. We simply believe that gun violence would be more effectively controlled through voluntary trade and interaction than by government fiat. Indeed, as we shall see, we might even conclude that private gun ownership in a libertarian world may not even be that common.

Before we proceed to demonstrate the truth of our libertarian claim, we must add that we will not be making use of any empirical study, however methodical or thorough, that in some way indicates that lightly regulated private gun ownership reduces the rate of crime. Empirical experiments in the social sciences are, at best, illustrative of a phenomenon rather than the provider of categorical proof and it is impossible, when measuring the effects of government gun control across different parts of the world, to account for differences in time, culture, history, technology, and so on. Furthermore there are as many studies purporting to debunk the claim that light regulation of private gun ownership reduces crime as there are that support it. Drawing any conclusion from this tangle requires one to fall back on investigating the method of each study (or set of studies) and attempting to see where the variables are not held constant rather than looking to the results themselves. For example, a pro-gun control study might observe that gun deaths per capita are higher in the United States, where gun control is loose, than in, say, the United Kingdom, where gun control is strict, and conclude that gun control reduces gun violence. However this fails to account for the fact that Americans simply want to own guns more than the British do and yes, gun violence may well increase if people exercise their voluntary choice in such a way as to make guns more common. If all gun control in the United Kingdom was abolished today it is very unlikely that you would see gun shops springing up in every high street heavily arming the population, simply because gun ownership in the UK has no basis in history, culture, custom or social acceptability, and any relinquishment of gun control may prove to have minimal impact on the rate of gun violence. Such an occurrence would therefore invalidate the theory that gun control diminishes gun violence and the study would be reduced to examining the effects of voluntary choices in regards to guns. But this is irrelevant to the gun control issue as this debate does not concern how people wish to exercise their voluntary choices. Rather, the question we are concerned with is if we take how those choices would be made as a given, would government regulation of those choices make gun violence better or worse? In other words, if, in a country such as the United States, a high number of people wish to own guns, and this causes a higher rate of gun violence compared to foreign countries where people choose not to own guns, does government interference with that choice exacerbate or reduce gun violence? Bearing in mind, therefore, that there are some interesting studies that conclude that light gun regulation reduces crime, let us not make them the focus of our deliberations here but, rather, attempt to draw some more potent conclusions a priori.

Gun Control in a Free Society

In the first place, we can mention some more familiar arguments as to why gun ownership would be better regulated in a free society. First, in a free society all people who commit gun violence are criminally liable for their actions and the penalties flowing from them just as they are in a government-controlled society. Secondly, scattered, heterogenous gun ownership amongst the population would make criminals think twice before committing an act as they do not know whether their opponents are armed. Thirdly, criminals will still get guns if they want to regardless of any law that is passed and the only effect of a gun control law is that the obedient citizenry are left with a reduced capacity for self-defence. Finally we might also say that there is the possibility for tortious liability or for insurance penalties for vendors, manufacturers and owners who trade or otherwise allow their firearms to fall into criminal hands. All of these are fairly common arguments with which readers may be familiar.

There are however, two more fundamental arguments for stating that guns would be better controlled in a free society rather than in one run by a government, arguments that concern the nature of government-controlled societies and free societies rather than the control of guns itself. Furthermore an aspect of many of the more high profile incidents of gun is that perpetrators intend not to come out of the situation alive and so all of the disincentives that may exist are practically useless. The following two considerations will serve to deal with this aspect as well.

The first consideration concerns the dual role of a firearm as a weapon of offence on the one hand and as a weapon of defence on the other, roles that are closely correlated1. Indeed, guns or no guns, we can say in general that people’s need to commit crime and the responsive need by everyone else to protect themselves from that crime will rise and fall together. In a low-crime rate society that is peaceful and law-abiding, crime may be committed only by a bear handful of nutcases in very rare and isolated incidents. The demand by criminals for guns as weapons of offence would therefore be extremely low. But if crime is low then the need to protect oneself from incidents of crime is not likely to be very pressing either. So demand for guns for defensive purposes will also be correspondingly low and, indeed, gun ownership may be relatively scattered and reduced purely to sporting or recreational ends. In a society where crime rates are very high, however, not only are criminals likely to be all the more eager to acquire guns to carry out robberies, assaults and murders, but so too, among everyone else, will the desire to defend oneself become enflamed. Imagine, for example, crime rates being so high that you would not feel safe exiting your house to walk down the street unless you were armed. In short, it is people’s desire and capacity for committing crime and other people responding with their need to defend themselves from that crime which causes gun ownership to become prevalent, both for the purposes of offence and defence respectively. But this trigger of widespread gun ownership – people’s desire to commit crime – does not occur in a vacuum, appearing and disappearing without explanation.

