The Liberal Basis of the Right to Bear Arms


Todd C. Hughes and Lester H. Hunt

University of Wisconsin

I. Introduction

Bans on guns are typically considered a "liberal" policy, if only because those who support them generally consider themselves to be politically liberal in some sense or other.(1) We will argue, however, that broad bans on firearms are in fact not liberal policies at all. The policy of a state that disarms its citizenry conflicts with more than one of the fundamental principles of liberalism.

The degree and nature of the conflict between liberalism and gun bans depends, however, on how one conceives of liberalism. In this regard, gun bans serve as a means of illustrating the disparity between two fundamentally different versions of liberalism, which we shall call wide and narrowliberalism. We shall try to show that a complete ban on the private possession of firearms is impermissible on either view; in fact any meaningful restriction is difficult to justify in the context of wide liberalism. Narrow liberalism, on the other hand, permits more restriction, but, if applied consistently, is unlikely to allow ones that will result in a significant decrease in violent crime.

II. Some Liberal Constraints

The assumption motivating most calls for bans on private possession of guns is that a causal relationship exists between the number of guns in the private sector and the number of victims of violent crime: an increase in the number of guns (in some sense) causes an increase in violent crime. This view has a special sort of plausibility in the United States, where violent crime has (or at least seems to have) escalated in tandem with gun ownership.(2) Of course, the government has a legitimate interest in protecting the health and safety of its citizens, and reducing crime is necessary to that end. Surely, one might conclude, the government ought to take measures to take firearms out of private circulation if that will curb criminal activity and foster the health and safety of the population.(3)

To date, nearly the whole of the controversy about bans on firearms has centered on this argument and on the causal connection it alleges. On the one hand, common sense and a good deal of scholarly research seems to support the idea that increases and decreases in gun ownership, respectively, cause increases and decreases in lethal crime.(4) On the other hand, criminologists have amassed a considerable amount of statistical evidence suggesting the relationship is weak or non-existent. Perhaps their most impressive arguments so far rest on evidence that possession of guns by law-abiding citizens, the potential victims of crime, has the same effect that possession of guns by the police has: that of deterring crime.(5)

The empirical literature on this issue is baffling, at least to those not trained in mathematics and social science. Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that the alleged causal relationship between guns and crime really exists. Is this sufficient to justify a government ban on firearms? In a liberal state, the answer is simple: it is no. In a consistently liberal system, it is considered highly problematic to dispose of the rights and liberties of citizens - where these rights and liberties are believed by their owners to be important - simply and solely because the community can extract a benefit from doing so.

Perhaps a few examples will serve to make this claim more vivid an persuasive. It is very obvious that we could prevent a great many deaths from AIDS by enacting a policy reputedly followed in Cuba: that of simply rounding up everyone known to have the disease and isolating them in special camps until they no longer carry the disease (presumably, because they are dead). We do not have such a policy, though we know perfectly well that thousands of people will die because we do not have it. The reason we do not have it is that we, or most of us, think that incarceration is a bad way to treat sick people. It violates their rights. Of course, there are many ways to explain why we tend to think this, and why we tend to find this thought so decisive. One perfectly good way to explain it, however, is to say that this country, unlike Cuba, is a liberal democracy: from a liberal point of view, the mere fact that a policy could save lives is not a sufficient reason for adopting it. The policy itself must be morally permissible. In a consistently liberal polity, the pursuit of all social goals, including the goal of saving thousands from dying horribly and pointlessly, is constrained.

There are many other examples of this feature of liberalism, including ones that are closer to the issues we are treating here. For instance: It is often pointed out that the U.S. has more homicide than any other industrialized nation. It is plausible to suppose that at least part of the cause of this phenomenon is to be found in the extensive safeguards the U. S. has in place which tend to protect those suspected of crime from being unjustly convicted.(6) The U. S. has far more such safeguards than any other modern industrialized nation, including even the Western European democracies whose institutions have been shaped by the political unrest and violence they have experienced over the past 80 years. Imagine, for a moment, that American liberals were to become convinced that they could diminish violent crime by giving up many of these safeguards. Precisely because they are liberals, they would be very resistant to doing so. This is not because, as anti-liberals sometimes say, they make an irrational "fetish" of such safeguards, but because they perceive them as procedural rights. This means that they think of them as constraints on the pursuit of all social goals, including the reduction of violent crime.(7)

As a matter of fact, liberalism is distinguished not merely by the fact that its pursuit of the good is constrained, but by the particular set of constraints it recognizes: an action, including a government policy, is considered unjust, and consequently unacceptable, if it violates one or more of these liberal constraints. There are a number of principles that could be included in this set, but our focus here will be on three of them - autonomy, neutrality, and equality - and most importantly on autonomy and equality.

The concept of autonomy can be formulated in many different ways, with many different degrees of stringency, but what the formulations have in common is the general notion that individuals should control their own lives and be the instruments of their own acts of will. The individual has certain fundamental rights against interference by others.(8) One way to formulate a usable version of the autonomy principle is to define a part of the individual's life as "private," in virtue of the fact that it includes behavior that has no significant effects on others without their consent, and to declare that, within this private domain, individuals may do whatever they wish. This is the method used by Mill and many others after him.(9) This way of interpreting the idea of autonomy can be called "minimal," in that it constrains government policy less than the other interpretations do. Probably the most "maximal" interpretation is the one associated with the Lockean notion of self-ownership.(10) On this view, a person owns his or her self and, by the same token, the product of the labor of that self.

Partly because it includes various sorts of physical property in the realm protected by the autonomy principle, the latter, most maximal interpretation gives the individual a wider immunity against interference than the minimalist interpretation does. This is an important factor in distinguishing different sorts of liberalism. All liberals, however, accept some form of this principle or other.

This principle is a major source of the familiar liberal animus against paternalism. Government acts paternalistically when it makes or restricts important choices for individuals in order to do those same individuals some good. Such a policy involves interfering with individual conduct even when it affects no one but the individual agent and, consequently, tends to run afoul of even the most minimal version of the autonomy constraint. Liberals have at times carved out exceptions to the autonomy principle, formulating "soft" forms of paternalism which allow interference when the individual conduct involved is seriously nonvoluntary, or when the rights and liberties disposed of are trivial.(11) Because liberalism rests on the principle of autonomy, however, it cannot go very far in justifying policies that are paternalistic.

