Self-Defense and Gun Control
by Adam Mossoff
NOTE: The following essay on gun control was originally posted in three parts to Bob Stubblefield's Objectivism
Study Group. Any references to "OSG" or "OSGers" refer to this group and its members.
The context was a discussion on whether any form of "weapons control" -- i.e., the outlawing of nuclear weapons or howitzers, etc., for use by the general public -- is moral. This reply is a comprehensive treatment of the issue, starting with the nature of the right to self- defense and ending with a refutation of "gun control" as preached by modern-day liberals.
I have edited this document as a service. The author, Adam Mossoff, retains full copyright, as stated below.
Date: Wed, 16 Mar 1994 19:54:52 -0500 (EST)
From: Adam Mossoff (email@example.com)
Subject: Self-Defense and Gun Control
Copyright (C) 1994, Adam Mossoff. All further transmissions other than via the Internet are expressly forbidden without the permission of the author (contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org). All electronic versions must remain unaltered in form and/or content and without any editorial comments injected into the text. All other inquiries regarding this post should be forwarded to the author.
I have been following the recent discussion of the nature of the right of self-defense and gun ownership with much interest. As a gun owner, collector, and aspiring legal philosopher, the issue of gun control fascinates me. I have thought about this issue at great length--writing an article on the factual, moral, and legal issues of gun control last year proved to be an immense learning experience. The three fundamental issues of this topic are: 1)
the right of self-defense, 2) the nature of gun ownership, and 3) gun control. Much of what I'm about to write has been discussed by various OSGers--for mostly good and bad--in various ways but I believe this is the most systematic presentation on the topic since this thread of debate began.
The moral element of the gun control debate rests in an individual's right to self-defense. This right itself is not a primary, but rather it is a corollary of man's right to life. In essence, each man has the right to live his life for his own happiness in the liberty of a rational society. The number of people willing to murder, steal, and destroy will be far less frequent in a rational society than today, but even a relative few can be expected to exist in any society. Thus individuals will find their life and property threateed at times by those who choose to ignore reality, reason, and other people's rights. If a man has a *right* to his life, then he must have the necessary right to *defend* that life in times of need, i.e., against those who act to violate his rights. This is the "ten-second outline" of the source of the right to self-defense.
Without having to delve into statistics, or even discuss the nature of the right to property, it is easy to show the illogic of the argument that citizens should be disarmed. Given the prior acceptance of an individual's right to his life and his corollary right to self-defense, the conclusion that weapons should be privately owned naturally follows. To argue otherwise is to drive a wedge between our *moral* rights and the *existential* means be which these rights are invoked. If you accept that an individual has a right to defend his life, then you must also accept the fact that this right means nothing without the physical means by which it can be invoked and acted upon.
Thus, an individual who possesses the *right to defend his life* when threatened must have the *right to possess weapons* for defending that life. The moral sanction for why individuals have a right to privately own weapons is: the right to self-defense.
If a man chooses to argue for a right, but denies its reality, then he has stepped into an explicit dichotomy between morality and reality, i.e., mind and body, and the ultimate result is that man ends up having no rights whatsoever. There is an analogous argument, discussed at great lengths in Dr. Peikoff's book *The Ominous Parallels*, of the split between one's moral rights and the physical means required to possess this right. The argument is the fascist claim that businessmen have a right to their property, but that the state must control the use and disposal of that property. Objectivists are well-versed in Miss Rand's brilliant argument that the right to property "is the right to gain, to keep, to use, and to dispose of material values." ["Man's Rights," VOS, p. 94] And I am still awed by the simple logic found in Galt's argument that a right without material resources is only of value to a ghost. Anyone who argues that a man has a right to a particular action, e.g., ownership of property, but denies the means for *possessing* that right in actuality, e.g., using and disposing of property, denies the very existence of the right wholesale. A right without the means for invoking it is no right at all. This is why businessmen in Nazi Germany, despite their possession of pieces of paper that had the words "Title to Property"
on them, did not have any right to their property at all. And it is the same reason why a citizen of a country, despite having the words "right to life, liberty and property" in his constitution (if he is so lucky), does not have the right to his life or to the defense of it if he is denied the physical means by which to invoke and protect these rights.
I am not claiming that any OSGers have made this mistake of denying a right by denying its existential requirements. The analogy stands as an illustration of the point that I am trying to make about the intimate connection between morality and reality in the context of rights. I am surprised at the absence of this definitive statement on the nature of the right to self-defense in many of the posts on the recent topic of gun control.
People have discussed the issue of what it means to delegate our right to self-defense to the government without even establishing the reasons for why we have such a right and why this necessitates private ownership of weapons. Before people discuss the quite derivative issues of what types of guns people should be allowed to own and why, it is imperative that the concepts being discussed are properly defined and agreed upon by those in the discussion. This has been absent in the recent debate.
