• Interview With Jeff Snyder

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    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

    Carlo
    Stagnaro [send him mail]
    co-edits the libertarian magazine “Enclave
    and edited the book “Waco.
    Una strage di stato americana
    .” Here’s his
    website
    .

    LRC
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