The second liberal constraint is the principle of neutrality. It holds that the justification for state action must be neutral between particular conceptions of the good life. It is an indirect constraint on government action, in that what it constrains in the first instance is not the actions but the reasons that are given for them. The policies of liberal states have many side-effects and, no doubt, some of them create conditions in which certain conceptions of the good can no longer be pursued. For instance, there may be values that can only be achieved by pursuing the way of life of a samurai warrior, an eighteenth century aristocrat, or a Medieval knight - ways of life that were extinguished by liberal institutions. From a liberal point of view, this effect can be just, but only if these policies can be defended on other grounds, apart from the fact that they tend to "stamp out" ways of life that liberals do not appreciate.

As was the case with the principle of autonomy, the equality constraint is open to widely different formulations, and substantially different ones tend to mark the differences between different sorts of liberalism. Common to all the versions of this principle is the idea that the state should treat its subjects as equals. At a minimum, it means that governments must respect equally the rights of its citizens. They must not discriminate against some citizens and in favor of others. No one is to be either above or below the law. It also means that government must not function as an instrument by which the strong take advantage of the weak.

This idea - that governments must take the rights of citizens equally seriously - can be called the minimal interpretation of the equality constraint. It states something that all liberals believe. For instance, if it could be shown that state lotteries tend to take money from the relatively poor and uneducated (perhaps because such people tend to have a comparatively shaky grasp of probability theory) and tend put this money into the hands of the relatively rich and educated, all liberals would feel that this is a weighty argument against state lotteries. They would all see such an arrangement as unjust because of the way in which it arbitrarily discriminates against people who are less well endowed and in favor of those who already enjoy advantages.

It is possible, however, to interpret the principle of equality in ways that go beyond this minimal version of it: one can interpret it, as we shall say, extraminimally. There are many ways to do this, but all tend, to one degree or other, to claim that the liberal state is committed, not merely to respecting equally the rights of its citizens, but to equalizing the value of the rights that each person has. The forms that this idea takes range from the idea that inequalities in the distribution of goods, though allowable, are subject to equalitarian constraints,(12) to the idea that resources available in a society should be divided equally among its members through some scheme of redistribution.(13)

As we have already suggested, one can envision quite different varieties of liberalism depending on how one interprets the principles of autonomy and equality.(14) On the one hand, one could adopt an extremely extraminimal interpretation of the principle of equality, which would allow extensive state efforts to equalize the conditions of its citizens. Expecting this state activity to cut into the liberties of the individual, one might then adopt a relatively minimal interpretation of the autonomy constraint. On the other hand, one might adopt an extremely extraminimal interpretation of the principle of autonomy and, expecting this to limit aggressive redistribution policies, one could adopt a relatively minimal interpretation of the principle of equality. Because it allows wider liberty of action, we call the latter sort of position "wide liberalism." The former, for analogous reasons, we will call "narrow liberalism."(15)

As we shall see, it makes a difference, as far as the issue of bans on firearms is concerned, whether one is a wide or a narrow liberal. But we will also argue that it does not make as much difference as one might think. No position could be called liberal that did not accept, in one form or other, all three of the principles we have discussed. From a liberal point of view, a policy cannot be just if it is unduly paternalistic and neglectful of autonomy, fails to respect a particular conception of the good life, and treats a certain group of people unequally. We will argue that all three of these areas of concern tend to militate, though in different degrees and in different ways, against bans on firearms.

III. Firearms and Autonomy

Today, the very idea that the possession of a gun - a mere technological device prized by hobbyists and lunatics - is a right, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right against self-incrimination, strikes many people as silly.(16) Nonetheless, such a conclusion is more or less forced on us by a range of interpretations of the autonomy constraint, including some very plausible ones. To begin with the obvious: since this constraint is a guarantee against interference, all versions of it create a certain presumption in favor of liberty, and bans on firearms place limits on liberty. If a gun ban were to be enacted in a wide liberal state, responsible citizens who use their firearms for legitimate purposes would accuse the government of violating their autonomy, and their accusation would carry weight.

Admittedly, and again obviously, their accusation might carry little or no weight under a minimal interpretation of the autonomy constraint. Guns, being instruments of lethal force, can have important effects on people other than their owners, and thus might not seem to belong in the purely private domain protected by the minimal interpretation. We maintain, however, that a right to possess just the sort of lethal force that guns represent will follow from any plausible extraminimal version of the autonomy constraint, including even the mildest of them.

This may sound like a strange claim, but it becomes much less so when we clearly understand certain of its concrete implications. To this end, consider the case of Ms. Jackson of Atlanta, Georgia:

A College Park woman shot and killed an armed man she says was trying to carjack her van with her and her 1-year-old daughter inside, police said Monday....

Jackson told police that the gunman accosted her as she drove into the parking lot of an apartment complex on Camp Creek Parkway. She had planned to watch a broadcast of the Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson fight with friends at the complex.

She fired after the man pointed a revolver at her and ordered her to "mover over," she told the police. She offered to take her daughter and give up the van, but the man refused, police said.

"She was pleading with the guy to let her take the baby and leave the van, but he blocked the door," said College Park Detective Reed Pollard. "She was protecting herself and the baby."

Jackson, who told the police she bought the .44 caliber handgun in September after her home was burglarized, said she fired a shot from the gun, which she kept concealed in a canvas bag beside her car seat. "She didn't try to remove it," Pollard said. "She just fired."(17)

Considering the fact that Ms. Jackson's would-be abductor was threatening her with lethal force at the time she killed him, and considering also what his most likely motive was for refusing to simply steal her car and let her go free, it seems obvious that she had a right to do what she did. She has a right to self-defense.

Though this right is not protected by the minimal interpretation of the autonomy constraint (since the effect her act has on her assailant puts it well outside the domain of privacy) the reasons for adding it to the rights that are protected by this constraint seem to be as great as any could be. To take, for instance, one particularly plausible criterion for deciding whether a particular claim should have this status or not: Suppose that the strength of the grounds for recognizing a right are proportionate to the importance of the human interests protected by it, so that the grounds are strongest if the interests involved are the most important. If the interests protected by the right to free speech are more important than the interests protected by the right to sell junk bonds, then the grounds for recognizing it are likewise stronger. The interest that is protected by Ms. Jackson's right to defend herself is life itself. The interests protected by other rights recognized by liberals - including not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of religion, the right against self-incrimination, and many others - are no more important than this one. In many cases, they are a good deal less important.

Of course, Ms. Jackson's action has an effect on her assailant, and effects on others can give rise to powerful claims from those others that their rights have been violated. Such claims are potential reasons for not adding the act to the list of rights that are protected by a fundamental principle. Here, however, the strength of such reasons are as low as they can be. Though the effect suffered by her assailant is a powerfully negative one, his attack on her clearly cancels any claims he might have had against her use of force against him.

