Gun Ownership: American Exceptionalism

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In response to an attempt by a handful of liberal politicians in Congress to enact laws against the ownership of assault weapons, meaning semi-automatic AR-15’s, we are seeing the most remarkable American resistance movement that I can recall in my lifetime.

Websites that run articles in favor of gun ownership and against gun control find that these articles get a high number of hits. Therefore, the sites run even more articles on the same topic. This is only sensible. You give the customers what they want.

The rush to buy ammunition and anything connected with assault rifles is like nothing I have ever seen. In the state of Georgia, one pro-gun group is giving away in a raffle a semiautomatic AR-15. Its membership drive is more successful than anything it has ever done in the past.

It is not just in Georgia that this is the case. Across the South and in the Midwest, there is a kind of mad dash to get involved in organizations that promote Second Amendment liberties.

Activists on both sides of the question have drawn a line in the political sand. The difference is this: the gun control politicians do not have the votes to get anything through the House of Representatives. They know this. Senator Feinstein is pursuing this as a matter of principle. She is a left-wing ideologue. She is getting a lot of publicity for her stand, but she has been completely undermined by Harry Reid, who is staying discreetly away from Feinstein’s proposed legislation. He knows better than to attempt it, since too many Democrats will break ranks with him if he pushes this. It would make him look like a poor leader. It would also reveal the fact that Democratic politicians are subject to the desire of wanting to be reelected, and they know that on this issue, if they vote in favor of Feinstein’s bill, they risk not being reelected.

I do not think the people who have become active on this issue in the last month are likely to be willing to surrender their guns unless there are policemen at the door with a warrant. There will not be. There are not enough policemen to enforce anything like a comprehensive gun ban. Furthermore, there will be resistance in smaller counties, in both the South and Midwest, to any such enforcement. Police chiefs do not want to antagonize the local voters.


There is a widely accepted argument, popular among Americans, that America is exceptional in the world of nations. I do not mean that Americans have a particular knack at entrepreneurship, or something similar. Many nations have certain specialties they are good at. This makes them normal, not exceptional. But on the question of gun ownership, America really is exceptional. On this issue, something in the range of half of all Americans are really serious about the ownership of weapons. This is ingrained in our culture, although not in the culture of the state of New York and other enclaves of liberalism. This commitment to gun ownership is not necessarily a sign of commitment to the United States Constitution. But it is a commitment to the right of Americans to own symbols of American resistance against tyranny, a tradition which goes back to the American Revolution, and certainly goes back to the Civil War in the American South.

It is more a cultural matter that it is a constitutional matter. This is why the liberals have had such tremendous difficulty in pushing their agenda on this issue. They have been successful in rolling back the United States Constitution in most other areas, with the exception of the First Amendment. Other amendments are barely known. But the Second Amendment is well known, and liberals have not been successful in changing the minds of gun owners on this issue. This is because the bedrock foundation of gun ownership in United States is not the United States Constitution, nor is it a dedicated and large minorities commitment to the Constitution. The Constitution reinforces a cultural value which extends back before 1776.

The ownership of weapons in the United States by private citizens is not matched anywhere else in the world. Switzerland is close. The training is far better. The commitment of national defense by an armed electorate in Switzerland is like nothing else in the modern world. Being part of a citizen army is a matter of national pride. What we see in Switzerland is part of a national ethic committed to the autonomy of Switzerland, and the maintenance of that autonomy. The Swiss stay neutral, and they are armed to the teeth as the best way of staying neutral. In other words, in Switzerland it is a matter of national priority that men be willing to fight, trained to fight, and armed with military weapons.

This is not the American tradition. The American tradition is far more a matter of individual autonomy, individual ownership of weapons, and not a matter of national pride. Americans do not have anything like the training that the Swiss have in the use of their weapons. Americans are not expected to answer a call to arms, and go down to the local armory to get those arms. Gun ownership in America is not a matter of a defense of the nation or a commitment to a military tradition. It is quite the opposite.

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January 28, 2013

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 31-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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