Albert Isham Questions "Open Letter"

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Albert Isham Questions "Open Letter"

I just skimmed over your open letter to all favoring gun restrictions and I found it truly amazing. I was interested in reading a gunners position without the usual name-calling and character assassination. I have a few questions for you.

1. Do you think that we should have no restrictions on gun ownership? If some restrictions are acceptable, who will decide which laws we will have?

2. Should guns be sold to any and everybody without regard to age, criminal record, or mental responsibility?

3. Do you think that more guns will make us safer?

4. The FBI tells us that about 70 percent of all murders are committed with guns. Do you consider that a problem?

Albert Isham
Elizabethtown, Ky.

Ari Armstrong Replies

I'm happy to reply to your points in turn.

You ask, "Do you think that we should have no restrictions on gun ownership? If some restrictions are acceptable, who will decide which laws we will have?"

The short answer is, no, I do not think we should have no restrictions on gun ownership. In other words, I believe some restrictions are appropriate. As to the question of "who decides," I think this presumes a subjectivist view of law, which holds that law must invariably serve special interests and cannot institute broad justice. For me, the question is not primarily "who decides," but which law is just? This is not a matter for subjective whim, but for an objective evaluation of the broad facts of our society.

Your second question is closely related to the first: "Should guns be sold to any and everybody without regard to age, criminal record, or mental responsibility?"

Children should not be able to purchase or carry guns without parental consent. That is, just as a six year old cannot walk into the store and buy a bottle of Jack Daniels, she should not be able to walk into the store and buy a Colt .45. Now, the law arbitrarily defines an 18 year old as an adult. I'm satisfied with that distinction, so long as one obtains full rights and responsibilities at that age. 18 year olds can go to war, vote, have a family, and be held legally accountable as an adult; they should also be able to purchase a gun to defend their families against violent criminals. (Current federal law discriminates against such adults by infringing their right to purchase handguns.)

But as we well know, people mature emotionally at different ages. At 15, my sister was more responsible than many 45 year olds. I would have trusted her with a gun at that age as much as I would have trusted anyone. My grandmother was married at 14. A possible reform would allow younger persons to petition for adulthood prior to the age of 18 -- say, starting at age 14. Then, by the age of, say, 21, everyone who has not previously petitioned would automatically be considered an adult. I think that would be more fair than the present system.

That said, I believe responsible parents will teach their children firearm safety. I don't have children yet, but I'm already confident that my children will never use a gun accidentally or intentionally to kill or injure another person. That's because I'm going to bring up my children to respect firearms and handle them safely. Thomas Jefferson encouraged youth to practice with firearms regularly as a matter of building strong character. Dr. Alan Lizotte from the State University of New York at Albany has found that youth who are trained in the use of guns are less likely to use guns to commit violent acts throughout life. (The parental guidance may be the causal factor for both phenomenon.) So, even though parents should be legally allowed to teach their children about firearm safety or not, I encourage the practice.

Obviously, mentally ill persons should be restricted from owning firearms. An individual's rights arise with his or her capacity for rationality -- lacking that full capacity, rights must be delimited.

When we discuss criminal records, we must bear in mind the distinction between violent crimes, non-violent crimes such as fraud, and victimless crimes such as drug use. I believe only violent criminals should be prevented from owning firearms after otherwise paying for the crime. Even here, though, I would allow discretion: it's possible for an 18 year old violent criminal to reform, in which case he or she should be allowed to protect his or her family with a firearm.

So, yes, I'm happy to make exceptions for the three cases you mention. That covers firearms ownership.

Obviously, some types of firearm use must be prohibited. In particular, the criminal use of a firearm is obviously illegal. So is buying a firearm with the express purpose of transferring it to another person for use in a crime, just as driving the get-away car is a crime.

The exceptions I outline, however, ought not be considered infringements of rights. Each is a case where rights do not apply. Those without full rational capacity -- children and the mentally ill -- don't acquire a full set of rights (they have rights, obviously, just not all the rights of a normal adult). Violent criminals have chosen to surrender some of their rights by violating the rights of others.

Perhaps you were confused by my term, "gun restrictionist." I hope it was clear by context that I meant to advocate the system of laws that existed prior to the 1934 National Firearms Act, when the right to keep and bear arms was not infringed for normal adults but all the exceptions outlined above were recognized. (I oppose pre-1934 state laws which disarmed people on racial grounds, of course, such as Jim Crow laws which disarmed African Americans and laws which disarmed Native Americans. Those were unfortunate aberrations of the broader system.)

What I oppose are any restrictions placed on normal adults to keep and bear firearms.

