The Stockton, California, schoolyard massacre in January tragically illustrated the terrible threat to innocent people that exists in a society that values freedom, including the freedom to own guns. Gun owners immediately responded by marshaling their data—handgun homicides rose in New York City by 25 percent after the city toughened its law against carrying a handgun, citizens acting with legal justification kill 30 percent more criminals than do police, in Detroit 75 percent of wives who shot and killed their husbands were defending themselves or their children, and so on. None of these impersonal statistics, however, has anything like the emotional impact of a newspaper photo showing a child lying face down, legs twisted, on a school playground.
Assume for the moment, over the howls of gun owners, that gun control could have stopped this massacre. Why, then, did these children die? So hunters can spend weekends blasting to pieces defenseless animals? So gun collectors who have some perhaps unhealthy fascination with weapons of destruction can collect and fondle these killing tools? Why permit citizens to own guns?
More importantly, why did our Founding Fathers deem this right important enough to be included in the Constitution? Certainly, gun mishaps are not a recent invention. The colonials knew the risks posed to public safety by guns. Yet they not only refused to eliminate guns, they expressly guaranteed this right as best they could to all future generations.
Groups on both sides of the gun control issue have conducted seances with the Founding Fathers to divine their intent. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," begins the Second Amendment. Proponents of gun control argue that the founders simply wanted to provide for official state militias. Now that we have a strong army and state national guard system, they say, the purpose of the Second Amendment is well served.
But the Constitution does seem to refer to "the states" when that's what it means. And the Second Amendment continues, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The people.
Gun control advocates who claim that we need not defend the rights of citizens to own guns since we have such a well-armed military actually have it backwards. Citizens should have the right to bear arms precisely because we have such a strong military. The Founding Fathers knew very well that governments, if unchecked, can easily abuse their own people.
Our democratic republic has functioned fairly well in keeping government power within constitutional limits. We have not found it necessary to step outside the political process to change our government. Many other countries—democracies, even—have not been so fortunate. If the threat of an oppressive government arises in this country, remote as we might happily say it is today, we will be thankful, as were our forefathers in 1776, that we have the means to oppose it. A citizenry that has the right to bear arms is the ultimate check in the checks- and-balances scheme of limited government.
"There is one safeguard known generally to the wise," said Demosthenes, "which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust."
Patrick Edward Purdy did a horrible enough thing when he murdered five schoolchildren. Let's not also give him the posthumous thrill of disarming a free nation.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Why Guns?".