I shall conclude Part 1 of my posts on this topic by commenting on the question raised by Emmy Chang, and answered by OSGers such as Ron Kagan, about whether the right to own weapons is a property right *or* a corollary of the right to one's life, i.e., self-defense. This is rationalism in approaching the nature of rights.
Emmy's question amounts to the right to life being a firetruck with a right to property ladder in the front of the truck, and a right to self-defense ladder at the back of the truck. When a question arises of rights, the approach she has is to find the place on which ladder the answer is to be found--is the ownership of guns a rung on the property ladder or a rung on the self-defense ladder? The corollaries of the right to property and the right to self-defense, however, are not autonomous rights that stand distinct from each other in our conceptual hierarchy. For example, one has a right to life, and because man is not a ghost, individuals have the right to property. Guns are property because they are produced by men, thus one has a right to own a gun because one has a right to property. But one has a right to property because one has a right to life and *all* means by which to live that life in accordance with reason, including the defense of that life. Man's right to own weapons, then, is based on the right to defend his life (and the property involved in living that life). Thus, the answer to Emmy's question is that the premise of the question is wrong--all rights are interconnected--and that the solution is that the ownership of guns is sanctioned by a right to property *and* a right of self-defense.
However, in asking which is the *essential* right in question when discussing the ownership of guns, the answer is that it is the right of self-defense. The reason is that a right to property would not distinguish between owning a rocket launcher or a handgun, because in principle both are held *as property*. But the right to self-defense does not by itself establish the nature of weapon ownership as well. Why a handgun is a valid piece of property to own under the right of self- defense, while a tank or howitzer is not, is not immediately apparent simply by knowing the nature of the right to self-defense. Is there a principle to objectively distinguish between such weapons? Also, should the government enact "gun control" measures beyond disallowing certain obvious types of weapons, e.g., should the government ban certain types of rifles as well as nuclear weapons and grenade launchers? These questions can be answered when one grasps that the essential principle being applied is that of *self- defense*. The application of this principle to these classic legal philosophy questions shall be the topic of Part 2 and 3 of my posts on this issue.
* * * * In Part 1 of my posts, I discussed the fundamental issue of owning guns as resting in man's right to self-defense (as a corollary of his right to life). The classic question heard at this stage by almost everyone-- especially those who have wasted thir time ever talking with Libertarians--is typically phrased in the following syllogism: "I have a right to own weapons (in accordance with my right to defend my life), howitzers are weapons, therefore, I have a right to own a howitzer." The error in this argument is two-fold. The first error involves an equivication over the nature of the right to self-defense, and the second error involves an equivication about the nature of the weapon in question, that of the howitzer. In explicating the fomer, the latter shall become apparent.
The action that is sanctioned by the right to self-defense is quite delimited. It pertains only to the action that you may take at the actual time that your life or property is being violated. If you take the punishment of the criminal into your own hands after the fact of the crime, then you become a vigilante. The law's position on defense-- which is correct--is that your action must be commensurate with the action being taken that violates your rights. For instance, you cannot pull out your shotgun and blow a guy away simply for grabbing an orange out of your open backpack. You do have the right, however, to chase him down and hold him until the authorties arive, or to enlist others in your attempt to stop him. The *purpose* of self-defense is to stop the crime, not wipe out all delinquents that exist in our world. Guns are available for those times that the context of the crime is life threatening or violent. Guns are necessary because in these contexts they best fulfill the purpose of stopping the crime.
This brings me to an issue of metaphysics. Guns are man-made objects, thus they are designed with a purpose in mind. With regards to weapons in general, you can distinguish between those that are best suited for the purpose of self-defense, and those that are specifically designed for the pupose of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction, as a general rule, are not allowed to be owned by private citizens. These weapons are designed for situations in which countries fight and armies clash on battlefields. They have a single purpose for their existence: destroy as many people and as much property as is physically possible. Such weapons-- .50 calibur machine guns, grenade launchers, tanks, warplanes, missiles, etc., etc.--do not fulfill the criteria for the purpose of self-defense. When, for example, is a homeowner ever threatened at 2am by a regiment of Soviet tanks, thus feeling the necessity of owning a variety of rocket launchers? In what alley would a citizen require a machinegun that fires 3000 rounds per minute to stop a mugger?
I do not believe that it is possible to argue that guns are designed specifically for the initiation of force, or for defense. The simple fact that the *same* guns are used by both aggressor and defender in any conflict demonstrates that this is a fallacious argument. What can be distinguished, however, is the purposes for which weapons are designed and used. Nuclear missiles are designed for wiping out entire countries, warplanes are designed for destroying other planes or bombing targets, rocket launchers are designed to stop tanks and to destroy entire platoons of enemy soldiers... and I think you see the point. Handguns, rifles, and machineguns, albiet used on the battlefield as well, fulfill the purpose of self-defense in a way that larger more destructive weapons do not. It is for these reasons--the requirement of the *purpose* of the action of self-defense and the nature of the weapon in question--that handguns and rifles are legitimately owned by private citizens. This provides the fuller detail upon Bob Garmong's original statement that handguns and rifles should be legitimately owned, while larger weapons should not. While he did not know at the time why this is true, the answer is found in the purpose of self-defense and in the nature of the weapons in question.