Your next question is, "Do you think that more guns will make us safer?" It depends. If the general populace is disarmed and many guns are concentrated in the hands of criminals and the police, that creates a very dangerous situation for normal people. Not only are citizens at high risk of victimization by common thugs, but they are at high risk of victimization by the police state. In Nazi Germany, the Nazis had lots of guns, the Jews had none. (Actually, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto scraped together a few guns to fight the Germans; see Leon Uris' Mila 18.)

Do civil arms make us safer? Absolutely. As John Lott found in More Guns, Less Crime, liberal concealed carry laws in the United States resulted in a dramatic decrease in violent crimes. Alternately, Australia's gun ban led to a dramatic increase in violent crimes. (David Kopel's The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy examines gun laws in other nations.) Criminals prefer disarmed victims, certainly.

Also, let us not forget that, in the 20th Century, over 169 MILLION people were murdered by their own governments. How many of those people do you think were armed? (My answer: not enough.) It can't happen here? That's what they thought in Germany, Russia, etc. It can't happen here -- so long as the population remains well-armed.

In your final question, you ask, "The FBI tells us that about 70 percent of all murders are committed with guns. Do you consider that a problem?"

OF COURSE I consider murder a problem -- that's the main reason I advocate gun ownership for self-defense.

Disarmament activists seem to want to take an unwarranted leap of logic. "If X number of murders are committed with guns," seems to go the reasoning, "then disarmament laws will prevent X number of murders." That conclusion has absolutely no merit.

There are three main reasons to be skeptical that disarmament laws will work. First, if a gun is not available, the criminal can resort to other weapons, such as knives, bats, chains, etc. The goal should not be to reduce the number of murders with a gun, but to reduce the total number of murders over-all.

Second, criminals tend not to obey the law, anyway. The more guns are restricted, the more criminals will resort to theft, the black-market, and garage production to get guns. Just as drug prohibition created an incredibly violent black-market (which is responsible for many of the murders you cite), gun prohibition would create a similar violent black market, thus increasing one category of murders and general crime.

Third, criminals are more likely to victimize unarmed citizens. Fewer civil arms tend to be associated with more violent crimes against persons. A rapist doesn't want to face a woman with a gun. A burglar doesn't want to break into a home with armed occupants. Thus, even if fewer criminals have guns, at least as many criminals will use other weapons to commit crime. Studies of some locations indicate that fewer guns in general resulted in fewer gun crimes but in more crimes over-all (in other cases both gun crimes and other crimes increased).

To summarize these three points, disarmament laws are likely to increase crime because 1) Criminals can substitute other weapons, 2) Criminals can obtain black-market guns, and 3) Criminals prey on vulnerable victims more often.

Of course, you'll need to examine the evidence and scholarship before you come to agree with my views. My point here was simply to lay out the basic arguments so it's clear where I'm coming from. Thanks for your openness to alternate points of view.


Ari Armstrong

Second Reply

Dear Mr. Isham,

I wrote that the primary significance of law is not "who decides," but rather what is objectively just. To that, you respond:

>You managed to dance around that question without answering it.
>The people
>have the right to make laws through their elected
>representatives and they
>have the right to regulate lethal weapons
>for their safety. They do not
>have to ask your permission.

Sir, we do not live in a democracy, we live in a Constitutionally limited republic (if we can keep it). "The people" do not have the right to violate civil rights. To use a common analogy, democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner. I maintain my position that some laws are objectively unjust, and other laws objectively just, and no vote can alter that.

Next, I grant that the firearms should be in some sense restricted when in comes to the mentally ill, children, and criminals. You reply, in succession:

>How do you prevent arming the mentally ill? Just saying that you are
>against it isn't enough...
>How do you prevent the arming of criminals?...
>Straw purchases? How would you prevent them?...
>So, basically, you support gun control.

You didn't counter my argument about children, so I assume you accept it. Perhaps we are using the term "mental illness" in different ways. I'm thinking of people with actual physiological brain problems, who are either institutionalized or in the close care of family or medical professionals. You seem to think that my position on this matter requires special laws: it does not. Rather, civil negligence for knowingly providing a firearm to a person with significant physiological mental problems largely prevents the problem.

In terms of criminals, I'll assume you mean convicted, violent felons. Let's first discuss what's NOT appropriate: it's not appropriate to restrict the rights of all citizens on account of the criminals. Rather, a law which provided severe criminal penalties for those still under some type of legal restriction (such as an extended parole) if they arm themselves would provide deterence. Let me add to this point that no law will stop a criminal determined to get a gun. A criminal can always resort to theft, the black-market, or garage production to obtain a gun.

My view on so-called "straw purchases" made KNOWINGLY for use in a crime is similar: restrictions should take the form of after-the-fact criminal and civil penalties, not prior restraint on all citizens.

