Mises Daily Articles
Gun Control — on the Government's Guns
The recent mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and then in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, have led to renewed demands for "gun control" aimed ultimately at depriving the individual citizen of his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. It is believed that if the individual were deprived of this right, such shootings would not take place, because of the sheer lack of available weaponry.
Let me say immediately that I too believe in gun control. However, I do so in the light of the knowledge that by far the largest number and the most powerful guns and other weapons are in the possession of the government. First and foremost, of course, the federal government, which has atomic and hydrogen bombs, as well as ballistic missiles with which to deliver them, fleets of warships, and thousands upon thousands of tanks, planes, artillery pieces, machine guns, and lesser weapons. State and local governments also possess considerable weaponry, though less than the federal government. But just the revolvers, rifles, shot guns, clubs, tear gas, and tasers in their possession are capable of causing serious injury and death, and frequently do so.
Moreover, the threat of deadly force is implicitly present in every law, regulation, ruling, or decree that emanates from any government office, at any level. The threat of such force is what compels obedience on the part of the citizens. Even such an innocuous offense as a parking violation is capable of resulting in death if a person persists in not paying the fine imposed and, when ultimately confronted with arrest, resists by physically defending himself.
Literally everything the government does is ultimately a threat to point a gun at someone and use it if necessary. If this were not the case, the law, regulation, ruling, or whatever, would be without force or effect. People would be free to ignore it if they wished. Because of the government's implicit threat to use deadly force to uphold its decisions, any meaningful program of gun control must above all focus on strictly controlling and regulating the activities of the government.
The government possesses overwhelming power to respond to the use of force by common criminals. That is its basic domestic function. The very existence of laws against such crimes as murder, robbery, and rape serves as a control on the use of force, including the use of guns, by the potential perpetrators of such acts, because it constitutes a deterrent to them. The more efficient the government is in apprehending the perpetrators of such acts and the more certain is their appropriate punishment, the greater is the deterrent, and thus the more effective is the implicit gun control.
Our entire Constitution and Bill of Rights are essential measures of gun control — this time, gun control directed against the government. For example, the First Amendment prohibits the government from using its guns to abridge the freedoms of speech or press. The Second Amendment prohibits the government from using its guns to abridge the freedom of the citizen to keep and bear arms. Indirectly, the Second Amendment also operates to limit the government's use of its guns to abridge freedom in general. This is because, in our system of checks and balances, an armed citizenry constitutes a check on the possibility of the government becoming tyrannical and attempting to use its power to threaten the citizens' lives and property. It should be understood as protecting a balance between the power remaining in the hands of the people and the power they have delegated to their government. Indeed, the language of the Second Amendment — "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" — should be understood in this way.
The average American of today is intellectually so far removed from his forebears that instead of regarding government with apprehension, he is more likely to regard it as a virtual parent, concerned only with protecting and helping him. Evil, he believes, can come only from uncontrolled private individuals, notably greedy businessmen and capitalists and, now and then, psychopaths such as the murderers in Aurora and Oak Creek. And in these cases, of course, the solution is believed to be still more government power — power to tax, regulate, and control the businessmen and capitalists to the point of extinction and power ultimately to deprive private individuals of the right to own guns.
It simply doesn't occur to many people nowadays that government could be the source not only of massive economic ills but of human deaths on a scale dwarfing the deaths caused by the worst individual psychopaths. The number of murders attributable to governments around the world in the 20th century, including those resulting from government-caused famines in places such as the Ukraine and Communist China, is estimated to exceed 260 million. Of this total, Communist China is responsible for more than 76 million, the Soviet Union for almost 62 million, and Nazi Germany for almost 21 million (R.J. Rummel, Death By Government [New Brunswick, N.J., Transaction Publishers, 1994], note 1). Of particular note, approximately 2 million of the murders committed by Nazi Germany were in the form of mass shootings, similar in nature to those in Aurora and Oak Creek, but performed on a scale commensurate with the size of military units.
