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What is freedom?

Many people, both pro-gun and pro-gun control, talk about freedom. But nobody ever really stops to define what it is, and then apply it to the gun debate. This leads to mischaracterizations, particularly from the pro-gun side, that any attempt to implement gun control policies is an infringement on freedom.

The ultimate end of this argument is to paint those in favor of gun control as "tyrants," or bring up the name of Hitler in an attempt to tar those on the other side. In this short essay, I will discuss what freedom is, how it can be maximized, and how limiting the availability of guns in the United States will maximize freedom for more people than current gun policy or less restrictive gun policies.

What is freedom?

Freedom, as those versed in even rudimentary political science know, comes in two variants, freedom "from," and freedom "to." Both of these are crucial in American society. We all want freedoms "to" do things that benefit us, and we want freedoms from things that harm us. We all want to be free to speak our minds; we all want to be free from, say, invasion by foreign nations. To these ends, Americans have tacitly agreed on a set of laws to help maximize our freedoms, as we recognize that we do need some laws to maintain the most freedom for all. These laws necessarily restrict things that some would call "freedoms," the freedom to kill is restricted -- but this protects the freedoms of other to live.

Many small-l libertarians argue that the only "laws" should be against force and fraud, and all else will fall into place. Unfortunately, this argument neglects the simplest of prima facie facts: that sometimes, rights collide. In such a case, whose freedom should prevail?

For instance, in the debate that pains libertarians to think about, whose right should prevail: a mother's right to control her body, or a fetus' right to live? Some argue that this depends more on whether a fetus is "alive" or not, but this is really not relevant to the question to the clash of rights.

Obviously, some freedoms do great harm. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre when there isn't one, to use a tired example, can lead to a riot or panic, with nothing "good" to come about from it. Sure, one could argue that making this illegal would be an infringement of the freedom of speech, but from a practical standpoint, the amount of freedom we (collectively) could gain by allowing people to shout fire in crowded theatres is far less than the amount we could gain by not having people stampeded in panic. After all, those stampeded people have just lost several rights, especially if they are killed in the process.

This is why the Supreme Court has decided to limit certain freedoms. Not all "freedoms" are normatively good, and a benchmark for deciding this could be if Freedom A limits Freedom B. Which freedom is more important?

We live in a society, and we do have to give up certain of our rights to that society in order to make it function. We willingly choose to sacrifice some of our hard-earned cash to make sure we have roads and prisons, clean water and clean air, public schools and public hospitals. We can disagree with what our tax dollars go to, but in the end, through peaceful public discourse eventually decided by an overwhelming majority, we as Americans decide what goals we have for our society, and which freedoms we choose to allow to prevail over others.

This decision and this decision process, is by no means easy, and it sometimes means making some difficult sacrifices. But in return, we get things that we would not otherwise have had. We must compromise, and in the process of compromise, never lose sight of our one true goal: the maximization of "the most freedom for everybody."

How can we maximize freedom? A Cost-Benefit Analysis

I think that virtually everybody on this forum agrees that freedom is the vital ingredient that makes America great. We all want to see as many people be as free as possible. But how to best achieve this end?

Here we reach the crux of my argument: that limiting the so-called "freedom" for individuals to own guns, will in the end lead to more freedoms, and more important freedoms, for more people.

What benefits come from allowing people to own guns? And what are the costs?

Judging from the opinions on this forum, guns are basically used for 4 things, each which I will address in turn, in terms of freedoms.

Benefits of guns

1. Collecting

    People who are strictly gun collectors are rather unlikely to turn to crime. But really, the "freedom" to collect objects is of limited social or individual normative good. If such an object is something other than, say, something designed to kill, it would be impossible in the American context to advocate that collecting it would be problematic in any way. People collect all sorts of things, from stamps to coins to other, less common collections. But the primary difference is, if a thief raids your stamp collection, he can't go out and kill somebody with it, or commit assault with a deadly stamp. Your gun collection, unless under strict lock and key, is in danger of becoming the next supply house for a criminal -- and that will lead, eventually and indirectly, to an abrogation of somebody else's rights. Now, is it a collector's fault that some dude just stole his guns and shot a woman in the head? No, not directly. But he could have prevented that death. Take away issues of fault for just one moment, and weigh the two rights independently: Was his "right" to look at guns more important than the right to life of another individual? Obviously, the answer is no. The issue of indirectness complicates the matter, but does not change the answer. (Note that I do not advocate that currently owned guns be turned in; just that future sales be restricted. More on this later.)

2. Target shooting

    This is a very similar line of analysis to that above, except just to note that target shooting has two purposes: pleasure, which is exactly the same line of analysis as that above, and practicing to shoot actual people, which I will address below.

3. Self-defense (against government)

    Every now and then, an extreme voice in the debate pops up and argues that if many Americans own guns, it is better for the general welfare of the country in case we are invaded by a foreign power, or by an American government gone tyrannical. Let's look at both of these in turn.

