Anarchy, State, and Gun Ownership
The controversy over whether the Federal Government should ban the possession by citizens of certain types, or all types, of firearms has been raging back and forth for a very long time. I remember as a child seeing news coverage of horrific acts of violence involving firearms. I also remember the seemingly interminable “national conversation” that inevitably followed these events. It seemed, and still seems, to rouse people’s emotions in a way that few other issues do. My parents, like most of their friends, firmly supported gun-control legislation, which meant that I did as well. When I was ten, our Buick LeSabre sported an anti-NRA sticker on the rear fender. I should know—I put it there.
Not much has changed since then. The LeSabre is long gone, but the occasional mass shootings continue, each followed by yet another acrimonious round of national self-flagellation and soul-searching. The first time guns were featured on the cover of Time Magazine was in 1968. They ran the same cover again in 1998.
The arguments, for and against, gun control also don’t seem to be any different under Barack Obama from what they were under Lyndon Johnson. Then as now, there were:
- Property-rights-based justifications for gun ownership (e.g., guns are like any other property and so anyone may own them, provided they are not used to violate the person or property of others), as well as for gun prohibition (except as a decorative candle holder, an AK-47 seems unlikely to be used for any purpose other than to violate the person or property of others).
- Utilitarian reasons for a ban (it would increase safety by reducing the overall number of guns in society), and also for laissez-faire (prohibition would at best disarm only peaceful citizens, rendering them easy prey for criminals while creating yet another lucrative black market for organized crime).
- Civil-liberties-based arguments for leaving the citizen free (I have a right to defend myself), and for regulating him (I have a right to walk down the street without fear of being shot).
And today, four and a half decades and nine gun-related Time covers later, here we are again, still shaking our heads in disbelief at the violence we see around us, and still asking the same question: who is right?
My position, as a libertarian anarchist, is that everyone is right. There is no perfect solution to the problem of the use of firearms for criminal purposes, and there are valid points on both sides of the debate. This is one of the reasons why this issue never has been and never will be resolved as long as we turn to the state to solve it for us instead of solving it for ourselves.
Federal law by nature imposes one solution on all members of society. Whether a ban is enacted on all firearms for all citizens, on only some types of guns, or for only some categories of citizens, all must live under the same set of rules. Yet because only imperfect solutions are possible, and because individual preferences rest on subjective value judgments, the fastening of a single policy on all parties by force of law must create social conflict. The only way out of this impasse is to abolish the state’s monopoly on the production of law and law enforcement and replace it with a cooperative legal system—or, more accurately, with the vast and complex matrix of voluntary contractual arrangements known as the market law society.
An analysis of all the different possible types of institutions and contracts that could arise in such a society for the settlement of disputes is beyond the scope of this article.1 We will focus instead on two less technical points: (1) how the state’s monopoly on the enforcement of law actively promotes firearm ownership even among those who, ceteris paribus, would prefer not to own them, and (2) how a competitive law enforcement market would rectify this problem in a way that would largely satisfy both “liberals” and “conservatives.”
How the State’s Enforcement Monopoly Influences Gun Ownership Patterns
There are at least two ways in which the state’s arrogation of police power, to the exclusion of all potential competitors, encourages individuals to own firearms who would not otherwise wish to do so. First in this group are people who either consider themselves underserved (or, in the worst case, not served at all) by their state or local police departments or are distrustful or afraid of the police. Not surprisingly, such people tend to be concentrated in poor urban areas where police may be disinclined to patrol regularly and, in some instances, may not even respond to calls for help. (Ironically, these also tend to be the areas most plagued by violence stemming from the state’s prohibition on drugs.)
Under such conditions, it is inevitable that some individuals will turn to gun ownership as the only viable alternative to adequate police protection. Given that these are persons of modest means who would otherwise probably not wish to own firearms, it is also likely that many of them will be reluctant or financially unable to undergo training in marksmanship and gun safety, and will tend to avoid additional expenditures on safety features such as trigger locks or gun vaults. The result must be a marked increase in both gun theft and accidental shootings, the latter often involving children. It is ironic that such incidents are often invoked as a justification for the forced disarming of citizens by the state, when it is precisely the black markets created by the state’s prosecution of victimless crimes (e.g., drug use), together with its procurement of substandard security services, that drives the demand for private gun ownership in the first place.
The second way in which government promotes firearm ownership follows from the fact that, as the sole supplier of security services within its jurisdiction, its officers cannot be everywhere at once. They generally do not know that a crime is in progress until notified by someone already at the scene. This produces a significant response time lag.