You write, "basically, you support gun control." As that term is commonly understood, no. I oppose any prior restraint on citizens to keep and bear arms. If you want to include the provisions I outline under the term "gun control," fine, just so long as everyone's clear on the important distinctions.

>The law does not now and never has recognized an
>individual right to have
>privately owned guns. No rights have been
>infringed with gun control laws.

You're simply ignorant of the history. See David Kopel's extensive work on the subject at or Stephen Halbrook's book. What do YOU think the term "the people" refers to in the Second Amendment?

I wrote:

> >What I oppose are any restrictions placed on
> >normal adults to keep and bear firearms.

To which you replied:

>That's a matter of viewpoint. A background check on a
>potential buyer to
>determine age and/or criminal record
>is viewed by some as a restriction. I
>do not enjoy pulling out my driver's
>license when I cash a check but I
>understand the need and the fact that, ultimately, it protects me.

By any reasonable understanding, a background check is a "restriction." It raises the cost of buying a gun, and it wrongfully denies thousands their rights. For instance, in Colorado alone CBI checks have wrongfully denied hundreds of people permission to buy a guy since August 1999.

Your analogy to a driver's license simply does not hold. When cashing checks, it's not the *license* per se that protects you, but rather only the photo id, which could be provided by other means. The reason the state is able to get away with drivers' licenses is because the state owns the roads. Note that no license is required to purchase a car or drive one on private property.

You write:

>Gary Kleck, the darling of the gun lobby, has said,
>"There's little or no
>need for a gun for self-protection because
>there's so little risk of crime.
>People don't believe it, but it's true."
>I bought a handgun in 1960 and
>worried more about the kids getting to
>it than the possibility of any armed
>intruder. I sold the gun in 1963 and haven't had one since.

Would you mind providing a citation for that quote? Kleck has also said that private citizens use guns 2.5 million times per year in self-defense.

Note your strange compilation of arguments. On one hand, you argue that murders with guns are out of control -- so guns need to be harshly regulated. On the other hand, you argue that crime is insignificant -- so guns aren't needed for self-defense. You can't have it both ways.

>Read "Crime is Not the Problem" by Zimring and Hawkins.
>Gun control laws
>have little impact on common crime but do reduce murder rates.
>We are the leading country in the industrialized world for
>murder rate and it's all because of our lax gun control laws.

The fact that the United States suffers more murders doesn't imply gun laws are to blame: in countries with harsh laws homicide rates were low before and after the imposition of those laws. (Note that commonly related statistics don't even take into account population sizes of various countries, which vary dramatically.)

In *The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy*, Dave Kopel has the following to say about Zimring:

"A crucial element of the Australian anti-gun coalition is the mainstream press. America's most influential academic voice for gun control is University of California Professor of Law Franklin Zimring. In a 1981 visit to Australia, Zimring opined that Australia had no gun problem, but that Australian shooters had a media problem" (209).

"[George] Newton and Zimring's *Firearms and Violence in American Life*... compared Britain and the United States, and observed that America had much higher rates of crimes with guns and crimes without guns. The authors agreed that because cultural determinants were the most important factor in crime, a British-style gun-licensing system might not lower the American crime rate. Nevertheless, Newton and Zimring still favored a restrictive national licensing system for handguns, because comparison with Britain showed that for a given category of crime, a higher percentage of the American crimes were committed with handguns.... But it is not clear why one mode of death is better than another mode. Dead is dead, and a policy whose only accomplishment is changing one cause of death for another is not compelling" (414).

But I raised this point in my last letter.

Next, I claim that over 169 MILLION people have been murdered by their own governments in the 20th Century. You reply:

>You have fallen victim to the bigotry of groups like JPFO.
>Forget those wild stories and look at the facts.
>The U.S. has the highest murder rate of any industrialized nation.

You're claiming that the Holocaust is a "wild story?" That's as peculiar as it is offensive.

You claim that JPFO is "bigoted:" do you have any evidence for your claim? I think you're reaching.

Finally, the fact that the U.S. has relatively high murder rates has no bearing on the fact that an armed populace prevents tyranny. Nor does it have any bearing on the question of whether gun restrictions (on law-abiding citizens) reduce crime.

You write:

>A gun in the home triples the risk of a homicide in the
>home and increases the risk of suicide fivefold.

Both of those "factoids" are pseudo-scientific, bogus statistics. For more, see Kopel's work or my article at

>The objective of gun control is not disarmament; it's saving lives.
>We do know that stricter gun control laws will reduce the
>number of murders.

"We" know no such thing. That's an unsubstantiated claim by the anti-gun lobby.

The *objective* of gun control (on law-abiding citizens) may be to save laws, but the *actual results* of such laws is to make people more prone to attack by violent criminals by infringing the right of self-defense.

Ari Armstrong

The Colorado Freedom