An Open Letter to All Favoring Gun Restrictions
March 3, 2000
I'm writing to those who call for new laws restricting the use of guns in an effort to help you understand the positions of those of us who oppose such laws and advocate the ownership of guns for self-defense. On Tuesday, February 29, a first-grader used a gun to kill a classmate in Michigan. The very next day, on Wednesday, March 1, a man near Pittsburgh killed two and wounded three more in a racially motivated murder spree. And yet, while I mourn these deaths as horrible tragedies, I am more resolved than ever that my position on firearms is the correct one. You must be wondering what is going on with my thinking. I'm happy to tell you.
I have to get something out of the way, though, before we can proceed in understanding. If you think that I'm paranoid that "everyone's out to get me," if you think that I'm somehow advocating my positions for financial gains (it actually costs me money to advocate my beliefs), if you think that I somehow like violence, then let me suggest that you have succumbed to bigoted stereotypes that prevent you from thinking rationally about the firearms issue and from treating me with benevolent understanding. Granted, some people on my side of the debate also perpetuate stereotypes against you, but I try hard to avoid those, and I ask the same courtesy from you in return. So let us continue.
Dave Kopel, a champion of civil gun rights, once said that we shouldn't let our position on guns be a proxy for deep philosophical values. Instead, he said, we should draw gun policy on grounds of what saves the most lives. I agree with him on a certain level. However, our deeper philosophical beliefs help form our opinions about which laws will or will not save lives, and which laws might even cost more lives. Thus, many simply don't believe Kopel's scholarly work that purports to show that civil gun ownership makes society safer. Similarly, my initial impulse is skepticism whenever I hear Handgun Control Inc. claim that civil gun ownership is dangerous. What are some of the root philosophical beliefs that tend to make us more or less inclined to take seriously a set of claims about firearms?
I believe that the fundamental standard of value is the individual human being. I believe that individuals are usually quite good at living their own lives, without being controlled or regulated by others. I see voluntary coordination as generally superior to forced action. Likewise, I am basically suspicious of political action. I don't believe in the Benevolent Dictator. I believe that, left unchecked, political power tends to perpetuate itself at the expense of civil society. It's a popular refrain: "absolute power corrupts absolutely."
When I hear about a newly proposed law, two questions immediately spring to my mind: is this law likely to achieve its stated objectives, and is this law likely to result in unintended bad consequences? Let us take as an example the various mandatory firearm storage laws that have been proposed. Are these laws likely to reduce accidental shootings, as their proponents claim? I doubt it. Dave Kopel compared such laws to safety caps on medicines and other chemicals, which actually increased the number of accidental poisonings because adults became over-dependent on the safety caps. Bill Clinton has claimed that safety locks would have prevented the shooting in Michigan. But I think that claim is ridiculous: the boy used a stolen gun, and the adults who stole that gun would not have been very likely to abide by storage requirements, either.
Are there any possible unintended bad consequences of mandated firearms storage? Yes. Women and fathers who keep a gun to protect themselves and their families against violent rapists, murderers, and other criminals need quick access to that firearm. If the gun is locked away in a safe or has a trigger lock on it, the gun is basically useless for self-defense. As criminal gangster Sammy "The Bull" Gravano once put it, "You will pull the trigger with the lock on it, and I'll pull the trigger. We'll see who wins."
I'm also leery about giving the police expanded powers. Last September the police busted into Ismael Mena's home and riddled his body with bullets -- all over a misdemeanor drug allegation. As we know now, it wasn't even the right house. Are we moving toward a political climate in which police can break down your door and wave submachine guns at your children, all because some informant told them your gun wasn't properly stored? I fear that may be a long-term result of some of the laws now being discussed.
The issue on mandatory storage is only one example. I won't go into parallel arguments against other proposed laws for the purposes of this letter. Here I only want to get across the point that, yes, I do care about the children, passionately, and that I honestly believe laws like mandatory firearm storage will make children less safe, rather than more safe.
I'll make a generalization, though. When I hear about a tragedy involving the accidental or criminal mis-use of a gun, my first inclination is to consider how expanded, voluntary firearms training programs would improve safety, and how concealed gun carriers on the scene could prevent many criminal acts. Let's face it: the police hardly ever show up in time.
