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Guns and Liberty

June 3, 1999

One ironic legacy of the Clinton administration is the rearming of the American citizenry. Each time Clinton and his friends in Congress threaten another round of anti-gun regulations, the American people respond by stocking up on as many guns as possible. This is all to the good: an armed citizenry translates to less crime and more security, and reminds the government that its bureaucrats aren't the only ones with firepower.

The trend began in 1989 with the passage of restrictions on so-called "assault weapons," which brought about the initial boom in gun sales. After a brief respite, the Brady Bill, which imposed background checks on buyers, was passed in 1993. The politicians claimed they were only after the criminals. But the main effect was to convince people that the federal government was determined to disarm the public.

Of course the politicians always say that they are only after the criminals, not hunters and not people who only desire self-protection. But by definition, criminals aren't interested in regulations. Legal restrictions on gun sales only make it more difficult for people who scrupulously keep the law to defend themselves against those who do not.

This point may be too complicated for politicians to understand, but average people get the point. After the Brady Bill, another gun boom ensued, as people loaded up in anticipation of further regulations.

Public perceptions were right on the money. Without missing a beat, the feds banned the domestic manufacture of military-style guns and magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The result was the biggest regulatory backfire of them all. The limited number of "assault" (i.e., government-style) weapons still in circulation are selling at twice their pre-ban prices. And since it takes more clips to equal the old fire power, clip manufacturers are profitable as never before, according to data assembled by the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, sending the market into overdrive was the threat that gun makers will be bankrupted by lawsuits. People saw what the courts did to tobacco companies, and what happened to cigarette prices in the aftermath. Unlike cigs, guns are not perishable, so people figured they might as well stock up now, before judges do to gun makers what they did to cigarette makers.

The flurry of legislation introduced after the Littleton, Colorado, shootings (in which the killers paid no attention to all the existing laws) underscored the message that government does not want private individuals to own guns. The gun industry is benefitting once again from people's fears of what government may be prohibiting in the future.

Anti-gun fanatics view all this stockpiling as a catastrophe, since their goal is the disarming of Americans. But they are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Weaving gun bans through the legislative process takes more time than the waiting periods and regulatory barriers already enacted into law. The existing windows of freedom permit people to defy the intentions of the gun banners while there is still time.

The country-wide stockpiling now taking place should cheer the hearts of even people who have no interest in owning a gun. That is because wide ownership of guns confers what economists call "positive externalities" on people who do not wish to own them. For example, if you do not own a gun, you still benefit from the perception that you may, a perception that can only continue so long as the reality of widespread ownership is true. The fear of people willing to fight back is what keeps criminals at bay.

A massive and detailed literature has proven time again time that the more guns that are owned in a community, the less crime that community has to put up with. The data are so overwhelming that no reasonable person can deny them. (The "Firearms Fact Sheet" should be in every thinking person's favorites list). Why, then, does the gun-ban lobby continue to say that restrictions on guns are the key to cutting crime?

It's time that the ideological orientation of the gun grabbers be examined more carefully. Notice that their theory about gun ownership does not appear in isolation; it is part of a larger package of political beliefs about the role of government in society. Almost to a man, they favor the entire big-government/politically-correct agenda. What they want is not a disarmed society, but a society where government has a monopoly on gun ownership.

Consider this shocking reality: the present anti-gun hysteria is taking place in the very month in which the federal government's guns have laid waste to an entire nation. The US has brought about a large-scale massacre in Yugoslavia, and set back its standard of living some fifty years. It is a display of brutality that hasn't been seen on Europe's soil since the 1940s.

Also consider that the Congress's feeble attempt to place controls on the warfare state's use of guns has amounted to nothing. Clinton's war was certainly illegal. The White House has put the War Powers Act through a shredder, and when a few brave congressmen tried to sue, a federal judge (which is to say, a judge in the pay of the Clinton administration) threw out the case.

This is in keeping with the general principle that criminals don't obey the law–and it doesn't matter whether those criminals are street hoodlums or the holders of high elected office. Just as the Littleton killers ignored anti-gun statutes already on the books, Washington's war party ignored legal strictures designed to restrain their ability to kill and destroy.

Where are the gun control advocates when it comes to preventing politicians from the unrestrained use of violence and weapons of mass destruction? They avert their eyes, because what they want is not a disarmed America, but an America in which only criminals in the public sector own guns. In short, the attempt to strip regular Americans from owning guns is a totalitarian agenda unaffected by any amount of facts and data that contradict their claims.

Thank goodness for what is left of the free market in guns, which has made it possible for people to respond to the threat of gun regulation by stockpiling. If we truly value freedom and security, we need not more restrictions on private ownership, but repeal of existing restrictions. And given recent events in the Balkans, it should be clear that Congress needs to pass very severe restrictions on the ability of bureaucrats and warmongers to acquire and use weapons.

The danger to a free society is not the guns owned by the citizens but an unconstrained government, especially one that is better armed than the public. An armed society is a self-governing society, just as a disarmed people are vulnerable to arbitrary power of every kind.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.


On the last Clinton gun boon, see Backfire!.


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