    As for fears of foreign invasion, given the strength of American military, there is virtually nothing that a civilian with a gun can do which the military could not. Often, this paranoia is manifested in fears of a increasingly powerful United Nations, but this is even sillier, as the United States maintains veto power in the Security Council (and would thus have far more to lose by withdrawing from the UN, despite what some radical critics have said). Thus, there is no present danger to the United States from foreign invasion of any kind, and if the danger arises, and arming the general populace becomes necessary, it should be done through the auspices of the US Military, where people will be guaranteed to receive training in marksmanship, and more importantly, gun safety.

    Other paranoid voices argue that the citizens should arm themselves against their own government. Sometimes they point to Waco or Ruby Ridge as examples, usually failing to note that it was precisely people arming themselves against government that attracted the government's attention in the first place. The US Government knows it's history -- it knows that Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, and even Hitler started out as leader of a small group of lunatics who had easy access to firearms. They used their guns to intimidate people, and thus gain power.

    Would you have supported the "freedom" for Hitler and his cronies to own guns in 1932? Mao in 1947-48? Because those freedoms directly led to the abrogation of the ultimate right -- the right to life -- for at least 30 million people. Gun control is NOT about a government trying to disarm a people so that government can be tyrannical. It is about trying to disarm people so that people cannot be.

    There is always the possibility (although an incredibly remote one) that another Hitler may arise to power, democratically elected and supported, and begin to ignore the basic ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But not only can we elect our leaders, we can un-elect them as well. We have extensive checks and balances to make sure no one person or agency can have too much power, and we have a healthy respect for democracy earned over 200 years. These are features that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan lacked. There is always the possibility that another Hitler will come, yes, but in the meantime, we have the certainty of the annual toll in gun damage, which I will speak about later. We must weigh this certainty against the infinitesimally small chance that our well-constructed checks and balances will suddenly all fail.

    And what if they do fail? What can we do about it if we are not armed? First, let's answer the contrapositive: what can we do about it if, say, the US Military takes over, and we are armed? Frankly, the number of people supporting a rebellion will be far more important than their weapons. One town of guys with shotguns won't cow the US Military, and a .45 isn't much good against an F-15. So unless one is prepared to argue that civilians should have the right to own similar weaponry, heavy artillery, even nuclear weapons, this argument must fall.

    Now, we answer the question, what can we do about it if, say, the US Military takes over, and we are not armed? The only option is to do what the Russians did; mass revolt. If numbers are sufficient, guns are not necessary. It took nary a shot to bring down the USSR. If 10 million Chinese (just 1% of the nation) streamed into Tiananmen Square demanding a new government (rather than the 1,000 or so who did previously), the government would have no choice but to comply.

4. Self-defense (against other individuals)

    Self-defense against crime is the only argument in favor of guns I find even remotely plausible or persuasive. However, even the best studies, such as Kleck's or Lott's, suffer from multiple trauma in their methodological flaws or lack of causational analysis. Indeed, when one tries to justify the premise that an armed society = a polite society, it fails on the most obvious of terms. One needs only to look at societies like Bosnia to realize the falsehood in this. Why is it so? Because people with guns are not generally afraid of people with guns. Guns are not an equalizer; they give the advantage to the quicker draw, who has the finger on the trigger pointed at whom first. In a society when criminals have easy access to arms, their finger is on the trigger, and there is precious little that we can do about it.

    The guns lobby argues that guns save X lives a year, and protect X million dollars in property crime. They argue that in this way, guns save lives. But in a society where there are 250 million guns in civilian hands, and local gun control ordinances are routinely ignored, we can already say that we are an armed society: why, then, do over 100,000 people a year get shot, with over 13,000 fatalities? And if guns were supposed to be a deterrent to crime, with that many guns in that many hands, can't we conclude that guns as general deterrents simply don't work? Especially when we compare ourselves to other 1st World, industrialized nations, we see that our policy of letting guns stop crime is failing miserably.

    It is the most persuasive argument of the gun lobby when they say, "A woman is alone in her house, and she hears intruders downstairs, plotting to rape and kill her -- without a gun, she's dead." This is probably true, but it lacks a big picture analysis. How often does this scenario happen -- where death or serious injury is certain? There is virtually no way to measure it, yet we must compare it against the certainty of another 13,000 corpses and 100,000 injuries a year. No study has done this, to my knowledge, and no study can. Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if those criminals themselves have guns, for if so, the gun lobby's claims of guns being protectors are turned on their heads, and guns actually abetted the crime.

    In the absence of a methodologically sound study of individual self-defense benefits, we must ask ourselves: why is it that a society like Great Britain or Australia (similar, though not identical, in social terms to ours in that they are Christian-dominated heterogeneous representative democracies) has stricter gun controls, and far less gun crime? These examples alone demonstrate the folly of "more guns = more protection." With 250 million guns in the USA, it hasn't worked.