These were the dreaded SS Einsatzgruppen, sent into Soviet Russia behind the advancing German armies for the express purpose of murdering as many Jews as they could find. Organized into units ranging in size from platoons to battalions, approximately 3,000 government-employed psychopathic killers were set to work in a program of systematic mass murder. Unlike the recent horrors committed by the two American psychopaths, the horrors committed by these government-employed psychopaths were not limited to one time in just one day before they came to an end. No. They were repeated many times in a day, day after day, for months on end.
Again and again, hundreds and thousands of defenseless people, including women and children, were shot down, often machine-gunned in front of trenches they had been made to dig and into which they fell dead, in mass graves. Such murders came to an end only when replaced by the more efficient method of mass murder represented by gas chambers, which accounted for 4 million more murders of Jews added to the 2 million carried out by mass shootings.
If only the victims had been armed! If the 6 million murdered Jews had been armed, and ready to fight for their lives when the Nazis came for them, they might have been able to make at least one Nazi pay with his life for each Jewish family taken away. That would have worked out to roughly a million Nazis. The anticipation of such an outcome might well have been enough to prevent or at least abort the Nazi's policy of mass extermination. It would have been an enormous illustration of the principle that guns in the hands of victims serve as a control on guns in the hands of murderers or would-be murderers, or aggressors of any kind. In Aurora, in the movie theater where the murders took place, if members of the audience had been permitted to have guns in their possession, the number of victims would almost certainly have been far less. Anyone sitting near the killer and in possession of a gun, would have been able quickly to stop him.
The last thing the United States needs is "gun control" in the sense of depriving its citizens of their right to own guns. What it does need is control over the use of guns by its government.
The people of the United States and their elected representatives have literally lost much of their control over their government and its use of its weapons. Since 1945, the United States has been engaged in four wars — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq — not declared by Congress, despite the fact that the Constitution clearly provides that Congress shall have the power to declare war. The same process of growing government power, concentrated in the executive branch, that has eliminated the need for Congress to declare war, has removed judicial protection for economic freedom and thus practically all restraint on the power of Congress to interfere in economic activity.
This has resulted in Congress possessing far more power than it is directly capable of exercising, with the further result that it has had to delegate most of its additional lawmaking powers to dozens of independent regulatory agencies. As of December, 2010, these agencies, located in the executive branch, had written a total of 75,000 pages of regulations, each carrying the force of law. The regulatory agencies, moreover, exercise legislative, executive, and judicial power. They act as prosecutor, judge, and jury. Thus, we now have dozens of unelected, unaccountable bodies writing the equivalent of laws and authorizing the use of guns to enforce them. Gun control requires the abolition of such agencies.
The government and its use of its weapons are falling increasingly out of the control of the American people and their elected representatives. A government whose activities are beyond the capability of an intelligent, conscientious representative or senator to understand, is a government that is out control. Those in charge of it do not, and cannot, know what they are doing, despite the fact that they are doing it with guns. Most of them do not even read and carefully study, let alone fully understand, most of the bills they are called to vote upon. Routinely, they enact laws whose consequences they do not know, and whose essential terms they cannot even define. To put it mildly, this is an extremely dangerous state of affairs.
Genuine gun control, not the variety urged by the leftist dominated media, requires a radical rollback in government activity. The rollback must proceed to the point of the government having the authority to use its weapons only against those who have committed acts of aggression, i.e., the initiation of physical force, against the person or property of others. This, of course, includes the use of defensive and retaliatory force against foreign governments that have committed acts of aggression against the United States and its citizens.
Failure to stop and reverse the advance of government power and our and other governments' increasingly uncontrolled threat to use their guns is capable of resulting in a number of people murdered by their governments later in this century far exceeding even the total recorded for the 20th century. The more than a quarter of a billion people murdered by their governments in the last century may well be exceeded by billions of people being murdered by their governments in this century.
Who might want to murder billions of people? Who are the waiting mega-Communists and mega-Nazis of this century that would put such plans into effect if they should ever come to power? They are the people who share such sentiments as those expressed by Britain's Prince Philip when he wrote, "I just wonder what it would be like to be reincarnated in an animal whose species had been so reduced in numbers than it was in danger of extinction. What would be its feelings toward the human species whose population explosion had denied it somewhere to exist.… I must confess that I am tempted to ask for reincarnation as a particularly deadly virus."