We can say first of all that government’s enforced monopoly of security production and the prevention and detection of crime would necessarily be inferior to that which would be provided by private defence and security provisions. Hence, government inefficiency will incite crime by making it more likely for a criminal venture to be successful and people will feel more of a need to take defensive capabilities into their own hands. More importantly, however, in societies where private property rights are secure, time preferences are low and economic growth is consequentially high, the incentives to commit acts of crime are, all else being equal, low, simply because crime “would not pay” compared to carrying out some kind of legitimate and voluntary activity. In other words, strong, formal constitutional or legal protection given to private property rights in turn furnishes people with the substantive desire to uphold them. When one can go to even a relatively menial job knowing that your pay packet can be kept by you in full and is enough to buy a wealth of economic goods that are selling for a dime a dozen, the incentives to risk criminal sanctions are relatively low. Furthermore, low time preferences mean that the passion for satisfaction now (a distinct characteristic of criminals) is reduced, not only cooling demand for instant gratification but also providing a dampener on feelings of unfulfilment and the consequent negative emotions such as anger, hatred and depression which are the fuel for the flames of much violent crime. Crime rates, therefore, will fall and so too with it will be the demand for the offensive and the defensive use of firearms. Government, however, does everything it can to provoke crime rather than to prevent it. Government confiscates approximately half of all productivity, slashes the incentive for economic growth, raises time preferences, exacerbates poverty, creates permanent and endless unemployment, robs the young of opportunity and ambition through fruitless state-run schools, legislates by the shelf-load every day, and makes it impossible to carry out any long term plan with security. All of this makes crime relatively more attractive. This is before we even consider the effect of the general legitimacy that government confers upon taking what you want from those that have it and murdering those whom you dislike. Government is, after all, a criminal organisation, levying its income from involuntary taxation (i.e. theft) and using the proceeds to line the pockets of its friends and fund its machinery of perpetual war and death. The dismantling of the perceived legitimacy of private property rights serves to dilute the conscience and inoculates people from any incisive moral fervour. Indeed, one of the supreme ironies of the government gun control argument is that the US’s constitutional preservation of the right to bear arms is nothing to do with your ability to shoot at private criminals in self-defence. Rather it is so you had the right to shoot at the government when the government was taken over by tyrants. Government was the original plunderer and pillager against whom people wished to defend themselves, and only government and not private criminals has inspired popular revolutions. It is the government that is the major criminal, not private actors, and yet gun controllers somehow think that this arch crime organisation is the one that should be regulating our gun ownership.

Indeed there is a distinct lack of logic in the government gun control argument. If government is going to control private gun ownership then we are entitled to ask the obvious (but seldom acknowledged) question “how will this control be enforced?” Clearly the police cannot go to offenders, whether they are gun manufacturers, vendors, or owners, sit them down with a cup of tea and have a nice chat, finishing with perhaps a slap on the wrist. If a criminal (the very person whom we do not want to have a gun) wishes to purchase a firearm he is not likely to take government whining as a formidable deterrent and even if he did encounter a run in with government officials he, as the armed party, would have the upper hand. Minus the threat of compulsion the government will simply be ignored, if not laughed at. Rather, gun ownership can only be regulated if the government too is prepared to use force, i.e. guns, in ensuring that its gun control laws are adhered to. No true gun control advocate can deny that if their edicts are to be taken seriously they need to back them up with brute force2. If our gun control proponent accepts this then his argument begins to spring some leaks. On the one hand he says that “people” or “the market” (i.e. people voluntarily interacting) cannot be trusted to self-regulate gun ownership to stop weapons from falling into criminal hands, but on the other hand government can be trusted not only to decide who should and who should not, out of the population at large, own guns, but they also have the sole privilege of whether, how many and what type of guns they themselves (the government) can possess. In other words the government is permitted to regulate us and self-regulate their own gun possession without any oversight. So why, if regulation of gun ownership by the general population causes them to be used dangerously and fall into the wrong hands, do we trust these particular people in the government with the same weapons? Why should they and only they have the privilege of self-regulation? The government consists of humans that are as fallible and frail as the rest of us. What gives them some kind of unique ability to ensure that they will restrict their use of firearms for the “common good”? Of course, our budding gun advocate will simply retort “Ah! But we have democracy! The government won’t use its guns for bad things because they will be voted out of office!” Even if we accept for the moment the dubious argument that the outcome of elections somehow results in government reflecting the “will of people”, our gun control advocate’s argument has now reduced to this: “People cannot be trusted with guns; but they can be trusted to choose the other people who can be trusted with guns, trusted not only to choose who else should be trusted with guns but trusted to ensure that they themselves do not misuse guns”. This argument is not only absurd but it also ends up conceding the vital point that gun control is ultimately subject to the oversight of the people anyway. So if this is true then why can’t we do this through the mechanism of the market, where our choices and preferences are made with far more potency than they are in a once in a blue moon election? The reason, of course, is that governments cherish gun regulation as it is in their advantage to disarm the citizenry and leave the latter impotent against government power. The “democratic oversight” simply means that people stop shooting at each other directly and try to get the government to do so on their behalf, with the politicians promising eagerly to spend, spend, spend and rob others to foot the bill. At least private crime is viewed with brutal honesty and plainly has no right to inflict injury or theft upon your person and property. But by gilding the same acts with the legitimacy of democratically elected government, a government that controls the right of the populace to defend itself, it becomes far easier for the rights to liberty and private property to be eroded, if not completely dismantled. Indeed, there is only ever an outrage in the mainstream media when it is private actors who commit gun violence. When the same is committed by a government actor such as the police (either deliberately or from botched operations where “officer safety” is, for some reason, more important than the safety of innocent civilians) or on government premises such as the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 and at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, there may be one or two words of regret but there is none of the political and media frenzy that accompanies shootings by private citizens.

