Interview With Jeff Snyder

Very often, anti-gun activists claim guns do kill people, while their opposers assure that guns, on the contrary, do save lives. Actually, real statistics and crude numbers seems to agree with the latter, as – among other – John Lott showed in his well known More Guns, Less Crime. Anyway, stats and numbers cannot answer the entire question; rights cannot lie on data books. One should also make a moral argument. Do people have the right to be free? In that case, do they have the right to protect themselves? Finally, do they have the right to use arms for self-defence? If so, it shouldn't matter whether, according statistics, guns wither kill or save lives. The fact that one should be allowed to defend himself simply excludes that government disarm him.

We have talked of this, and much more, with Jeff Snyder, whose last book, Nation of Cowards (Accurate Press, 2001) is a strong case in defence of the individual right to keep and bear arms.

On September 11, 2001, the worst terrorist act in history was committed without any guns. The terrorists were armed only with knives and box-cutters. Some say that the hijackers found it quite easy to realize their plans; airplane passengers, in fact, can't carry firearms. Even pilots and cabin stewards are unarmed. What about gun-free airplanes and airports?

The track record of gun-free zones is, how shall we say this, less than impressive: post offices, schools, and now, airplanes. The events of September 11 could not have occurred but for the fact that air travelers are disarmed, and airplanes are a Second Amendment free zone. In no other way could the terrorists have commandeered the planes with box cutters and pocket knives, turned them into flying bombs, and wrought such massive destruction of life, property, and our economy. This is not because the terrorists would have been afraid of being shot and killed by passengers, since they were obviously prepared to die. Instead, they would have known that they would not succeed in carrying out their mission against the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and so there would have been no point in trying that.

So it turns out that depriving people of freedom has its costs. It is hard to conceive of a more graphic illustration.

People imagine that curbing liberty will prevent those with evil intentions from carrying them out, by depriving them of the ability to act in a dangerous or deadly fashion. However, liberty is not just the necessary condition for bad people to act, it is also the necessary condition for good people to act. Unless the act prohibited is mala in se (wrong in itself), like murder, then restricting liberty in hopes of rendering bad people harmless comes at the price of incapacitating good people and rendering them helpless.

This is a Faustian bargain that would not appear desirable to the good unless the good believed that it was not their responsibility to act. It appeals to those who think of themselves as consumers of public safety, who believe, with the State's encouragement, that government can and will control external reality to deliver a safe world to them. So they choose to trust in government control, which expressly promises to deal with the problem, rather than relying on the unpredictable chance that their fellow citizens have the moral capacity and willingness to do the right thing when circumstances call upon them to do so. They know that they do not intend to act, but expect government officials to save them. How, then, can they believe that other citizens will do so? Fundamentally, then, this concept of the "gun-free zone" reveals a very profound failure or inability to trust in one another. Of course, we are encouraged by the State to trust in it, in lieu of or in preference to trusting in one another.

Do you still believe that America is "a nation of cowards"?

No. Actually I think that Americans are, by and large, encamped in a mental state that precedes cowardice. Cowardice implies that a person knows what he ought to do, but shrinks or flies from it in fear or self-interest. The bulk of Americans, it seems to me, are in one or two states that precede awareness and acceptance of the notion that they should defend themselves: (1) denial that anything will happen to them, or belief that their risk is adequately controlled by insuring that they work and live and travel only in what they perceive to be "safe" neighborhoods, i.e., relatively crime free zones; or (2) belief that it is not really their responsibility to protect themselves or others, but the state's, and that the state will protect them. I suspect that most Americans do not acknowledge that they have any responsibility to protect themselves from a violent assault, or have not realized or accepted the reality of what that entails, or believe that avoidance of "dangerous areas" is adequate. I might be wrong, because there is a third possibility, namely, that they are fully cognizant of the risks and accept them, but do not wish to become "the kind of person" that carries a gun everywhere, or cannot be bothered with the nuisance of it all. If that position is adopted with full awareness of the implications, it is not cowardice.

