A Private Function

The Boston Globe recently reported that Israelis are flocking to gun stores, anxious to protect themselves against terrorists. Since the police cannot be everywhere and armed civilians have been known to thwart or cut short terrorist attacks, the interest in firearms is understandable.

For Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, however, it is also deeply troubling, and not just because it has been prompted by a string of mass murders. "If the state is relinquishing its monopoly by giving arms to the citizens, it becomes less of a state," he told the Globe. "The first function of government is to defend the security of the citizens. When it cannot do that, the contract between the citizens and the government is broken."

Ezrahi's comments are striking because they express a view hostile to individual rights in language commonly used by advocates of limited government. He defines the state as an entity with a monopoly on the use of force, describes "defend[ing] the security of the citizens" as "the first function of government," and refers to a "contract between the citizens and government."

Each of these ideas has an important (though sometimes controversial) place in classical liberal thought. The state's monopoly on force, of course, is not usually understood to preclude individual self-defense. But even the view of private gun ownership as a threat to the state is one that libertarians can embrace--not in the sense that it is inconsistent with law and order but in the sense that it represents a check against tyranny, an idea familiar to the Framers.

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