Defending Armed Self-Defense

It's easy for many people to see the harm that guns are involved in every day in America, but much harder for them to see the harm that gun prohibition causes.


Gun control laws are wrong because they violate the right to self-defense. Gun control laws are wrong because they were historically crafted with discriminatory intent and create racially disparate outcomes today.

These are two distinct arguments against laws that limit private gun ownership. Libertarians, typically among the staunchest of fans of self-defense and self-determination, have tended to focus on the first. But the second is also important, both on its own merits and because it helps people otherwise concerned about discrimination understand why it is inconsistent to support such laws.

One can make the rights argument a couple of different ways. The first is to start from the belief, shared by many, that human beings are endowed by their Creator (or nature, or their shared humanity, or the universe, or even cultural patrimony) with certain inalienable rights, the right to self-defense among them. Once that is established, protections for those who wish to buy, keep, and use the tools of self-defense, including guns, follow close behind.

The Founders, not ones to pussyfoot around, put keeping and bearing arms right there in the Bill of Rights (although there, as in so many other places in the founding documents, one last pass by an especially pedantic copy editor could have saved the nation in general and the Supreme Court in particular quite a bit of trouble). The Founders were, at best, imperfect scribes of whatever rights people might in fact possess. But they did an astonishingly good job of capturing a laundry list of rights that the state ought not abridge, and they got them written down rather clearly and in short order, all things considered.

One need not be convinced of the existence of God-given rights to conclude that the harsher forms of gun control are unacceptable and unjust rights violations. "I contend that individuals have a prima facie right to own firearms, that this right is weighty and protects important interests," the philosopher Michael Huemer wrote in one of the more famous modern arguments against such restrictions. While "the right to own a gun is both fundamental and derivative," he suggests, "it is in its derivative aspect—as derived from the right of self-defense—that it is most important."

The argument that the existence of a competent police force obviates the self-defense justification for private gun ownership was made laughable twice over last summer, first as citizens marched in protest of police misconduct and second as law enforcement proved wholly inadequate to the task of defending lives and businesses in the corridors of cities where riots broke out.

And rights can and should be applied as equally as possible across the population, with as few exceptions as possible.

This basic rights argument is often laid out at length in part because it deserves the real estate. But it is not the only argument against gun control. And in emphasizing the rights argument, those who seek to protect the practice of armed self-defense risk being unpersuasive to the not-insignificant percentage of Americans who don't already happen to agree on a list of rights and their scope.

Most, but not all, of that group is concerned instead with harmful consequences. And it's easy enough to see the harm that guns are involved in every day in America. It's harder to see the harm that gun prohibition causes.

In "Gun Control Is Just as Racist as Drug Control" (page 18), Senior Editor Jacob Sullum makes this second type of argument, noting that it seems to be much easier for politicians, pundits, and activists on the American left to see how the war on drugs hurts everyone, but especially black people, and to move from there toward strategies for ending or reducing that harm. Yet too many remain stubbornly unconvinced on guns. "Progressive politicians nowadays overwhelmingly oppose marijuana prohibition and criticize the war on drugs," Sullum writes, "in no small part because of its bigoted origins and racially skewed costs. Yet they overwhelmingly favor tighter restrictions on guns, even though such policies have a strikingly similar history and contemporary impact."

It is unlikely, to say the least, that the United States has eradicated racism entirely from its police forces. But one need not believe that there is a single bona fide racist remaining anywhere in law enforcement to be concerned about the racial implications of gun control. Historically, the fact that the burdens of enforcement and sentencing tend to fall heavier on black Americans often struck officials as a feature, not a bug. And we live in a world shaped by the policies those officials adopted.

Disparate outcomes are not themselves definitive evidence that a law is unjust or that a legal remedy is needed, but they are a helpful clue that something may be wrong in the system and that the way we are building and applying our principles deserves more scrutiny.

There are many different reasons to engage in political argumentation. One is to rally the troops—to both firm up and confirm preexisting views. This is not merely signaling or recreation, though it can be both those things. Human beings enjoy repetition—lots of it, if most people's Spotify, churchgoing, and movie-viewing habits are any indication—and there's nothing wrong with that. Reason often returns to the same topics, rehearsing the case for and paths to a freer and fairer world in ways that will appeal to readers with whom we are already in broad agreement. Longtime subscribers may even remember a 1985 cover story titled "Gun Control: White Man's Law" that made many of the same points we're making 37 years later.

But there's also the much harder task of changing minds. The way to do this—perhaps the only way to do this—is to use a shared underlying view as the thin end of a wedge. In this case, the thin end of a very important wedge has been honed by concerns about harm, and the way to change minds is to probe for inconsistencies in the views of those who do not yet share your conclusions. Rights talk doesn't always have the same power to leverage existing beliefs into new insight and interpretations.

This issue of Reason is full of arguments that ask readers—in this case, mostly left-leaning readers—to think about the consistency in the formulation and application of their beliefs, not just about gun and drug control, but also about income inequality ("Against Champagne Socialists," page 28) and the proper role of the courts ("What Progressives Get Wrong About Judicial Review," page 42).

Ralph Waldo Emerson may have insisted that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, a notion that has given aid and comfort to hypocrites for more than a century. But a desire for internal consistency can also drive meaningful change.

Not every argument offered as a way to bridge those gaps in consistency can or should rest on the same deep principles. Instead, the goal (an ambitious one, to be sure) is to figure out how to talk to each other and come to shared conclusions about how to move forward.