The basic argument for restricting the manufacture, purchase, and possession of firearms runs as follows: Because some gun owners use their guns to commit crimes or suicide, or they use their guns irresponsibly, the rights of all gun manufacturers, sellers, and owners must be restricted. Thus, the case for restricting guns rests on collective guilt. (The guns under consideration here are those those suitable for personal self-defense, including shotguns, semiautomatic shoulder rifles and handguns, and the like.)
That guns can be (and usually are) used in rights-respecting ways is obvious. Nearly half of the U.S. population—scores of millions of people—own a gun. Many millions of Americans use guns for recreational target practice and hunting. Many millions possess a gun for self-defense—some ten million have a permit to carry a concealed handgun—and every year many thousands of Americans use a gun to defend themselves.
Granted, some people misuse guns: In 2011 an estimated 11,101 of 15,953 homicides involved a gun, as did 19,766 of 38,285 suicides, as did 851 of 122,777 accidental deaths. But such misuse is not grounds for outlawing guns. Legitimate laws—those that protect individual rights—do not punish law-abiding individuals for the crimes of others, nor do they restrain the psychologically healthy because of the suicidal, nor do they restrain the responsible because of the irresponsible.
In addition to the fundamental problem with gun-restriction laws—namely, that they violate individual rights—such laws don’t solve the problems they are purported to solve.
Regarding crime, career criminals, particularly gangsters who currently operate the black markets for drugs, are expert at acquiring and selling guns on the black market. Typically, criminals choose victims who are physically smaller and weaker than they—or they attack in gangs—so even if it were possible to deprive them of guns that would hardly deprive them of the ability to commit heinous crimes. Gun-restriction laws do, however, disarm the intended victims of criminals.
Regarding suicide, those who wish to address the problem should address the mental illness or psychological problems that usually underlie suicide, not ban for everyone one of an unlimited number of items (others include ropes, cars, knives, bridges, etc.) that can be used to commit suicide. (In certain circumstances a mentally ill person may properly be restrained or deprived of potentially dangerous items, but that fact has no bearing on my broader point.)
And regarding irresponsible gun use, a civilized society does not ban or restrict a useful item, whether a gun, a knife, a bag of sugar, a table saw, or an automobile on the grounds that some people use the item irresponsibly.
As philosopher Harry Binswanger has argued, the proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights, not to engage in some sort of utilitarian calculus that attempts to achieve some social outcome by sacrificing the rights and values of individuals. But that’s just what gun-restriction laws do. As Binswanger puts it, such laws “say to the rational, responsible gun owner: you may not have or carry a gun because others have used them irrationally or irresponsibly.”
Ironically, those who advocate outlawing guns claim to be concerned with public safety, but they ignore the single greatest threat to the citizenry: a rights-violating government. A government that can ban (or substantially restrict) guns is a government that, by the same logic, can censor “dangerous” speech, curtail life-promoting energy production, allow warrantless searches, and so forth.
Those who would violate individual rights for the alleged sake of “public safety” would do well to recall the words attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” If we wish to preserve our liberty and our ability to produce and retain the values that sustain and protect our lives, we must advocate a government that protects individual rights and does not violate them.