The murder of billions of people is implied in the thinking of anyone who holds the belief that there are "too many" billions of people. The billions who constitute the "too many" — the allegedly "surplus," "unnecessary," "environmentally destructive" billions — they are the potential targets of a future mega-holocaust.
True, such a holocaust is not inescapably implied. Population might fall simply as the result of a voluntary fall in the birth rate. Indeed, this has actually taken place in many of the world's advanced economies. And if population does not fall as the cumulative result of voluntary individual choices, or fall "sufficiently" to satisfy the likes of Prince Philip, moral abominations short of mass murder, might also achieve the goal of mass depopulation. Compulsory sterilization and forced abortions, such as practiced in Communist China, come readily to mind. But add a strong enough dose of psychopathic hatred for mankind, plus uncontrolled government power in the hands of the haters, and murder on the scale of billions becomes a definite possibility.
This is the year 2012. How many people in 1912 could have foreseen that in just two years, the world would be plunged into generations of mass killing and mass murder, inspired for the far greater part by the collectivist ideologies of nationalism and socialism? Is it impossible that the world of the years ahead will similarly be marked by the rise of environmentalist dictatorships dedicated to the eradication of the billions, native or foreign, whose existence they perceive as destroying the "environment" or as standing in the way of the living standards of those who will be allowed to remain?
Have the antihuman ideologies already at the fore in the early 20th century been replaced by an ideology of individual rights and economic freedom? Is the world moving away from collectivism and socialism and toward laissez-faire capitalism, or, to the contrary, is even the slightest trace of economic freedom described as laissez-faire and blamed for the existence of the present economic crisis, thereby impelling the world toward still more government control and still less economic freedom?
There is clearly a potential threat to human life and well-being looming on the horizon that is of unprecedented proportions. It is present in the openly expressed hate-filled, murderous ideas of many people. Sooner or later, in response to this or that crisis or series of crises, these ideas will be translated into physical action if not overcome by other, prohuman ideas. The likelihood of a catastrophic outcome is steadily increased by the continuing increase in government power and corresponding reduction in individual freedom. With each passing decade, the United States resembles less and less the country of its founders and more and more a country such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. If the trend of the last several generations continues, it is only a question of time before the United States will become indistinguishable from a totalitarian dictatorship.
To be secure against the threat of a totalitarian regime with a policy of mass murder, or the threat of tyranny of any kind, the American people must retain their right to keep and bear arms and restore it wherever it has been abridged. They must reestablish control over their government. Congress must regain its exclusive right to declare war and its exclusive right to legislate. The courts must be required to uphold economic freedom. The government must be reduced in size and scope to the point that conscientious legislators can understand its operations in detail and be in a position intelligently to enact laws designed to control them. That is what is required to establish genuine, meaningful gun control.
The American people must not allow themselves to be misled into giving up their right to own guns by the occasional, and almost always avoidable, tragedies that accompany gun ownership, such as a small child finding its way to a loaded gun and pulling the trigger. On the basis of such a standard, people would also have to give up driving cars, to avoid the tragedies that often accompany automobile accidents, and also even using horses and buggies, in order to avoid the tragic accidents that can result in connection with them. What must always be kept in mind is the incomparably greater potential danger of untold numbers of children losing their parents and their own lives to government-employed murderers unleashed on a disarmed population.
To impose gun control on their government, the American people need in addition to arm themselves in a way that is more fundamental than merely possessing physical weapons. They need to arm themselves intellectually and morally as well, by reading and studying the works of the great modern defenders of freedom, above all, Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand. This will enable them to counter and overcome the vicious ideas that underlie the misuse of government power and its continuing growth. An armament of physical weapons combined with knowledge and moral conviction will ensure that the American people will never find themselves in the position of helpless, terrified people being led as sheep to the slaughter. They will never allow themselves to be either the victims or the perpetrators of a holocaust, for they will have regained control over their government and its use of its weapons. They will have achieved the kind of gun control that secures their lives and property and threatens the lives and property of no one else.