The philosophical ideas that tend to give rise to anti-gun activism, on the other hand, place primary moral value with the government or with the collective. They tend to view individuals with suspicion and call for greater social controls over individual action. They tend to assume that what the government claims it can do, it can in reality accomplish, and without significant unintended consequences. Thus, if politicians claim they can keep guns out of the hands of children with a given set of laws, gun restriction advocates tend to believe them.
Our philosophical dispositions tend to come in a coherent package. Thus, those who advocate civil gun rights also tend to advocate self-government in other areas of life, as well. They tend to favor voluntary charity rather than mandated welfare. They tend to favor open markets rather than regulated markets. Those who favor more laws restricting gun rights, on the other hand, tend to favor more government intervention across the board.
This is only a generalization, of course, which admits many exceptions. And I'm certainly not trying to suggest that opinions on firearms follow the outdated left-right distinction. For example, Dave Kopel comes from a strong Democratic family; his father served as a Democratic lawmaker for many years. Gary Kleck, whose studies suggest that armed citizens use guns upwards of 2.5 million times per year in self-defense, usually without firing a shot (Targeting Guns), is a life-long Democrat and a member of the ACLU and other groups typically associated with the left. What I'm proposing is that a broadly defined "libertarian," pro-individualist philosophy resonates with those members of both the left and the right who champion individual rights and get nervous about centralized power.
Of course none of us should let our beliefs ossify into dogma. If all the facts contradict a cherished belief, then it is the belief which much align itself with reality. Thus, I encourage a reasoned discussion between those of the two sides of the firearms debate.
I believe civil gun rights activists have won the academic debate. After John Lott's study came out claiming to show a relationship between liberalized concealed carry laws, a handful of academics undertook to prove Lott wrong. However, these counter-studies purposely restricted the field of data to reach select conclusions. In addition, the anti-gun lobby made character attacks against Lott, perpetuating such lies as that Lott is paid by the firearms industry. I encourage everyone on the gun-restriction side of the argument to actually read Lott's detailed book, including his Chapter 7, in which he discusses the academic debate following the publication of his original paper. If you can read Lott's actual work, along with the counter-studies, and still come away with the honest opinion that Lott is wrong, I'd sure like to hear from you.
Lott has also addressed some of the flagrantly misleading statistics concerning the view that "the family gun is more likely to kill you or someone you know than to kill in self-defense." Lott writes:
The studies yielding such numbers never actually inquired as to whose gun was used in the killing. Instead, if a household owned a gun and if a person in that household or someone they knew was shot to death while in the home, the gun in the household was blamed. In fact, virtually all the killings in these studies were committed by guns brought in by an intruder. No more than four percent of the gun deaths can be attributed to the homeowner's gun. The very fact that most people were killed by intruders also surely raises questions about why they owned guns in the first place and whether they had sufficient protection.
Why are such bogus statistics so regularly employed by those favoring more gun restrictions? Here's my theory: bigotry perpetuated against gun owners both supports and feeds off of pseudo-scientific statistics. That is, because of common stereotypes about gun owners, gun restrictionists find it easy to believe bogus statistics claiming that gun ownership is a great evil. In turn, the unscientific statistics help to perpetuate the stereotypes. Thus, there is a co-dependency between these two trends. This co-dependency in turn draws upon and helps support more fundamental political beliefs.
Of course, both sides of the debate have employed at least some bogus statistics. The point is, are those who make false claims ready to take into account counter-evidence, or do they keep stating a false-hood even after it has been proven false time and time again? It's possible to make an honest error with the data -- that's excusable. What's not excusable is the intellectually dishonest, continued misuse of flagrantly biased statistics. From what I've seen, my side of the debate has been pretty good about using statistics legitimately, while the other side has gone out of its way to spread statistics known to be fallacious. (For more on this point, see http://www.freecolorado.com/2000/02/headgames.html.)
I would encourage you, as a person who advocates more laws restricting the uses of firearms, to make the effort to understand the perspective of those on my side of the argument. We care about safety, we care about reducing crime, and we care about freedom. You can debate our arguments, but you can no longer malign us.
I would be happy to publish reasoned replies to this letter, as well as my responses. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.