If we suppose, then, that Ms. Jackson has any rights to act on her own volition, outside the domain of privacy, then she must have this right, a right of self-defense. Further, if this supposition settles the question of her right of self-defense, it also settles the question of whether she has a right to use her gun to shoot her assailant. Imagine that, as she raises her concealed gun to fire it at her assailant, someone else (perhaps a confederate of the assailant) reaches over and grasps it in such a way as to prevent the hammer from raising, thus rendering the weapon inoperative. Clearly, they would be violating (probably intentionally) her right of self-defense. Again, imagine that, shortly before the attack occurs, someone were to coercively to take her gun away from her, knowing that she was vulnerable to attacks of just this sort. This would also be a clear violation of her right of self defense.

If, in either of these imaginary scenarios, Ms. Jackson's assailant killed her, the person who had effectively disarmed her would be partly responsible for her death. Coercively preventing her from using her gun, in such a case, would not only violate her rights, it would seem to be a very serious violation, similar to that involved in being complicit in a murder.(18)

So far, then, it would seem that, even a very modestly extraminimal interpretation of the autonomy constraint would have to imply that Ms. Jackson has a right to use her weapon to defend herself, a right of non-interference that would be violated by having her weapon confiscated. The case we have made for this claim does make a certain assumption. Though it may require a lengthy inquiry to determine precisely what form the assumption should be given, it clearly must include the idea that one violates a right (in this case, Ms. Jackson's right of self-defense) if one coercively prevents them from using the only, or the best, means to exercising that right (here, Ms. Jackson's handgun). It would be interesting to discuss whether (or why) such a principle is true, but it is not necessary to do so here, since the same principle is recognized by liberals in other contexts. Most of them would agree, for instance, that the government would be violating our rights to freedom of expression if it made possessing a computer modem a crime punishable by a term in prison. The same would be true if the law allowed the police to give out modem permits in the event that they decide an individual citizen has a "valid" reason to possess one. On the face of it, the same principle would seem to apply to an agent, including a representative of the state, who takes Ms. Jackson's gun from her.

Liberals who support gun bans would actually be very unlikely to try to disagree with this principle, nor would they be likely to opt for a version of the autonomy constraint that is so minimal that it contains no right of self-defense. Rather, they would probably claim that the weakness in our argument rests on a fact to which we have not referred at all: that there is an obvious difference between a modem and a gun. A gun, unlike a modem, is a weapon, and advocates of gun bans argue that guns are substantially more dangerous than other weapons.(19) One very influential line of reasoning is based on what one research team calls the "instrumentality hypothesis," which states that a weapon's degree of dangerousness, as a factor "independent of any other factors," has "a substantial impact on the death rate from attack."(20) Firearms allow people to commit offenses they could not commit with other weapons, such as knives, clubs, and fists. They enable persons normally in a position of weakness to use the threat of harm to take the money, possessions, and even lives of their victims.

If the presence of guns in one's environment does indeed increase such dangers, and it is at least prima facie plausible to say that it does, the liberal autonomy constraint itself seems to support banning some or all of them. All liberals agree that the principle of autonomy, unlike the principle of equality, applies fully to individuals as well as to states. It is permissible for individuals to treat others in substantially unequal ways, but serious violations of the autonomy of others (at least of sane, innocent adults) is not permissible. Obviously, killing or maiming others is ordinarily such an impermissible violation. Consequently, the conclusion, which we tentatively suggested a moment ago, that even a modest autonomy constraint would imply that Ms. Jackson has a right against having her weapon confiscated, stands in need of further support. More needs to be said before we can draw such a conclusion.

IV. Risk

No one would deny that a liberal state, even the relatively constrained state of wide liberalism, may prohibit activities that kill or maim others. Of course, a state that bans firearms like the one used by Ms. Jackson would not merely be prohibiting actions that actually do that sort of harm: they would rather be prohibiting an activity (owning a gun, or a gun of a certain sort) on the grounds that it creates a risk that such harm will be done. However, prohibiting activities that create such risks is itself something that a wide liberal state may do. Such a state may prohibit me from storing dynamite in my basement or driving while intoxicated, even when (luckily) these activities do not kill or maim anyone. One reason for this, and a sufficient one for our purposes, is that such risky activities are themselves violations of the autonomy of others.

Having admitted this, however, we claim that the mere fact of owning a gun, at least a gun like Ms. Jackson's .44, does not belong in this category: it does not create the sort of risk that justifies prohibition in the context of wide liberalism. In particular, it is starkly different from the two examples of risky activities that we just mentioned.

First, just as a gun is obviously different from a modem, it is also, though perhaps less obviously, different from dynamite. Dynamite is an unstable substance, which can be detonated, under some circumstances, by a mere tap. Its unpredictability, together with the sheer scale of the destruction caused when it does explode, justifies us in classifying dynamite as a substance that cannot be handled entirely safely.

In the relevant respect, guns are as different from dynamite as can be imagined. Like clocks, guns are precision instruments: they are designed to function precisely, and for more or less the same reasons that clocks are. People have clocks so that they will know exactly what time it is, and not approximately what time it is. Similarly, they have guns so they will be able to hit a target, and not nearby objects. The function of a gun is not simply to provide lethal force, but to provide precisely controlled lethal force. Partly because of this fact, it is a surprisingly simple matter to handle a gun safely. As millions of Americans know from their firearms safety training, there are a few easy to follow rules which, if they are followed, will guarantee that unplanned detonations will not occur.(21)

The same sorts of considerations suffice to show that possessing a gun is utterly different from drunk driving. Unlike drunk driving, gun ownership is not behavior that creates a significant likelihood of accidental injury. In 1993 there were 0.656 accidental deaths due to firearms per 100,000 firearms in the United States: far less than the more than 21 accidental deaths attributable to motor vehicles for that year, per 100,000 motor vehicles.(22) According to one report, the total number of accidental gun deaths due to guns is smaller than the number attributable to medical error.(23)

However, there is a sense in which the rate of accidental deaths from guns is actually a minor issue: the alleged risk involved in gun ownership that most often inspires proposals to ban guns probably has little or nothing to do with accidental death. The most important problem raised in the scholarly debate concerning bans on guns is intentional death: most of the anti-gun literature is sharply focussed on the idea that guns make deliberate acts of violence more likely. This is the sort of risk that makes them especially dangerous objects, allegedly justifying placing them under a ban of some sort.