We can also say that much gun proliferation is caused by the fact that government criminalises voluntary behaviour such as the vending and use of drugs, prostitution and gambling. When these activities are driven underground, the resulting criminal organisations cannot compete openly nor enforce the terms of their trade through any public court or arbitrator, leaving violence and turf wars as the only way in which to settle disputes. Such an environment sucks in youths demoralised by the lack of opportunity created by government strangulation of productivity and its mind numbing education, driving them into gangland violence where they at least feel a part of something significant, however odious it may be.

Finally, we might as well mention the alleged influence that psychiatric drugs have had on some recent perpetrators of gun violence, for example, in the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, something that, curiously, has not been explored in the mainstream media. This may be either because of the influence of state-connected “Big Pharma” or simply because explanations of gun violence that do not per se concern the prevalence of gun ownership would undermine the gun-grabbing agenda3.

The second reason why guns may be better controlled in a free society than by the government is that the likelihood of the private individual being armed for the purposes of self-defence in a free society is, at worst, debatable and at best, highly unlikely. With a free society comes specialisation and the division of labour and everyone, except for a few recluses, outsources the production of their needs to other people. Hardly anyone, for example, has in their home the ability to produce food or fuel, or to make cleaning products, clothes, and so on. So too is it likely that the needs of private defence would be outsourced to specialists with whom we would contract to provide us with defence services. We may still choose, privately, to own a modest weapon to stave off the most immediate threats and, indeed, if defence services are operated by insurance companies, as suggested by Hans Hermann Hoppe4, they may require ownership of and training in use of a firearm in order reduce one’s security insurance premium. We can, of course, never know the precise outcome of freeing people for voluntary action but judging from how the market provides us all with other goods and services we can be confident that abolition of government gun control and its monopoly over security would not leave everyone to fend for themselves. Rather, they would purchase these services from specialist providers. Government, by enforcing its security monopoly, retards this process and the inevitable failure of government policing to prevent and detect crime drives people towards putting defensive capabilities into their own hands and hence personal gun ownership rises5. In a free society, however, it is quite possible that gun ownership would be restricted to the few who enjoy sporting activities such as shooting and hunting.

Gun Safety

For the sake completion, we can also discuss how gun safety would be handled in a free society. In other words, how would accidents (as opposed to deliberate violence) to oneself and to others be regulated without the government? The issue of safety and protecting people from harm is a prerogative that government often arrogates to itself presumptuously. What is not realised is that safety is always a trade-off between ends just like any other in the marketplace. When we live in a world of scarcity every human faces a choice of which ends he will direct means towards in order to achieve fulfilment and which ends he will discard. The desire to drive may be a valuable end that a person wishes to fulfil, and so also is making sure that it is accomplished safely – we do not wish our car to crash or explode on any of our journeys. Yet safety too comes at the expense of resources that could be used for the furtherance of other ends. Safety is not free and comes at a price just as every other end that must utilise scarce means. Therefore we must choose precisely at which point we are going to stop devoting resources to safety and leave ourselves open to the risk of a bad event. To give an exaggerated example, I might decide that my car should contain brakes, seat belts, air bags and so on and so forth in order to minimise the damage from any crash. But I would probably deem it to be an awful waste of resources to build it like a tank so that it could withstand a blast from a rocket launcher. Such a car would be immensely safe but the resources needed to do so could have been better spent on fulfilling other ends and were, hence, wasted. Not only that but if government was to ban cars altogether in the name of avoiding car accidents we can imagine the obvious loss of utility we would experience from such an act. We always, therefore, face a trade-off between fulfilling our ends on the one hand and doing so safely on the other. Private parties must decide precisely at which level safety is justified and at which level it is starting to encroach on the fulfilment of our other ends, a level at which we would be happy to accept the residual risk of an accident occurring rather than forego a valuable end.

