Should private citizens be allowed to own guns? Liberals say no; conservatives say yes.
While both want what is best for the country, liberals and conservatives approach the issue from different perspectives: liberals focus entirely on the societal costs of guns, while conservatives weigh those against the major societal benefits of private gun ownership.
The Liberal Viewpoint
The liberal position against private gun ownership is straightforward: guns are an instrument of force and violence, and in the hands of private citizens will only increase violence in the country. After all, one cannot commit a crime with a gun if there is no gun to commit a crime with.
From this viewpoint, the liberal solution is very clear: disallow private citizens from owning guns and society will benefit. There will be less violent crime and accidental shootings and the whole country will be a better place as a result.
And from this viewpoint, anyone arguing that private ownership of guns is a good thing must be uninformed, immoral or simply callous to the loss of life.
Not so fast, say conservatives—the issue is more complex than that. Not only is it naïve to think that making guns illegal will eliminate gun crime (criminals in every country always have access to guns), but this line of reasoning doesn’t take into account any of the major benefits of guns.Cost and Benefit
To understand the conservative position, think of cars. They kill, every year, a far greater number of people than guns do. This is an undisputed fact. So should we then not allow private citizens to own cars? Wouldn’t we save thousands of lives every year and make the world a better place as a result?
Most would agree that this is an absurd proposition. But implicit in coming to that conclusion is the mental cost/benefit calculation that we make in evaluating the question: yes, ownership of cars leads to the deaths of some 45,000 Americans every year. But (and this is a very important but) the benefits of car ownership are perceived to far outweigh the costs, from convenience to greater productivity to pleasure to the health of the economy.
In coming to this conclusion, we are not uninformed, immoral or callous about the loss of life resulting from car ownership. We simply accept that there are tradeoffs and in this case the value of car ownership for society as a whole exceeds the cost.
The conservative position on private gun ownership follows the same logic. Liberals, they say, focus only on the costs of guns. The costs are real. But the discussion is not complete unless one weighs these costs against the benefits of private gun ownership.
From a conservative viewpoint, there are two main benefits to private ownership of guns, both of them equally important: protection of individual liberty and crime prevention. We’ll look at each of these in turn.Protection of Individual Liberty
It is no accident that the right to individual gun ownership is clearly spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, directly following freedom of speech and religion.
After winning the bloody revolutionary war for independence, the drafters of the Constitution aimed to design an ideal form of government for the new country, one that would most effectively secure the rights and liberty of its people.
Astute students of history, they full well understood that whatever words were in the Constitution were worthless if the people didn’t have the power to protect their rights and resist against tyranny. And in this they followed the old Swiss dictum: “if weapons are a token of power, then in a democracy they belong in the hands of the people.”
Aristotle had said much the same centuries before: “those who possess and can wield arms are in a position to decide whether the constitution can continue or not.”
This has been true throughout history. One of the first and most crucial steps to dictatorial rule has always been to disarm the populace. Name any of the most repressive regimes in the history of either the modern or ancient world, and it is an absolute certainty that the people subjected to its rule were not allowed to carry arms. As Hitler himself stated, “history teaches us that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by doing so.”
Conversely, the opposite is true: an armed populace is one of the most effective checks against excessive government tyranny. Switzerland, for example, has the highest ownership of guns per capita of any country in the world. It is also one of the most successful democracies in history, the combination of which prompted Machiavelli to note in 1532 that they are “most armed and most free.” What was true some 500 years ago continues to be true to this day.
This was clearly reflected in the thinking of the men who drafted the United States Constitution. Thomas Jefferson declared that “all power is inherent in the people…it is their right and duty to be armed at all times.” Patrick Henry’s goal was that “every man be armed.” And James Madison praised the “advantage of being armed, which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.”
The primary motivation for arming the general populace was to ensure that Americans always had the means to defend themselves against tyrannical oppression.
To provide just one example of the effectiveness of this concept, 1,500 Jews with just a few dozen guns in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of World War II were able to hold out for 28 days against over 12,000 German troops armed with tanks and heavy artillery, prompting Goebbels to comment that “it shows what is to be expected of the Jews when they are in possession of arms.”
What if citizens of all countries during the last 100 years been armed? Could a great number of the 20th century’s most horrific injustices, massacres and genocidal acts been avoided or greatly minimized?
An armed populace serves as a bulwark against oppression and tyranny. It is perhaps no accident that a number of the world’s longest-standing democracies—such as the United States, Switzerland and Finland—also have had the most armed populace. “Most armed and most free” is not a coincidence.Crime Prevention
The second benefit of individual gun ownership is as a means of preventing crime. Any weapon that can be used to attack can also be used for defense.
First, there is deterrence. Let’s say a criminal has a choice to commit a crime (murder, robbery, assault, etc.) in one of two cities: one where it is legal for citizens to carry guns and one where it is not and the population is unarmed. Which would he choose?
The answer is obvious. And in fact, surveys of felons report that they are typically more fearful during a crime of a potential victim being armed than running into the police. This is easily evident in criminal behavior patterns: for example, the instance of “hot” burglaries, where the criminal robs a house while the resident is present is more than 3 times lower in the United States, where many citizens are armed, than in Canada or Great Britain, where strict gun laws have left the majority of the populace defenseless. Criminals clearly understand the deterring value of guns.
Apart from deterrence, guns also play a major role in the outcome of a crime. For instance, crime statistics show that women are 2.5 times less likely to suffer serious injury from an attack if they resist with a gun than if they offer no resistance. Guns provide women with an equalizing tool to efficiently subdue their would-be attacker.
The link between guns and crime prevention is also evident in places where gun bans have been recently imposed. Australia, which banned most firearms in 1996, saw the following changes in crime in the two years following, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics: armed robberies rose by 73 percent, kidnappings by 38 percent, assaults by 17 percent and manslaughter by 29 percent. Clearly, disarming law-abiding people is not an effective means of crime prevention.
On the flip side, statistical regression analysis showed the impact of certain U.S. states allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons. Had other states followed suit and also allowed concealed weapon permits, in the same year murders in those states would have declined by 1,800, rapes by 3,700, aggravated assault by 11,000, robberies by 61,000 and burglaries by 112,600.
Guns play a significant but role in crime prevention: major national polls suggest that there are somewhere between 760,000 to 3.6 million defensive uses of guns in the United States per year. How many of those have saved people from property loss, bodily harm or even death?
While there is no question that some legally purchased guns will be used to commit crimes, it is also without question that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens are both a deterrent to crime and an effective means to positively change the outcome of a crime in progress. These are critical, undeniable benefits.Conclusion
Any serious discussion of the gun debate must include not just the cost of private gun ownership but its benefits as well.
For conservatives, as it was for the founders of this country, protecting freedom, individual liberty and the right to self-defense are inalienable individual rights. As Samuel Adams said, “The said constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.”
Conservatives, like the founders of this country, believe that by leaving the entire citizenry defenseless one would only invite tyranny and abuse from criminal elements—be they in official government garb or otherwise. Gun ownership gives peaceful citizens the means to defend their liberty, property, life and freedom.
In the words of Thomas Paine, “the peacable part of mankind will be continually over-run by the vile and abandoned while they neglect the means of self-defense…The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian, while on the other hand arms, like laws, discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe and preserve order in the world…Horrid mischief would ensue were [good men] deprived of the use of them…The weak will become a prey to the strong. The history of every age and nation establishes these truths.”