We maintain, however, that, within the limits of wide liberalism, even of a very moderate conception of those limits, this sort of risk is not a legitimate reason for banning guns. To return to the case of Ms. Jackson: the notion that she might use her gun to attack someone impermissibly might conceivably justify confiscating her gun, but only if there is reason to think she will actually do so. It is very unlikely that such reasons exist. The overwhelming majority of gun owners -- a group which, in the United States, comprises about 46% of all households(24) -- are honest citizens who never use their weapons to commit crimes. Obviously, ownership of a gun does not destroy one's ability to make choices, turning gun owners into people who are likely to become violent criminals.

Some people would say that whether a gun is dangerous or not depends entirely on who is in control of it. A gun in the holster of an honest and competent security guard can make people much safer from intentional violence than they would be in its absence. At the moment she was under attack, Ms. Jackson's gun actually enhanced her safety and that of her daughter. There is, however, another way to understand the dangerousness of guns, one that has nothing to do with whether Ms. Jackson or any other individual gun owner will use their weapon for an impermissible act of violence. On this view, the risk of violence that belongs to guns is not a characteristic that attaches to particular guns. Rather, the idea is that guns in general, as a class, are dangerous, because of what some people can and will do with objects that are members of that class. Guns, as a class, can be dangerous on balance and on the whole, though individual guns may indeed by safety-enhancing.

Given this conception of the dangerousness of guns, the danger of intentional death and injury can furnish a reason for taking Ms. Jackson's gun away from her that actually has nothing to do with the idea that she will use it to do something wrong. It rests in part on the obvious fact that a liberal state, because it must treat individuals equally, can only permit her to keep her gun if it permits many other people to have guns as well. In consequence of this, one might argue, we ought ban guns in general, as a class, on the grounds that they (again, as a class) are simply too dangerous to allow in a society like ours. The same argument can, with even greater plausibility, be made concerning some sub-class of guns that are thought to be especially dangerous in this way, such as handguns.

Some people might find the conception of danger on which this argument rests - what might be called type-danger, as opposed to token-danger - problematic. We assume, for the sake of the argument, that it is not. We maintain, however, that a very serious difficulty stands in the way of using this conception to justify state action under the liberal autonomy constraint. While, as we have noted, liberalism allows us to force individuals, as well as states, to conform to this constraint, there has always been in the liberal tradition a very powerful tendency to interpret this constraint individualistically. That is, the harm or risk which justifies us in using force against an individual is generally limited to harm or risk that is caused by the individual. In other words, only token danger will do.

Consider, for instance, the case of AIDS. AIDS is a disease with an extremely high degree of type-danger. It may nonetheless be true that an individual AIDS victim who adheres to a few simple rules poses no known danger to others. If this is actually the case - as, in fact, it seems very likely that it is - then the type-dangerousness of AIDS does not, on an individualist interpretation of the autonomy constraint, justify coercively interfering, to their detriment, with such harmless victims of the disease.

Part of the reason why this sort of thinking is part of political liberalism is the traditional liberal concern with fair play. To round up and incarcerate all members of a group, including those who are quite harmless, because other individual members of the group are dangerous, is from a liberal point of view grossly unfair to the harmless ones. We suggest that, from the same point of view, the same sort of reasoning must apply to Ms. Jackson. To disarm her, exposing her to mortal danger, because of behavior for which she apparently bears no causal responsibility at all, is grossly unfair to her. For a liberal, it is quite possible that we may sometimes have to live with a preventable epidemic, an epidemic of disease or of violence, because the only ways we have to prevent it involve state action that violates liberal constraints.

The autonomy constraint, we might say, prohibits us from inflicting harm, at least certain sorts of harm, but it does not in general prohibit possession of the means of harming others. The one possible exception to this can be founded on the claim that some guns simply cannot be used in ways that, under the autonomy constraint, are permissible. Arguably, the only relevant actions that a ban on these firearms would prevent would be violations of the autonomy constraint. Supposing such an argument can be made, then, even in the context of a fairly robust wide liberalism, it might serve as a justification for banning such weapons.

However, we would in that case need to take care to determine precisely what kinds of firearms this ban would affect. The criterion for deciding whether a certain firearm is eligible for government restriction would seem to be something like this: the government may permissibly ban a type of gun if it has impermissible uses but has no permissible uses. Perhaps one sort of gun that would be eligible is the sawed-off shotgun. This is weapon that seems to be the exception to the generalization we made earlier, that guns are precision instruments. Except at fairly close range, it cannot be aimed at all, only pointed: it sprays destruction over a vaguely defined area. It seems to have no value for purposes of target shooting and, because it would often be impossible to fire such a weapon without harming the innocent, it would in those cases be irresponsible to use it (where there is any alternative) for self defense.

Nonetheless, even supposing such an argument can be rigorously made regarding short-barrelled shotguns, very few types of guns seem to be like this: nearly all have permissible as well as impermissible uses.(25) We suspect that even military-style assault weapons would fail to be eligible for banning under this criterion. There are many people -- private militia groups, for instance -- whose conception of the good life involves owning, shooting, and training with automatic weapons. Of course, liberals hold notions about the good that are deeply different from the those pursued by members of such groups. Liberals do not believe that proficiency in the use of deadly force is part of good citizenship or true "manhood," and they do not think it is healthy to view the world as full of menacing threats. It is probably difficult for them to see those who hold contrary views as pursuing a conception of the good at all, the conception involved is so deeply alien to their own. However, they clearly are, and, because of the neutrality constraint, liberals cannot raise such errors about the good as justifications for coercion. As long as these people are peacefully pursuing their strange activities, harming no one, a wide-liberal state cannot coercively deprive them of the means of pursuing them.(26) In view of this, we find that the set of guns it is permissible to ban using the aforementioned criterion is likely to be a very small one.

Before leaving the subject of risk, we need to comment briefly on one more risk commonly attributed to firearms: this is the alleged fact that possessing a gun makes it more likely that the possessor will commit suicide.(27)

The most obvious problem confronting liberals who might want to justify gun bans on the basis of this sort of reasoning lies in the fact that such reasoning is clearly paternalistic. Suicide belongs, if anything does, to the private domain that is protected even by the minimal interpretation of the autonomy constraint. Nonetheless, one might hope to justify some sort of ban by suitably extending the "soft paternalism" by which liberals sometimes justify measures like mandatory life jackets, seat belts, and motorcycle helmets.(28) The prospects of doing so, however, do not seem good. Requiring boaters to wear life jackets and drivers to wear seat belts does not prevent them from living lives in which boating and driving are important elements: it does not limit the liberty of individuals to choose activities that are really important to them. Boaters who are forced to use a life jacket might desire to go without it, but this desire is not crucial to their conception of the good life, in the way that their desire to go boating is. On the other hand, requiring gun owners to give up their guns does preclude the pursuit of various activities - namely, those that include using guns - that in many cases are very important to them and crucial to their notions of the good life.