This is not to say that police are necessarily slow to respond. For example, in 1996 the New York Times reported average response times for New York's Finest of between 6 and 11 minutes, depending on the borough—not too shabby, considering the size and congestion of the Big Apple. Nevertheless, a present good is, ceteris paribus, always preferred to a future good, and being kidnapped, raped, or robbed at gunpoint tends to raise a person's time preference for police protection rather sharply. As impressive as a 6-minute response time may be, to the victim of a violent crime in progress, it is an eternity. The greater the perceived likelihood of becoming such a victim is, the greater will be the discount on the present value of police services which, from the moment the need for them first arises, will not become available until (at least) 6 minutes into the future. The incentive will then be that much greater to supplant the discounted future services with a present .357 Magnum.
Of course, the reverse is also true: the very existence of a government security force will also tend to discourage gun ownership among those who live in more affluent, low-crime areas and who generally trust the efficiency and professionalism of the police. Here we have in view individuals who would become gun owners if there were no government police, but who, because such a force does in fact exist (and because they are compelled to pay for it despite its relatively low marginal utility), elect to forego the added expense of self-defense preparedness. Not surprisingly, most advocates of gun control fall into this category. Since, however, the police response time lag still exists even for them and can never be reduced to zero, the effect may be to induce a false sense of security among such people, leaving them unprepared for those rare instances of violent crime that do occur. Some of the more recent mass shootings may be cited as examples.
To Ban or Not to Ban: Guns and Market Law Enforcement
Since everyone’s real concern is security, what is needed is a set of voluntary social arrangements that balances the widely divergent and sometimes mutually exclusive conditions under which different people feel “safe.” As those who self-identify as conservatives on the whole tend to associate security with gun ownership, such arrangements would have to allow for the private ownership of firearms. However, since “liberals” tend to feel threatened by virtually anyone (except the government) owning a gun, these same agreements would also have to promote conditions under which even the most hoplophobic would feel generally at ease, despite living among many potentially armed neighbors.
I submit that only a market-law approach to this problem has any reasonable prospect of achieving this balance. There are several reasons for this, two of which I will address here.
Monopoly vs. Competition
The first result of ending the state’s monopoly on police protection, and replacing it with a competitive market composed of multiple private security firms, would be an immediate and dramatic improvement in quality of service. Not only would there be little reason for anyone to fear harassment or brutality by employees of private security firms, which would depend for their revenues on the voluntary patronage of consumers, but also, in stark contrast to government policing, the biggest markets for such firms would be where crime is most prevalent, i.e., the inner cities. Indeed, many security firms might well be “neighborhood-owned” and specialize in serving (and hiring from within) those areas most neglected by government police.
Moreover, the introduction of competition and price transparency would necessarily lead to a vastly more efficient allocation of capital resources. As a result, it is not unthinkable that most or even all of the (now lower) cost of residential security services might be borne, not by the residents themselves, but by area businesses, since the economic gains they would reap from enhanced protection would easily offset the cost of a subscription to a security service from which all would benefit. Much as businesses today often pay for the “premium” edition of a software program, thereby financing the free “basic” version designed for home use, so shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and other inner-city entrepreneurs might well be happy to pay a premium for better security (e.g., more frequent patrols, officers on site, sophisticated surveillance and communication systems, and so on) that would cover at least the greater part of the cost of the same firm’s patrolling of residential neighborhoods. This, in turn, would significantly reduce call response times, making this easily one of the best “free rider problems” ever.
All this taken together would add up to a marked reduction in the demand for firearms among private individuals, especially those least competent to use them safely. Those on the left who are presently pushing for stricter gun laws would therefore be doubly satisfied: first by better protection services (and the resulting lower crime rates), and second, by the overall decline in gun ownership. Meanwhile, traditional conservatives could still maintain a strict from-my-cold-dead-hands posture if they wished, without fear of being forcibly disarmed by the collectivist zeal of their neighbors. But they would no longer have either poor policing or the looming threat of state tyranny as a justification for doing so.
In sum, under conditions of untrammeled competition among private security firms, all contracting parties would get at least some of what they wanted, and just as importantly, all could claim in some sense to be “right.” The ultimate result would be a decline in social conflict and an increase in the tendency among the population at large to turn to cooperative decision-making rather than to unilateral coercion as the primary means of arriving at solutions to complex social problems.
It is only by accepting the responsibility for solving a problem that one can hope to solve it. That is ultimately why the market works and legislative fiat does not. Market solutions to any social problem require honest inquiry and widespread voluntary participation in an unfathomably complex and spontaneously-evolving process of trial and error until a set of arrangements emerges that works, as far as possible, to the satisfaction of everyone. They also require that the provisions thus arrived at be continually adapted to meet the demands of an ever-changing world.
Legislated solutions require someone to give an order, and someone else to enforce it under threat of violent reprisal. And if the results are not favorable, it is the world that is expected to adapt to the legislation, and not vice-versa.
If we must have yet another “national conversation” on the subject of firearms and violence, this is what it should be about. Otherwise, I’m afraid Time will be running the same cover for a third time in 2028.
- 1. For an excellent treatment of this subject, see the essay “Private Law” in Robert Murphy’s