There are still some aspects of gun ownership that I have not delved into, but are important nonetheless. For instance, as Steve Siek pointed out, the issue is contextual in its application. If a citizen can demonstrate to the government a legitimate need for a weapon that is typically used for mass destruction, then I see no reason for why he shouldn't be able to purchase one. A mining company, for example, can (and actually does today)
demonstrate that it has a requirement for high explosives that a normal blue collar worker would have no need for. Texans who live on the border with Mexico could plausible demonstrate a need to the government to purchase heavier machineguns if they had problems with broder raids from large gangs. I cannot see why the government couldn't just dispatch troops to the area, but if the Texans had a legitimate claim then the government should make sure that its citizens can adequately protect themselves. You do not make the distinction between weapons an absolute rule that does not reflect the varied contexts of reality.
* * * * Having established the context of the ownership of guns--the right to self-defense and the validity of owning handguns and rifles--the issue of "gun control" can now be fruitfully discussed.
The first step in addressing the topic of gun control is to draw a distinction between contemporary American society and a laissez-faire society based upon a rational philosophy. This distinction is very important because gun control has vastly different implications in either of these societies. For instance, in today's society--one that is ruled by pragmatism--any initial program of gun control will eventually result in a complete abdication of our rights (to self-defense and gun ownership). Observe Sarah Brady's comments in the late eighties regarding passage of the Brady Bill--a bill that imposed a national 5-day waiting period on all gun purchases. She continually reiterated to the press that she only desired "sensible control" of weapons in the U.S.; this sensible control, she claimed, was found in the Brady Bill and nothing more would be required. Handgun Control, Inc.--Mrs. Brady's anti-gun organization-- statement of purpose proclaimed that only police and military officials should be armed in the U.S., but her comments in support of the Brady Bill amounted to a virtual denial of this position. With the passage of this bill last fall, Sarah Brady was declaring to the press the day of the Congressional vote that this was merely the first step in a process that must be concluded in the outlawing of private ownership of handguns. More laws are being considered at this very moment in Congress with various bills calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment, an increase of taxes on ammunition by 10,000%, the outlawing of *all* 9mm and .45 caliber ammunition sales to private citizens, and the outlawing of all private ownership of handguns. As with the introduction of national health care bills in the early eighties by Ted Kennedy, these anti-gun bills are ominous signs for the laws that will be placed on the books in the coming years. Any attempt to limit our rights, even by such seemingly innocuous acts as national waiting periods, only provides precedent for further curtailment of our rights in the years to come. This is why I believe that *any* attempt to expand gun control in the U.S. must be fought at every step of the way.
A rational society is a completely different context for gun control. The society will be far less violent, the government will respect individual rights, and there would be far less dishonesty and misinformation communicated by the press, interest groups (if they even exist, which I doubt), and Congress. The introduction of bills in Congress that call for the outlawing of all gun sales or ammunition sales to private individuals would be laughed off the floor, and anti-gunners such as Sarah Brady would not be given the time of day by either the press, the government, or the people themselves. Beyond the modicum of gun control that would naturally exist to keep weapons of mass destruction out of private hands, I do not believe that there would even be a consideration of the massive regulations and restrictions we are now faced with today. Simply put, gun control in a rational society would not be the moral issue that it is today. It would not embody another encroachment upon the shrinking respect for rights that this topic represents today.
Would questions of waiting periods, national registration, or background checks arise in a rational society? I believe that these questions would be issues of consideration, but they would simply not be the moral issue that they are today. In fact, at my present stage of thought on this topic, I find persuasive arguments by both sides of the rational debate. For instance, because the government has a monopoly on the use of force in society, it has a valid interest in knowing *who* possesses weapons that could be used for the initiation of force. A national registration would thus be a requirement under this argument. The counter-argument to this claim is two-fold.
First, people are considered innocent until proven guilty, and to force an individual to register his property with the government simply because of its *potential* use is to treat him as if he was actually guilty before any crime is committed--the mistake of all regulatory laws. Second, the ownership of guns is not a license to initiate force, but rather a proclamation of one's right to defend one's life and property. Thus, a national registration is unnecessary and immoral. I am inclined to agree with arguments such as the counter-argument above, but I have not definitively made up my mind as to the nature of gun control in a rational society. (I still have many years before I write my book on the philosophical nature of the law, thus I am taking my time to contemplate these issues.)
There are many other topics and questions that I have chosen not to address for the reasons of fundamentality and hierarchy. I hope these posts are helpful to OSGers still wondering about questions of gun ownership (I know that discussion of these ideas with Objectivists has proven invaluable for their development). If you have questions about the application of these principles to more concrete isues, please feel free to send me an email message.
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