More importantly, the desire to commit suicide is deeply felt and as important to those who experience it as any desire they could have. Further, supposing that they have carefully considered their decision to die, it is literally true that death is now part of their conception of the good, inasmuch as they have decided that being dead is (for them) better than being alive.

Perhaps there is some way to patch up an argument for gun bans that is based on reducing suicide rates, of repairing it in a way that avoids liberal qualms about paternalism.(29) Such an argument would still face another problem, one that one that is less obvious than its apparent paternalism, but potentially more serious. This is the fact that such arguments, like the other risk-based arguments we have considered, violate liberal individualism, and do so in a way that cannot be patched up. What these arguments, however they are modified, propose to do is to take guns (or some class of guns, such as handguns) away from everyone who possesses them, and not simply from those who would use them to take their own lives. The overwhelming majority of the individuals who own any particular sort of gun will never use their weapons to kill themselves. To deprive them of the meaningful activities which require guns (including the vitally important activity in which Ms. Jackson is engaged: self-defense) so that we can interfere with the private behavior of others seems grossly unfair.

The autonomy constraint is a formidable obstacle to justifying a ban on firearms. To the extent that a particular variety of liberalism relies on this constraint - to the extent, in other words, that it is an instance of wide liberalism - we can expect it to be inhospitable to arguments for bans on firearms. If people own guns and use them in permissible ways, there seems to be no reason for limiting their liberty to own them. The government should, of course, legitimately restrict what people may use firearms for, but that is quite a different matter. The adage "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," while hackneyed, is appropriate here. For wide liberalism, it is important what people do, not who they are or what they own.

V. Firearms and Equality

As we have said, though, wide liberalism is not the only form that liberalism takes. Narrow liberalism, which places less stress on the principle of autonomy, assumes a greater license to interfere with individual freedom of choice than wide liberalism does. The emphasis that wide liberalism places on the autonomy principle creates a strong presumption in favor of liberty which makes it extremely difficult to justify almost any sort of ban on firearms, since such a ban would be an infringement on liberty. In its many varieties, however, narrow liberalism tends to accept no more than the minimal interpretation of the autonomy constraint. Accordingly, narrow liberalism is probably unable to make a case for the right to bear arms that is based on notions of individual liberty.

We claim, however, that the narrow liberal commitment to equality, together with the neutrality constraint it shares with all forms of liberalism, strongly support the idea that gun ownership is a right that citizens must have. As was the case with the autonomy principle, it makes a difference whether one interprets the principle of equality minimally or extraminimally. Unlike the autonomy principle, however, equality can justify a substantial right to bear arms even under its minimal interpretations.

Recall that the minimal interpretation of the equality principle requires the state to respect equally the rights of its citizens. This means, broadly speaking, that it must not discriminate against some of its citizens and in favor of others and, in particular, it must not function as means by which the strong take advantage of the weak. So construed, the equality constraint has immediate implications for the right to own guns. To see this, consider the case of Ms. Johnson, a composite drawn from several news stories of a certain, far-too-familiar sort.

After enduring several years of increasingly severe physical abuse at his hands, Ms. Johnson divorced her husband, Mr. Johnson. Unfortunately, this was not enough to free her from him. After the divorce, he stalked her and beat her severely, for which he was sentenced to a term in prison. The punishment only seemed to make him more angry, and he repeatedly sent her death threats from prison. When his release was imminent, she called the police, but they had to tell her that, unfortunately, they cannot act as bodyguards for citizens in danger. Their role, they explained, is to help ensure that people are punished for crimes they have already committed and, if possible, to interrupt crimes in progress. "Call us right away if he comes to your apartment," was the best advice they could give her. When Mr. Johnson did come for her, he quickly beat down her door, shouting all the while that he has come to kill her. Fortunately, she owned a handgun and, before he had a chance to begin his attack in deadly earnest, she shot and killed him.

Suppose that, just before Mr. Johnson came to Ms. Johnson's apartment, someone (perhaps a confederate of his) interfered by disabling or taking away her gun. It would be obvious that they were acting as a means by which the strong take terrible advantage of the weak.(30) Another way to put the same argument is this. At the moment that Ms. Johnson's former husband broke down her door, it became very likely that one of them would die violently. The question was, which one shall it be. As long as Ms. Johnson was able to use her handgun, it was very likely that the death will be his Mr. Johnson's. If she were unable to use it, the death would very likely be hers. A government that disarms her is shifting the great burden of premature, violent death from the strong to the weak. According to the principle of equality, this shift is being made in the wrong direction.

This conclusion can easily be generalized. As one study has shown, men who batter their wives "average 45 pounds heavier and 4 to 5 inches taller" than their victims.(31) Such men do not need weapons to kill their wives. They can strangle them or simply beat them to death. If these women are disarmed by the government, relations between them and their batterers are made unequal in a way that any liberal would find extremely objectionable.

More generally still: The capacity of firearms to be a tool for self-defense promotes equality in general, and not merely between battered women and their male batterers. People in general can differ substantially in size, strength, and coordination. People who possess greater physical prowess have an advantage over others. Most especially, bigger people are more capable of harming others than smaller people are. The force of non-gun weapons such as knives and clubs is, like the force of bare hands, strongly contingent on the size, strength, and skill of their users: the weaker of two people equally armed with a non-gun weapon is still at a potentially fatal disadvantage. In typical self-defense situations, however, firearms are equally harmful in anyone's hands, provided the individuals handling them have the capacity to fire them and reasonably good aim at close range. Two people equally armed with guns, then, are very likely to have equal harming and coercive power, regardless of their physical disparities.(32) Firearms actually equalize the balance of power between persons who are naturally unequal.(33)

The minimal interpretation of the equality principle, then, is a very formidable obstacle to the banning of at least some sorts of firearms. If we interpret it extraminimally, this obstacle only becomes more formidable. In its various different guises, extraminimal equality imposes on the state an even stronger commitment to equality than the minimal variety does. As the strength of this commitment increases, so does the stringency of the constraint against disarming the weak and exposing them to attack by the strong.

Clearly, then, a narrow liberal state ought to grant the liberty to own firearms. However, there remains the problem of specifying the extent of that liberty: which sorts of firearms should citizens have a right to own? The answer to this question is not as straightforward as it is in wide liberalism. As we have said, narrow liberalism typically includes no strong presumption in favor of freedom of choice outside the private domain. Outside that realm, there is considerable room in narrow liberalism for curtailing the scope of liberty, as long as this is done for neutral reasons, and as long as the principle of equality (whichever formulation might apply) is observed.