Costs of guns

These are just some quick figures. They are certain, they are definite. There is virtually no debate on these.

  • Approximately 60 percent of all murder victims in the United States in 1989 (about 12,000 people) were killed with firearms. According to estimates, firearm attacks injured another 70,000 victims, some of whom were left permanently disabled. In 1985 (the latest year for which data are available), the cost of shootings--either by others, through self-inflicted wounds, or in accidents--was estimated to be more than $14 billion nationwide for medical care, long-term disability, and premature death. In robberies and assaults, victims are far more likely to die when the perpetrator is armed with a gun than when he or she has another weapon or is unarmed. (Jeffrey A. Roth, Firearms and Violence. NIJ Research in Brief, February 1994).

  • The number of gun victims has increased since 1989 to 15,456 gun homicides in 1994. (FBI UCR report)

  • The cost of firearm injuries in the US in 1990 was an estimated $20.4 billion. This includes $1.4 billion for direct expenditures for health care and related goods, $1.6 billion in lost productivity resulting from injury-related disability, and $17.4 billion in lost productivity from premature death. (Max and Rice, 1993)

  • A recent study of inpatient medical care for firearm- related injuries at an university trauma center (UC-Davis Medical Center) estimated that the actual cost of providing direct health care for firearm-related injuries in the US in 1995 is projected to be $4.0 BILLION. (Kizer et al., 1995)

  • Firearm injuries are the third most costly injury the US. Although they represent only 0.5% of all injuries, they account for 9% of the total US lifetime cost of injury. (Max and Rice, 1993)

  • The average cost of hospitalization for a patient with a firearm injury was found to be $6915 in 1984 (Martin, Hunt and Hulley, 1988), which translates to $19,173 in 1993 dollars. Costs can range up to $500,000 per patient in some centers. (Wintemute and Wright, 1992)

  • The average cost of treating a child wounded by gunfire could provide a student with a year of college education. Researchers surveyed hospital discharges from 44 children s hospitals and found that in 1991 the average hospital charges for gunshot wounds to children were $14,434, about the cost of tuition, room and board at a private college. (National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions, Inc.)

  • At least 80% of the cost of firearm injuries are borne, directly or indirectly, by the taxpayer. (Wintemute and Wright, 1992)

  • The cost of firearm injuries treated at major trauma centers are substantial and the increasing volume of unreimbursed care for such injuries has become an important factor in the decision of many hospitals to end their participation in organized trauma systems. (General Accounting Office, 1991)

  • Considerable savings to society would accrue from an effort that decreased firearm injuries, even if the same level of violence persisted using other weapons. A recent study from one trauma center in Seattle (Mock, Pilcher and Maier, 1994) demonstrated a substantial financial benefit if all patients with firearm injuries instead had suffered only stab wounds. This would have resulted in an annual overall savings of $1,290,000 in that one institution alone and $500,000,000 nationwide.

(The above quotations are compiled in The Economic Costs of Firearm Violence, prepared by Joy Blevins, M.S., M.F.C.C.)

There you have it: costs of up to $20 billion, most of which is borne by the taxpayer, which limits our rights and freedoms. Hundreds of thousands of injuries, limiting the freedoms of those shot, and tens of thousands of deaths, completely halting those freedoms.

In the balance of freedoms, the gun-control side is winning. Guns cost our society more freedom than they are worth.

But how can you limit my God-given rights?

I, personally, will not limit your rights. If I were made supreme ruler and law-maker of the USA tomorrow, I would not pass whatever gun laws I pleased, but instead, try to convince people, as I am doing now, that limiting the ability to own guns is the choice people should make. If enough people believed me, then such laws would be passed. America would not become a gun-free society overnight; it would take even longer to de-gun America than it did for it to amass its civilian arsenal. But importantly, I in no way advocate "taking" guns myself, or on behalf of government. That can only be done by a democratic process, when people are willing to do it.

Rights come from one of two places. Either they are granted by God, or they are formed in agreement among people. Since God, although an important part of American society, has no official place in American government, our system of rights is based on an implicit social contract, one in which the general goal is to maximize freedom. Only when the American public comes to its senses and realizes that guns cost more than they are worth, will we all agree to limit one freedom, to provide us with another.

How will this plan be remotely achievable?

This is also known as the "workability" argument, or by some, the "I refuse to submit" argument. How can we possibly get people to "give up their guns"? Well, as I indicated above, we can't, unless they are willing to. This is why I advocate explaining the costs of guns as much as possible, and fighting the gun lobby at every turn. Only when we convince gun owners that their guns are dangerous to the freedoms of others can we hope to succeed. If nobody buys the argument, and everybody wants guns, then all I can (and will) do is continue to attempt to persuade otherwise. But I believe that when looking at the problem honestly and evaluating the tremendous costs of guns to our freedoms, and their relatively minimal returns on such, we as a society will decide to maximize our freedoms by giving up the guns.

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