Your book is a strong case against utility. You state every individual has the right to keep and bear arms and, more generally, certain rights, no matter whether or not it leads to a more prosperous and peaceful society. Why?

I do not believe that rights are founded on prudential grounds, nor do I believe that individuals are entitled by society or their government to possess or exercise rights only so long as society or the state judges (whether rightly or wrongly) that the rights confer an aggregate net benefit upon society or the state as a whole. I have been concerned in many of my writings to demonstrate this, as well as the corollary proposition, that rights cannot be defended or justified on utilitarian grounds, since to undertake such a defense is to imply that rights require a utilitarian justification, and are therefore contingent on positive aggregate outcomes. By the way, I speak of social utilitarianism, normally expressed as "the greatest good for the greatest number," not of individual utilitarianism, that is, the notion that each individual acts to maximize his individual welfare.

Utilitarianism is a result-driven ethic, that is, it is driven by a desire to secure a specified result, a particular "greatest good," desired by the greatest number. Utilitarianism thus concerns itself with gaming the outcome of the exercise of man's freedom. By definition, all matters are necessarily subordinate to the acquisition of the "greatest good" for the "greatest number," a particular aggregate net benefit. As a result, particular individuals simply don't count and, in fact, the philosophy sanctions the use of individuals solely as a means to an end, that is, it sanctions human sacrifice, so long as those to be sacrificed are not so numerous that it eliminates rather than contributes to the overall aggregate benefit.

This is very evident in Handgun Control Inc.'s writings in favor of gun control. They do not deny that some people successfully use guns to defend themselves, and they freely site Department of Justice Statistics that report that this happens about 65,000 times a year. But they argue that this benefit is small in comparison to the number of homicides, suicides and crimes committed with guns each year, and that it would result in a greater benefit to society to eliminate or severely restrict access to handguns. Thus, tacitly, by their own admission, the 65,000 persons a year who would otherwise benefit from having a gun are to be sacrificed in favor of the hundreds of thousands a year who will benefit from elimination of guns.

Because utilitarianism is concerned with securing a desired aggregate outcome, whether the individual is permitted liberty to act depends on whether his fellow citizens are, in the aggregate, using their liberty to achieve the desired good. If not, the individual's liberty may be curbed or re-directed. Thus, the individual's freedom depends on how others behave, and is defined and circumscribed with reference to the results that others achieve. In other words, you cannot carry a gun, because too many others are using them to commit crimes. Thus the scope of your freedom depends not on how you act, but on how others act.

By contrast, classically, individual rights are founded on the notion, as expressed by Kant, that each individual is "an end in himself," that all are entitled to be treated as having equal dignity, and that it is therefore wrong to treat others solely as a means to a desired end. A philosophy of individual right is not results-driven, and therefore does not sanction human sacrifice in favor of the highest good desired by the greatest number. An approach that rests on man's freedom cannot, by definition, be driven by outcome or result: if men are left free, the outcome will be left variable! Of necessity, then, an approach that rests on freedom cannot possibly guaranty a specified, favorable outcome, either individually or in the aggregate. It cannot, therefore, promise safety, security, a reduction in violent crime, etc. Such concerns are blissfully beside the point, for the point is precisely to respect each individual as an end in himself.

However, individual autonomy and dignity are thin reeds to hang anything on these days! It's just not enough, you understand! And I often think that that would be a pretty good epitaph for the whole wretched 20th Century: "Dignity Was Not Enough." People seem to believe they are more secure on the seemingly "scientific" grounds found in the results uncovered by social scientists. For example, in the gun control debate, you find people who are immensely comforted and bolstered by the findings of John Lott, that concealed carry laws are associated with measurable, significant decreases in violent crimes. They feel that this, truly, establishes legitimacy for their right to carry arms. Who needs ethics when you have numbers? Amazing.

Many people agree with you, that anyone should be able to own and carry a handgun for personal defense. But what about military weapons? Don't you think it would be dangerous to let people be so strongly armed?