Partly for this reason, narrow liberalism does seem to allow for limitations on the ownership of firearms. One available reason for adopting such limitations, within narrow liberalism, is the supposed causal relationship between the number of guns in private hands and the quantity of violent crime. If the justification for a ban on some types of firearms is that it will reduce the rates of violent crime, then it certainly meets the neutrality constraint. This justification, after all, has no necessary connection with disapproval of someone's conception of the good.

The question, then, is whether a ban satisfies the autonomy and equality constraints: is it permissible to prohibit the ownership of significant classes of firearms without violating the minimal interpretation of the autonomy constraint, and without violating narrow liberalism's commitment to equality? The answer clearly seems to be yes. For example, consider a ban on the private possession of all firearms capable of killing several people in rapid succession or simultaneously, an extremely large category of firearms that includes automatic rifles, semi-automatic rifles, extremely high-powered handguns, grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons, and so on. Supposing that such weapons do increase the crime rate, the minimal version of the autonomy principle would not be violated by banning them. Further, it would not seem to violate the equality-based considerations we raised in defending Ms. Johnson's right to possess her handgun. These extremely advanced weapons are not practical for self-defense. Other firearms are much more useful for these purposes, and in many cases are less expensive and wasteful of ammunition. Banning them would not expose the weak to the doubtful mercies of the strong.

Of course, there are people, including members of private militia groups, whose conception of the good life includes training with and using these advanced firearms. They may find that marching about in the forest with mere facsimiles of military assault rifles does not fit their notions of what citizenship and manhood require of them. Their capacity to pursue their conception of the good, accordingly, will be diminished by banning such weapons. This fact, however, does not violate the neutrality constraint, which does not constrain the actions of the state directly, but only the reasons that are given for them. The reasons we are currently entertaining for banning these weapons do not rely on the idea that the conception of the good these people are pursuing must be fought, but only on the idea that violent crime must be fought: it is, in the requisite sense, quite neutral.(34)

It would seem, then, that we can have a ban on an substantial range of firearms that is consistent with narrow liberalism. However, it is important to consider the kinds of guns the ban would not include, for the results are bound to disappoint some people. As mentioned, firearms that are useful for self-defense are not subject to the ban.(35) There is a serious difficulty here for narrow liberals who would like to use gun bans to significantly reduce crime: the guns that are most useful for self-defense are handguns, which are also most useful for committing crimes. If gun-bans are to be an important tool in fighting crime, handguns are the most rational targets of such bans, perhaps the only sort of firearm in common use that is really worth banning.(36) Certainly, the number of crimes committed with assault rifles is, by comparison, trivial.(37) Thus, even though the narrow liberal state may permissibly restrict a large number of guns, the advocates of gun bans probably would not predict that these sorts of bans would actually bring about the state of affairs that want to produce: a major reduction in violent crime. Those who believe the causal theory that closely links the number of guns in civilian hands with the level of violent crime would only expect to reduce such crime significantly by banning the sorts of weapons that are most often involved in the commission of crimes. Narrow liberalism cannot approve such bans without betraying its commitment to equality.

It is clear that narrow liberalism enjoys a greater license than wide liberalism does to ban firearms: the narrow liberal state can legitimately control a greater number of guns than the wide liberal state. However, the prospects are very poor that this distinction would make a great difference in the rates of violent crime.

VI. Conclusion

The issue of bans on firearms brings to the surface the fundamental ideological differences between wide and narrow liberalism. Wide liberalism, having a stronger presumption in favor of liberty, is less receptive to bans than narrow liberalism is. Wide liberalism must allow a weapon if it has permissible uses to which it can be put, while narrow liberalism must allow it only if it is necessary for the permissible activity of self-defense, or if it has no effect on others. On the other hand, rather surprisingly, the fundamental principle of narrow liberalism is more immediately inimical to bans than that of wide liberalism, since it implies a serious right to bear arms even in its minimal form, while that does not seem to be true of the principle that is fundamental to wide liberalism. Autonomy is only inimical to bans if it is interpreted extraminimally. In addition, the possible risks associated with guns raised the issue of whether the banned behavior might itself have some general tendency to violate the principle of autonomy, which in turn raised the issue of whether the principle might actually require some sort of ban. We found no analogous sort of issue in the case of the principle of equality.

Passionate defenders of gun control may well be tempted to say that, if our argument is cogent, it is simply a reductio ad absurdum of liberalism. It certainly does bring into sharp relief the fact that liberalism is, unlike some competing ideologies, a constrained view of the political realm. As we have already suggested, to be a liberal is to decide, in advance, that there may be epidemics, whether of the moral or the physical realms, for which there are no permissible remedies.

This can be a distressing thing to hear. One can hope to reduce this distress by searching further for remedies that are permissible. One might wonder about the permissibility of other gun control measures, such as mandatory waiting periods, background checks, gun buy-backs, licensing laws, and mandatory gun safety training. Most of these kinds of regulations may be more nearly compatible with either wide or narrow liberalism than actual prohibitions of firearms. This seems to be likely, in fact. However, one must be careful not simply to assume that other gun control policies are permissible alternatives to gun bans without first subjecting them to the sort of scrutiny we have carried out here.

One should also be willing to entertain the possibility that, if guns are a major part of the problem of crime, they may also be part of the solution. Non-discretionary "right to carry" laws, which permit the law-abiding to carry concealed weapons, seem to be, if what we have said is correct, compatible with both wide and narrow liberalism. They are also worth considering as ways to reduce crime: a world in which a significant number of the potential victims of crime are armed may well be a world with less crime.

Epilogue: Liberal Neutrality

We have argued that the fundamental principle of narrow liberalism is more immediately inimical to bans than that of wide liberalism. If this is so, however, it seems odd that so many narrow liberals are so well-disposed toward confiscatory firearms policies, including, in many cases, bans on handguns. Indeed, to many who adhere to that sort of liberalism, certain aspects of the argument we have presented must have seemed not merely theoretically inadequate but personally offensive. Many would probably find it more or less horrifying that two academics would calmly suggest that wives should shoot and kill their husbands, or, more generally, that lethal force is part of the solution to pressing social problems. The fact that we suggest taking this position in the name of equality probably only compounds the horror.

This reaction to the position we have taken, a reaction of horror and not mere disagreement, suggests a possible explanation for the ease with which narrow liberals tend to support handgun confiscation. According to this explanation, this tendency has nothing to do with the principles of autonomy, neutrality, or equality, nor with the notion of individualism, nor any other part of the liberal conception of justice. It rests, rather, on the notion that such obviously personal and deep-seated reactions often arise from broad notions of what life is and should be like. As we suggested earlier, liberals tend to have a certain distinctive conception of the good. They believe in being reasonable and humane. To them, shooting people seems neither reasonable nor humane. They tend to view violence between human beings, especially lethal violence, as intrinsically bad. Even when it is necessary, it is always, due to the quality of evil that still clings to it, deeply regrettable.