If we consider first of all the danger to oneself from using firearms (as opposed to the dangers to other people), manufacturers will design and build firearms at a level of safety that we are prepared to pay for when the gun is operated as intended and there are no design flaws. Any manufacturer or vendor whose products became associated with accidents caused by a failure to meet this level would quickly lose business to manufacturers who offered safer products. Such a feature might include a trigger locking device to prevent accidental discharge, for example. Where a manufactured gun contains a design flaw resulting in an operation other than that intended (for example if the weapon fails to discharge a round and simply explodes in one’s face) then the manufacturer or vendor would be either contractually or tortiously liable for this damage, in addition to losing custom6.

Exactly the same principles are in operation when we consider the possibility of injury to third parties. Given that, in a libertarian world, every person bears the liability for injuries caused by his/her property, owners of firearms will demand a level of safety from manufacturers and vendors that reduces this risk to a level that they are willing to bear. Indeed, one’s own insurance company may require a certain level of safety precautions to be taken, not only safety features inherent in the product itself, but how it is stored and a specified degree of training for all intended users. The consequences of not following these edicts would be either to pay higher insurance premiums or to find that the insurer would not pay out in the event of an injury, leaving the individual to foot the bill for compensation to the victim of the accident. There are therefore powerful disincentives in a free society to prevent accidents from the use of firearms. Government responses, however, will always be to set levels of safety that are not acceptable to consumers. Governments could, for example, simply ban guns outright (in the same way they could have banned cars to prevent road accidents). Yet people may have decided that the benefit to be gained from gun ownership – either for defensive purposes or for sport – outweighs the risk that one might have to bear responsibility for an accident and government only achieves a less valuable outcome that frustrates consumers.

Conclusion

What we have determined, therefore, is that government gun control is not only as unethical as any other state interference with private property, but that the prevalence of gun violence is primarily caused and exacerbated by the state, for many different reasons. These aspects would not exist in a free society and, indeed, we even concluded that gun ownership is likely to be relatively miniscule in a libertarian world.

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1The offensive and defensive capabilities of firearms, and the relationship between them, is something that is seldom explored in detail in the mainstream gun debate, or at least not by the same author or spokesman. Gun controllers tend to stress only the offensive use of guns, concluding that a rise in gun ownership must necessarily cause a rise in gun violence, whereas the gun lobby concentrates on the defensive use of guns and determines that strong gun ownership rights must reduce crime.

2The use of government force and compulsion is something that proponents of government action, even “lay” people who would not explicitly self-identify as statists, fail to explicitly acknowledge. In proposing that “government should do this” or “there should be a law against that” they lack the conscious awareness of the fact that what they mean is the use of the gun, the prison, and the gallows in order to enforce what they want. When presented with this fact they either have to abandon their edicts if they find this distasteful or concede that they are calling for nothing more than violence against people who refuse to comply with what they want. As Mises puts it: “He who says: There should be a law concerning this matter, means: The armed men of the government should force people to do what they do not want to do, or not to do what they like. He who says: This law should be better enforced, means: the police should force people to obey this law”. Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government, p.49.

3Scott Lazarowitz, Getting it Wrong, Over and Over and Over Again, www.lewrockell.com, May 24th 2013.

4Hans Hermann Hoppe, Government and the Private Production of Defense, Ch. 10 in Hoppe (ed.), The Myth of National Defense.

5As an additional point it is curious how much gun violence always appears to occur in public spaces where people are reliant upon government policing for their defence. Of the twenty-five deadliest shooting incidents in the US, more than half of them took place wholly or partly on government-owned or funded property. See www.CNN.com, 25 Deadliest Mass shootings in US, October 26th 2013. An alarming number of less publicised incidents take place in public schools and universities.

6Indeed, another factor in the gun debate is the level of government-granted exemption from tortious liability enjoyed by gun manufacturers and vendors.

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