I do not wish to alarm you, but we already freely permit people to have military weapons and, what's worse, the people we permit to have these weapons are clearly the most dangerous people on the planet. I mean, of course, those in government. Do I take your question, then, to mean, that while we manage to live in the world with this state of affairs, the incremental danger of letting anyone else (who is so inclined) have these weapons would be simply too dangerous and intolerable, so that it is better to protect the monopolies enjoyed by those now in power?

I am sorry to be a little glib, but really I don't know how to answer your question. It is a sometimes unfortunate fact that we generally take the familiar, the status quo, as the proper baseline for judging all matters and see any change productive of uncertainty as an intolerable threat to our current comfort level. This is illustrated in the gun control debate all the time. People are concerned that, if concealed weapons permit laws are passed that allow any sane, law-abiding adult to carry a handgun for self-defense, these unknown strangers will be a danger to their community. You see, what do we really know about these people, and what training do these people really have? Yet ask them how much they really know about the police who are carrying not only handguns but also who have shotguns and, sometimes, semiautomatic rifles in their cars. What do they really know about the temper, character and personality of these people? What do they really know about their training? Basically, they know nothing about that. They know they wear uniforms that make them look "official" and that they work for a respected organization that is supposed to protect them, and this is enough. It is familiar; it is part of the ordinary fabric of life, so it is part of the baseline or background against which risks are measured, rather than part of the risk assessment itself. If you try to point out to them that they already live, quite comfortably and with scarcely a thought, with the risk they are supposedly worried about, they look at you like you are a madman. It is a failure of imagination. They cannot step off the baseline, cannot see the world apart from the baseline.

Really, would we any better or worse off if the individual right to keep and bear arms clearly encompassed the right to own tanks, fighter jet aircraft, stinger missiles, and suitcase nukes? I have no idea, but I think that the question is unanswerable except as a general indication of our beliefs about the nature of people. However, I will say that, at least here in the United States, historically, at least prior to the 1960s, except for the 1934 tax imposed on machine guns (which had the merit of doubling their cost to help keep them out of the hands of the disgruntled poor), I believe that there were no legal prohibitions against owning most military weapons. I am not aware of any instances during this period in which the absence of these legal prohibitions led to societal horrors. Perhaps almost all who are inclined to use these weapons against their fellow man are attracted to service in government, where it is socially acceptable?

You say that the Second Amendment affirms an individual right, which exists before any organized government, so that it cannot be repealed any more than we could repeal the right to life or any other natural or God-given right. But don't you think, as some say, that it is an anachronistic legacy of the Revolutionary War?

Okay, you're baiting me now! First, I hope that I do not say this, but that I simply state what was once believed or elucidate the implications of the now largely forgotten theory of natural rights. I try to demonstrate how far we have fallen away from this understanding and, correspondingly, how illegitimate our government has become judged by reference to its founding principles. I do this mostly for my own edification but also in hopes that others will pick up the thread and re-examine the whole question of the nature of the state and its legitimacy.

I'm not going to take the bait and argue that the right is just as relevant today as it was at the time of the Revolutionary War, nor address the claim that, since small arms are insufficient to defeat a modern army, with its helicopter gun-ships, laser-guided bombs and satellite surveillance, the right is quite anachronistic, at least in terms of protecting against government tyranny, because I'm not really interested in that. You're still judging the right's right to exist by whether or not the right works. The question implies a utilitarian standard. If it isn't productive of desired or useful results in the present age, it has no raison d'eêtre. The question in this case is, rather, why you think you have a right to deprive a peaceable individual of this liberty because it doesn't produce any discernible benefits for you or others. Is Carlo's idea of utility the measure of all things, is Carlo the center of the universe which, himself unmoved, moves all he surveys? Or do others have equal autonomy and dignity? For if so, then there is no single measure of a common utility held in common, and, all being equal, no one has a right to impose his will on others. Or to say the same thing a bit differently, a common or shared utility exists, if at all, only to the extent of what people do entirely by voluntary association and cooperation.

Or perhaps your question really inquires into the status of natural rights, namely, whether or not what we call "natural" rights are really simply historical in nature, or creatures of custom, and can therefore come into and go out of existence. If they can be made by custom, why can't they also be unmade by custom? Or, if they are made by custom, why can't they be unmade by positive law?

