Liberty and Ammo

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My recent column that references OSHA’s silly grouping of firearm ammunition with true explosives, equating to a potential ban on ammunition sales, elicited quite a few comments (apologies for misrepresenting the possibly apocryphal story about Bush 41’s encounter with a supermarket scanner). One strain within this motivates me to clarify my own views of the role guns play in the current and future battle for liberty.

Folks, at the risk of offending a lot of LRC readers, I have to admit that I think guns will play no direct role in this battle whatsoever. In the age of overwhelming government power where no habitable place on the globe is free from domination by one nation-state or another, it is simply impossible that armed men are going to secede and then win an ensuing firefight with government minions.

In every case where old forms of government are cast off, sometimes to the accompaniment of gunfire, there is always an undercurrent of ideas that creates the necessary commitment of residents to the new paradigm. These ideas may be good or evil, but it is the ideas, not the bullets, that are the necessary ingredient for change.

In today’s America we are on the fast track toward the Total State where no element of human existence is free from the suffocating influence of government employees. In some respects we’re already there, since who among us would give our child a swat on the rump in public without immediately worrying about someone calling the local u201CChild Protection Agency,u201D and as we know today’s government employees even dictate how much water a flush toilet can use.

This fast track exists because our friends, neighbors, and co-workers accept the premises on which the Total State is built. They accept the notion, without thought, that by aggregating tax money and the power to direct human choice in the hands of a few elected and (far more commonly) appointed persons the whole product of government will be greater than the sum of its parts. They believe that the United States government and all its vassals at the state and local levels are institutions that produce more than they consume; they see the government as the sole exception in the universe to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

People almost universally see things this way despite the daily litany and lifetime experience of waste, corruption, and sleaze that accompany every level of government. Even government employees whose daily work immerses them in waste and resource misallocation hold faith that there’s no alternative to this massive institution that early in the twenty-first century has crowded out or co-opted nearly all other lawful forms of human organization.

Against this backdrop we still are occasionally treated to exhortations to stock up on battle rifles and case quantities of ammo in preparation for the Second American Revolution. To me this creates a dangerous notion and understandably makes our neighbors (the ones that read such things without understanding the underlying philosophy) nervous.

Acquiring skill with a rifle or pistol is great sport. Unlike golf (also a game of concentration and self-control more than physical strength or stamina), shooting has a side-benefit of having a practical application in self-defense. Sometimes, however, people get carried away with this.

First, since the state is our neighbors’ only real source of acceptable violence, any effort to employ violence against the state’s employees will always be interpreted badly by the neighbors. Nobody fights the law without the law winning because the neighbors identify with the law. Violence against the state in any form simply becomes a rationalization for repression. As long as the state is seen by a plurality of our neighbors as Mother, Father, Protector, and Provider, all violence simply strengthens those who rule. What could set the cause of liberty back further than the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing or the events of 9/11? People who employ violence against government facilities or employees are the identical twins of totalitarians everywhere.

Second, since the state monopoly on violence rests on popular belief, even violence employed in self-defense against freelance criminals will always be viewed in the most negative light possible. This makes employment of even u201Cjustifiedu201D violence quite risky from a legal standpoint. Violence employed in self-defense is thus a very last resort and nothing to be joked about or taken lightly.

Guns do matter. They matter philosophically because free men and women do not depend on the state’s minions for their own personal safety. They are thus an indicator of citizen power versus government power at the moral level. I carry a spare tire and a jack in my car, but I still try to avoid conditions that might cause a flat, and even if I get a flat there’s a decent chance I’ll call AAA to get a professional to change the tire. The jack and the spare simply give me the option to change the tire should circumstances warrant and avoid my being wholly dependent upon tow-truck businesses.

Given that in this case the government analogy to the tow truck industry is a tax-supported police monopoly, it’s no stretch of imagination to suspect that complete and total citizen dependence on the police for crime suppression would be the Gift that Keeps on Giving to police unions engaged in collective bargaining. Only a cynic would suggest the cops might become scarce in middle class residential areas during negotiations…right?

Guns also matter practically by providing deterrence to freelance criminals. America has always been a relatively violent place and we know from other western countries that removing the threat of potential violence from the hands of average citizens creates nothing more than a free-fire range where Joe Citizen is trapped between the (armed) cops and the (armed) robbers. In this sense privately owned guns deter by their potential employment, not by the body count of criminals shot by victims.

Guns in private citizens’ hands increase the cost of victimizing people; elementary economics tells us to expect that reducing or eliminating this cost should make the quantity of violent crime u201Cprovidedu201D increase. This appears to be consistent with experience in the UK, Jamaica, and other places enforcing a legal monopoly of government gun ownership.

In sum, gun ownership is very important but the real war is one of ideas.

You are on the front lines with General Lew, parrying the lies, myths, and obfuscations of the enemy with rhetorical jabs and penetrating questions. We win some battles and we lose others as the pendulum of dominant ideas swings between power and liberty in a never-ending war. The level of liberty our children and we enjoy depends on our persuasiveness and on the tenor of the public’s openness to truth and reality (which changes over time).

We who live relatively free of the dogma surrounding the institution called u201Cgovernmentu201D have little choice. We cannot through reason, and especially not through violence, force an idea whose time has not yet come. We can only be persistent, good-humoredly repeating the truth while patiently awaiting the time when conditions evolve to provide a more fertile soil for liberty’s growth. In the meantime we gain enough defectors from the other side to keep things interesting.

July 7, 2007

David Calderwood [send him mail] a businessman, artist, and author of the novel Revolutionary Language, selected January 2000 Freedom Book of the Month at

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