From this pont of view, a gun cannot be seen simply as a device for perforating objects, a sort of long-distance drill. A gun is made for the purpose of killing and maiming, and this fact alone makes guns intrinsically bad. This is especially true of the handgun, which is uniquely suited, and in fact intended, for the activity of killing and maiming people. To this technological device is transferred some of the horror that belongs to that horrifying activity. The thought of coercively stamping out this thing of horror is consequently deeply attractive.

We are suggesting that an important part of the reason so why many liberals favor the suppression of the private possession of handguns, despite the potential of the handgun for enhancing equality in situations were equality is desperately important, may well be a certain tension within the liberal view of the world. On the one hand, liberals have principles that constrain them from using certain methods in achieving their goals. On the other hand, like everyone else, they have their own conception of the good.(38) In principle, this conception might, like any other, be promoted by violating those constraints. However, as we have said repeatedly, to interfere coercively with others because of preferences of one's own, preferences based solely on one's conception of the good, violates the principle of neutrality, and this is as true of the liberal conception of the good as it is of any other. If the tendency that we see in some parts of the liberal community to ban guns is indeed based on such preferences, it is actually illiberal. In that case, it represents a sort of illiberalism of which only liberals can be guilty: the urge to force liberal values on those who do not accept them.(39)


1. Another possible reason for this characterization might lie in the fact that the legal argument for gun bans often rests on a "liberal" (as opposed to strict) interpretation of the Second Amendment. We will not discuss the Second Amendment in this essay. We wish to focus on the broad theoretical issue of the right to bear firearms in a liberal state, an issue that applies to any liberal state, and not merely the United States. For whatever it might be worth, our suspicion is that a Constitutional ban on firearms would require a very "liberal" interpretation of the Second Amendment. See Sanford Levinson, "The Embarrassing Second Amendment," The Yale Law Journal 99 (December 1989): 637-659.

2. See, however, Daniel Polsby & Don B. Kates "American Homicide Exceptionalism," University of Colorado Law Review, vol. 69 (1998), p. 94 and Table 1. The authors argue that, while handgun ownership more than doubled in the 20 year period 1975-94, homicide rates actually declined, and that the addition of more than 3 million additional handguns in the years 1995 and 1996 coincided with further declines in the homicide rate. See also Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1997), p. 18:

3. The argument assumes, of course, that the crimes committed with guns will not be committed with some other weapon if guns are not available. This is a debatable assumption, but not without foundation. See Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, "Firearms and Assault: 'Guns Don't Kill People, People Kill People," in Lee Nisbet (ed.), The Gun Control Debate: You Decide (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), pp. 170-176.

4. See G. L. Carter, The Gun Control Movement (New York: Twayne, 1997).

5. The premier criminological study defending this position is Gary Kleck's Targeting Guns, cited in fn. 2 above, especially ch. 5. More recently, John Lott has collected information on changes in gun ownership rates and changes in crime rates in all 3,054 U. S. counties over eighteen years, and he appears to establish that concealed carry laws, which allow private citizens without criminal records to carry weapons, are highly cost-effective ways to reduce levels of violent crime. More Guns, Less Crime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

6. It is sometimes suggested that this phenomenon is entirely due to the availability of guns in the United States. This cannot be true. As Israeli Judge Abraham Tennenbaum has noted, murder rates in his country are "much lower than in the United States ... despite the greater availability of guns to law-abiding [Israeli] civilians." Abraham Tennenbaum, "Israel Has A Successful Gun Control Policy" in Charles P. Cozic, Gun Control: Current Controversies (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1992), p. 250.

7. We are indebted for this point to Don B. Kates.

8. A classic statement of this idea is Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in M. Sandel (ed.), Liberalism and Its Critics (New York: New York University Press, 1987), pp. 15-36.

9. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. by David Spitz (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 13.

10. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), Chs. 2 and 5.

11. Joel Feinberg, "Legal Paternalism," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 1:1 (1971): 106-124. Gerald Dworkin, "Paternalism," The Monist 56:1 (January 1972): 64-84. See also Dworkin's "Paternalism: Some Second Thoughts," in R. Sartorius (ed.), Paternalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 105-111.

12. John Rawls, "Social Utility and Primary Goods," in A. Sen and B. Williams (eds.) Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 159-186.

13. Ronald Dworkin, "What is Equality? Part 1: Equality of Welfare," Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981): 185-246; and "What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources," Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981): 283-345.

14. One could introduce more complexity by entertaining different interpretations of the neutrality principle as well. It will turn out, however, that this principle is less directly related to our main area of concern, so we believe we can safely ignore this complication.

15. When its distinctive features are sufficiently pronounced, wide liberalism becomes what is sometimes called "classical" liberalism. Narrow liberalism, in its more fully developed forms, becomes what is sometimes called "left" liberalism.

16. We stress that this is true today. In the past, things seem to have been different. A long and prominent tradition held that civilian possession of effective arms for purposes of defense was an important part of citizenship, and that bans on such arms are an essential ingredient in tyranny. On the history of this tradition, see Joyce Lee Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

17. "Mom saves Self and Child with Handgun," Atlanta Constitution, November 12, 1996, p. E2. Quoted in Lott, op. cit. p. 3.

18. We assume, in what follows, that the question of whether Ms. Jackson 's rights are violated by the act of coercively preventing her from using her gun is independent of the coercer's motives. For instance, if her gun were forcibly taken from her by a group of well-meaning pacifists who know that she is vulnerable to attacks such as the one that eventually happens, then the issue of whether she has a right against being treated that way is unaffected by their good intentions. Of course, the moral status of what they would be doing would be in other respects quite different from the status the same act would have if committed by a confederate of her attacker, but we are not concerned here with those other respects.

19. See Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, op. cit., pp. 170-176.

20. Ibid., p. 173.

21. These include, most importantly: assume that every gun is loaded; keep the safety on until ready to shoot; keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target; never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. Source: National Rifle Association leaflets.

22. Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns, p. 323. The number of handgun deaths per 100,000 guns was 1.087. Kleck also points out (p. 296) that, while about forty children under the age of five die every year in gun accidents, about five hundred drown in residential swimming pools. For small children, he says, the risk of fatal accidents from swimming pools is over one hundred times as great as from guns.