The theory is that such rights are in some sense "God-given," or necessarily presupposed in individual autonomy or dignity and in the tacit requirement of mutual respect among persons of equal inherent dignity. Or some would argue that they are the necessary logical conditions of a government by consent of the people, and are in that sense prior to government. As such, government cannot legitimately change them, without government ceasing to be a "servant" of the people.

Yet the fact remains that what we call individual rights achieve recognition of that status at some particular point or era in history, and reflect the temper of that time. For example, in 1689, the English Bill of Rights took formal recognition of the right of English Protestants to keep arms, after a Catholic King endeavored to disarm them. However, the "right" reflects a long-standing custom of leaving people free – largely undisturbed – to own and bear arms for self-defense. So because the right is manifested in human affairs at particular times and places and not universally among all peoples at all times and places, it appears a matter of custom, "arbitrary" in the sense that it does not express the necessity of a physical law. Then here is the leap: therefore we can change it, or refuse to recognize it as a legitimate ethical principal. This debate has been going on since the Greeks. In Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between what we call positive or man-made laws and natural laws and notes that some say that even so-called "natural" laws are just based in human custom. Aristotle concedes that there is some merit to this view, in the sense that so-called "natural" laws are not "natural" in the sense of physical laws, but cautions that the distinction is a legitimate one and not to presume that because such laws are "customary," that natural laws are subject to ready political manipulation. The implication is that human nature is not infinitely or readily malleable, least of all by fiat.

What about Christians and guns? Some of them say that people should not resist aggressions, because violence is never justified. Some others believe that life is a gift from God, which should be defended by every necessary means. What of this?

Frankly this is not as clear as I would like, although I will certainly not blame God for my confusion! The position that the Christian does not offer violence against violence, or resist, even in self-defense, is rooted both in the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," and in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ counsels not to resist evil, to turn the other cheek and to love one's enemies (Matthew 5: 38 – 45). On this basis, the use of all force, even to fight for or establish what is right or just, is wrong, and the counsel implicitly condemns all governments, which are founded on coercion. Few have written as forcefully on this issue as Leo Tolstoy. If you are interested in this I recommend The Law of Violence and the Law of Love and The Kingdom of God is Within You. However, there are those who, examining the nuances of the original, untranslated words, argue that Christ's counsel is against retribution, revenge or punishment, and does not prohibit self-defense in the moment of assault. This seems also to be Aquinas' position, who essentially argues that self-defense is legitimate as long as there is no hatred or retribution in your heart, and the current Pope has also written that self-defense is legitimate in the eyes of God. Frankly, I am not sure where the truth lies, because I find it difficult to accept the notion that loving one's enemies is consistent with striking them down or killing them, and further, non-resistance is consistent with Christ's own life as revealed in the Gospels. So I suspect that Tolstoy is correct. But even the alternative view implies a severely limited domain for the exercise of force and, I believe, essentially prohibits the use of force to render justice.

You write, "self-government, not war." What does it mean?

This is from an article I wrote titled, "The Line in the Sand," which addresses the question of when it is appropriate for people to take up arms against their government. Basically it means, don't wage war trying to reform the government, or to institute a new form of legitimate government; instead, ignore the state, accept and handle your responsibilities without trying to pass them off onto others, and govern yourselves through voluntary arrangements. That warrants some elaboration. First, I think it necessary to recognize and admit that perhaps the most important fact of the American experiment in limited government, with its Bill of Rights and express reservation of rights to the People, is that it did not work. I don't think any new, supposedly better institutional or structural elements of a reformed government will work either. Fundamentally, it is a problem of the nature of man, and his ready desire to use force to compel others to secure benefits to himself; fundamentally, this is a religious problem. If you create an institution with the sole legitimate power to compel others, nominally only for certain limited purposes, the power will eventually be used for any purpose. It's like building a car that can go 120 miles per hour, telling the driver he can only ever drive 10 miles per hour and expecting that he won't exceed the self-imposed speed limit.