23. Morgan Reynolds and H. Sterling Burnett, "No Smoking Guns: Answering Objections to Right-to-Carry Laws," National Policy Center Brief Analysis No. 246, Nov. 17, 1997. The authors also point out that, although gun ownership has increased dramatically in recent decades, accidental deaths from guns have decreased. In the decade before their article, such deaths decreased by %19. Kleck reports that, in the two decades 1974-94, the all-time low in fatal accidents among children was 1994. Targeting Guns, p. 324.

24. Kleck, Targeting Guns, p. 64.

25. We should emphasize, however, that it is quite conceivable that, within the constraints of wide liberalism, it may be impossible for the state to ban any types of guns at all. If a convincing case should be made that all guns have uses that are permissible under the principle of autonomy, the only proper wide liberal response might be to ban the impermissible uses of a given weapon while allowing the permissible ones. For example, someone might make a convincing case that it is perfectly permissible for an elderly man, living alone in an urban apartment, to defend his home with a short-barrelled shotgun. In these circumstances, it could even be argued that this weapon has an ethical advantage, in that its low-velocity pellets are very unlikely to penetrate an apartment wall and hurt innocents on the other side. Perhaps, then, a wide liberal state would best conform to its constraints by allowing this use of this type of weapon but prohibiting others. We owe this example to Samuel C. Wheeler.

26. One might be tempted to argue at this point that people whose conception of the good life entails using certain weapons would be just as happy if they did not. Perhaps people who enjoy private military training with guns would enjoy just as much playing paintball if they desired that instead, and perhaps a system in which guns are unavailable would cause them to desire such substitute activities. After all, we do not need guns to have a good life, so it is unlikely that people currently using guns would fail to have a good life if their weapons were confiscated and their desires were suitably changed by the resulting new environment. This may be a powerful argument if one assumes some sort of unconstrained utilitarianism, but it is inconsistent with the principles of liberalism. It assumes one conception of the good - in which the good is simply desire-satisfaction - and uses it to justify coercing people who may or may not share this conception. That, of course, violates the neutrality constraint.

27. See D. Hemenway, "Guns, Public Health, and Public Safety," in D. A. Henigan, E. B. Nicholson, and D. Hemenway (ed.), Guns and the Constitution (Northampton, Massachusetts: Althei Press, 1995). For evidence on the other side of this empirical issue, to the effect that the causal relationship between suicide and gun availability is weak or non-existent, see Kleck, Targeting Guns, pp. 286-88, and Don B. Kates et al, "Guns and Public Health: Epidemic of Violence or Pandemic of Propaganda?" Tennessee Law Review, vol. 62 no. 3, Spring 1995, pp. 561-66.

28. See fn. 11, above.

29. One attempt to do so might go like this: Although suicide is not per se seriously non-voluntary, it is often impulsive and poorly thought out. By banning guns (or handguns, etc.) we are getting rid of the easiest and most efficient means of killing oneself. People who have to use one of the remaining means (automobile exhaust, cutting one's wrists, and so forth) will give the matter more careful consideration. The ban, therefore, would actually increase truly autonomous choice. Supposing that the factual assumptions in this argument can be supported, and supposing that its rather manipulative approach toward individual choice really does avoid the liberal animus against paternalism, it nonetheless falls before the difficulty the we set out in the text below.

30. If a government were to do the same thing, as part of a general policy of gun control, the motives might be entirely different from those that would drive Mr. Johnson's confederate but, on the basis of the assumptions we are making here, that does not affect the justice or injustice of what is being done. The principle such a policy violates is a constraint, and good intentions alone cannot justify such a violation.

31. D. G. Saunders, "When Battered Women Use Violence: Husband Abuse or Self-Defense," Violence and Victims, vol. 47 no. 1, 1986, p 49. Cited in Don Kates, "Defensive Gun Ownership as a Response to Crime," in, Michael Gorr and Sterling Harwood (eds.), Crime and Punishment: Philosophic Explorations (Boston and London: Jones and Bartlett, 1995), p. 237.

32. Note that this fact will increase in importance to the extent that criminals will tend to select victims who, if unarmed, are physically weaker than themselves. This will be the case if, for instance, able-bodied male criminals have a preference for attacking women and the elderly.

33. Interestingly, the feature of guns that seems bad when we are thinking in terms of the autonomy principle - namely, the fact that they enable those who are normally in a position of weakness to commit successful acts of violence - actually speaks in their favor when we apply the principle of equality.

34. In some versions of narrow liberalism, such bans would, however, be in some danger of violating the principle of equality. These versions are ones in which the principle of equality requires that all citizens be given an equal chance of obtaining what they consider good if they pursue it. See Richard Arneson, "Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare," Philosophical Studies 56 (1989): 77-93. The sort of ban we are contemplating here burdens some citizens with an obstacle to achieving their conception of the good which others do not have to overcome. Proponents of this interpretation of equality might nonetheless believe that the public safety reasons for banning these weapons is so strong, and the number of people burdened is so small, that the ban is justified.

35. The fate of hunting rifles and other commonly used long guns is less clear. Such guns are not extremely serviceable for self-defense, though many of them are more practical for that purpose than assault rifles. On the other hand, a substantial ban on long guns would hinder millions of hunting enthusiasts from effectively pursuing the good life as they see it, placing a burden on them that is not shouldered by other citizens. This raises the sort of egalitarian worry we mentioned in the case of assault rifles in fn. 34, but in a more severe form, since the public safety considerations may be less strong in this case, while the number of people burdened is far greater. Consequently, a general ban on such weapons might be difficult to mount on the basis of narrow liberalism.

36. See Nicholas Dixon, "Why We Should Ban Handguns in the United States," in Crime and Punishment: Philosophic Explorations, pp. 205-232.

37. Nationwide figures on this subject do not seem to be available, but such local statistics as are available certainly bear out the claim we have just made. For instance, in Massachusetts from 1985 to 1991 assault weapons accounted for only .7 of 1% of shootings. In New Jersey in 1991 they were involved in .16 of 1% of murders, armed robberies, and aggravated assaults. In the state of New York during 1992 they were involved in .8 of 1% of murders. For the sources of these figures, and for a great deal more information that tends to support the same conclusions, see Kleck, Targeting Guns, pp. 141-42.

38. Perhaps we should say, in case we have created any doubt about this, that we have a great deal of sympathy with this conception. This may, in fact, be a good part of the reason why neither of us has ever owned a gun.

39. We would like to thank Hugh LaFollette and Samuel C. Wheeler for showing us their work in progress on the right to bear arms. They helped considerably to advance our thinking on this issue. Their comments on the penultimate draft of this essay were also very helpful, as were those of Don B. Kates and C. B. Kates.