Second, its pretty clear from de Jouvenel's examination of the growth of power of states that government grows by offering to relieve individuals from burdensome social obligations that they have (such as educating their children or taking care of one's parents in their old age) or intervening on their behalf where they are the weaker party (such as in employer-employee relations), thereby creating fealty to the government in return for empowerment against others or a release from obligations. This process ultimately creates an individual who is free from all social ties, a solitary figure who relates to everyone else only by and through the state. This theory makes sense of the seemingly incongruous expansion of personal, sexual or reproductive rights following the radical curtailment or destruction of individual property and contract rights and all encompassing expansion of the Federal government's power via a creative interpretation of the commerce clause during the New Deal. Whatever may be your opinion of sexual freedom or marriage, the fact is that the Supreme Court's "discovery" that the use of contraceptives and abortion are fundamental individual rights, coupled with the growth of no-fault divorce, high taxation that drives women to work, subsidized day-care and increasingly, children's rights, are gambits by the state to break down what most would consider to be the final and most basic structure of society: the family. It is an indication that the process of freeing the individual from all obligations to others in favor of one, all encompassing obligation to the state, is nearly complete.

In this light, the state is best resisted by ignoring it and refusing it's offers and assistance and, since the state seeks to isolate, by forging voluntary social relationships with one another to provide for our mutual needs and wants. A good and so far successful example of this is the growth of home-schooling.

If America is a nation of cowards, what about other nations? For example, European countries have no Second Amendment (and no Bill of Rights) to stand for. What do you believe those people should do?

Okay, from de Jouvenel to popular culture. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke is about to enter the cave that "is strong with the dark side of the Force," Yoda says to him, "Your weapons, you will not need them." I would like people to understand, "Your rights, you will not need them." Rights do not make you free; only by acting free can you become free. The knowledge of the prior existence of rights is useful, as reminders of what men once were, what they fought for, where they drew a line against compulsion by their King or government; it helps us perceive that men one time conceived themselves as possessing a core dignity and autonomy that they would not permit others to lay hands on – it helps us to perceive our baseline, which we would otherwise be blind to.

But to fight for the establishment of rights or for recognition of rights by one's government involves tacit subordination to the state. The struggle to make a government recognize a right works in favor of the state, because it implicitly sets up government as the arbiter of the existence of the right. If one will not act within the scope of freedom delineated by the right unless or until the state concedes it lawful to do so, why of course then there is no right and the state controls your conduct. Thus, the passage of concealed carry permit laws in the United States is an admission that the right to keep and bear arms no longer exists in this country.

But there is more to it than that. The whole notion of individual rights is fundamentally a bankrupt notion, and not because of the problem I spoke of before concerning whether or not the rights were really "God-given" but merely customary and subject to change. The notion of "fundamental rights" is correlative to the notion of legitimate coercion; it implies, and tacitly depends upon acceptance of subjection to a domain of coercive authority. You can be governed, except that government must leave you alone in such and such spheres of activity: free speech, free exercise of religion, bearing arms, etc. The "rights" analysis pictures envelopment in a sphere of coercive authority, with specified, limited pockets of freedom. It's the baseline problem! Why are just those areas of my behavior "protected" and not others? The fundamental question is not what rights do I have, but why may anyone exercise coercive authority over me in the first place? It is coercion, not freedom, which must be justified. If coercion is not legitimate, there is no need for "rights." Arguing "rights" is arguing from an acknowledged and accepted subordinate – unfree – position.

So, your rights, you do not need them! They cannot and will not help you, because no government wishes to recognize them (although it may make a show of doing so as long as it thinks it necessary, until most people can be brought around), and it is fine with the state if you spend your life attempting to compel the state to acknowledge and respect their existence. The question is whether you will act free or how you will use your freedom. But take care that you do not throw yourself away cheaply or needlessly, for such a one as the state; choose well how to create good in the world. Seek and speak the truth about what you know about the nature of the state, ignore the state as best you can, refuse its assistance, accept and fulfill your responsibilities instead of seeking ways to shift your burdens to others, and forge the social relationships you want or need to live as you would like without the state's tender mercies.

February 8, 2001